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Searching for a Past That Never Was

The Strange Story of Ecosystem Preservation

In January 1995, residents of the small town of Libby, Montana, received a surprising invitation. Proffered by federal authorities, it announced that meetings would be held on the 28th, simultaneously at Libby and 28 other locations throughout Montana and Idaho, to discuss something called the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project. Its purpose, they were told, was to establish, in President Clinton's words, "an ecosystem-based strategy" for managing "eastside forests"—i.e., those federal lands lying east of the Cascade Mountains crest in Oregon and Washington—along with lands of the Upper Columbia River Basin in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. The citizens of Libby were learning what people in Washington already knew: that "ecosystems management" is the most popular buzz-phrase in politics today. Taking the capitol by storm, it serves as the foundation for all environmental law and policy and captivates the imagination of Republicans and Democrats alike.

During the last six years, the Bush and Clinton administrations have made "ecosystems management" the guiding policy for a dozen federal agencies. In 1990, as part of its "New Perspectives" program, the National Forest Service adopted ecosystems management. In 1992, the Bush White House announced it would follow an "ecosystem approach," when administering the Endangered Species Act....

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