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A few years ago, I led a group through the wilds of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range during the early autumn caribou migration. I think that if I had fourteen lifetimes I’d never again experience anything quite so primeval, so simple and rudimentary, and so utterly and uncompromisingly wild. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this beheld my eye above all else. Maybe that trek—in one of the ultimate terrestrial wildernesses remaining on Earth—is my personal yardstick, my personal quintessence of what constitutes real wilderness among a lifetime of wilderness experience. The tundra was a rainbow of autumn pelage. Fresh snow engulfed the peaks and periodically the valleys, too. Animals were everywhere, thousands of them, moving across valleys, through passes, over divides, atop ridges. Wolves chased caribou. A grizzly on a carcass temporarily blocked our route through a narrow pass. It was a week I’ll never forget, a week of an ancient world that elsewhere is rapidly receding into the frightening nature-deficit technophilia of the twenty-first century.
Some claim that wilderness is defined by our perception, which is shaped by our circumstance and experience. For example, one who has never been to the Brooks Range but instead has spent most of her life confined to big cities with little exposure to wild nature might consider a farm woodlot to be “wilderness.” Or a small state park laced with dirt roads. Or, for that matter, a cornfield, though this seems to stretch this theory of wilderness relativity to the point of obvious absurdity. According to this line of thought, wilderness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Yet those who believe that perception defines wilderness are dead wrong. In our culture, wilderness is a very distinct and definable entity, and it can be viewed on two complementary levels. First, from a legal standpoint the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness quite clearly. A designated wilderness area is “undeveloped” and “primeval,” a wild chunk of public land without civilized trappings that is administered to remain wild.
The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “untrammeled,” which means “unconfined” or “unrestricted.” It further defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent human improvements or habitation.” The law also generally prohibits road building and resource extraction such as logging and mining. Plus, it sets a general guideline of 5,000 acres as a minimum size for a wilderness. Furthermore, it banishes to non-wilderness lands all mechanized conveniences, from mountain bikes and game carts to noisy fumebelching all-terrain vehicles and snow machines.
Written primarily by the late Howard Zahniser, the Wilderness Act creates a National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) on federally administered public lands. All four federal land management agencies administer wilderness: the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Under the Wilderness Act, the NWPS is to be managed uniformly as a system. And an act of Congress followed by a Presidential signature is required to designate a new wilderness area.
In addition to wilderness as a legal entity, we also have a closely related cultural view, steeped in mystery and romance and influenced by our history, which yes, includes the hostile view of wilderness that was particularly prevalent during the early days of settlement. Today, our cultural view of wilderness is generally positive. This view is greatly influenced by the Wilderness Act, which means when people speak of wilderness in lieu of legal definitions, they speak of country that’s big, wild, and undeveloped, where nature rules. And that certainly isn’t a woodlot or cornfield. In summary, then, wilderness is wild nature with all her magic and unpredictability. It lacks roads, motors, pavement and structures, but comes loaded with unknown wonders and challenges that at least some humans increasingly crave in today’s increasingly controlled and confined world. Untrammeled wilderness by definition comes with fire and insects, predator and prey, and the dynamic unpredictability of wild nature, existing in its own way in its own right, with utter disregard for human preference, convenience, and comfort. And perception. As the word’s etymological roots connote, wilderness is “self-willed land,” and the “home of wild beasts.” It is also the ancestral home of all that we know in this world, and it spawned civilization, although I’m not convinced this is a good thing. So wilderness isn’t just any old unpaved undeveloped landscape. It isn’t merely a blank space on the map. For within that blank space might be all sorts of human malfeasance that have long since destroyed the essence of real wilderness: pipelines, power-lines, water diversions, overgrazed wastelands, and off-road vehicle scars, for example. No, wilderness isn’t merely a place that lacks development. It is unspoiled and primeval, a sacred place in its own right. Wilderness designation is a statement to all who would otherwise keep the industrial juggernaut rolling: Hands off! This place is special! Designated wilderness is supposed to be different “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape.” (Wilderness Act, section 2c)
Nor is wilderness simply a political strategy to thwart bulldozers from invading wildlands. That’s one valid use of our wilderness law, yes, but when we view wilderness only—or even primarily—as a deterrent to industry and motors, we fail to consider all of the important things that differentiate real wilderness from less extraordinary places. Some of those things include tangible physical attributes such as native animals and vegetation, pure water, and minimal noise pollution. But in many ways, the intangible values of wilderness are equally important in differentiating wilderness from other landscapes. Wonder and challenge are but two of them. For many of us, the simple knowledge that some landscapes are beyond our control provides a respite of sanity. Solitude and a feeling of connectedness with other life forms are also best attained in wilderness. Wilderness also provides us with some defense against the collective disease of “landscape amnesia.” I began to use this term in the early 1990s while writing an educational tabloid on wilderness and roadless areas. It had begun to occur to me that, as we continue to tame nature, each ensuing generation becomes less aware of what constitutes a healthy landscape because so many components of the landscape gradually disappear. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water slowly brought to a boil, society simply fails to notice until it’s too late, if it notices at all. For example, few alive today remember when extensive cottonwood floodplain forests were healthy and common throughout the West. So today’s generations view our currently depleted floodplains as “normal.” Thus there’s no impetus to restore the ecosystem. This principle applies to wilderness. Wilderness keeps at least some areas intact, wild and natural, for people to see. We don’t forget what we can still see with our own eyes. Moreover, when we keep wilderness wild, there’s little danger that as a society we’ll succumb to wilderness amnesia, and forget what real wilderness is. Perhaps the most important thing that sets wilderness apart is that real wilderness is dynamic, always in flux, never the same from one year or decade or century to the next, never stagnant, and entirely unconstrained despite unrelenting human efforts to control nearly everything. Natural processes such as wildfire, flood, predation, and native insects are (or should be) allowed to shape the wilderness landscape as they have throughout the eons. Remember, wilderness areas are wild and untrammeled, “in contrast” with areas dominated by humankind. That domination includes our interference with the natural forces and processes that shape a true wilderness landscape. It has been said that wilderness cannot be created; it can only be protected where it still persists. There is some truth here, but there’s a big gray area too. Even though most new wilderness units are carved out of relatively unspoiled roadless areas, Congress is free to designate any area of federal land as wilderness, even lands that have been impacted by past human actions, such as logging and road building or off-road vehicles. In fact, Congress has designated such lands as wilderness on numerous occasions. Once designated, agencies are legally required by the Wilderness Act to manage such lands as wilderness. Time and the elements usually do the rest. For example, most wildernesses in the eastern U.S. were once heavily logged and laced with roads and skid trails. Today, they have reattained a good measure of their former wildness.
Perhaps the most crucial but overlooked sections of the Wilderness Act deal with caring for designated areas. The Wilderness Act quite clearly instructs managers to administer wilderness areas “unimpaired” and for “the preservation of their wilderness character.” This means that the law forbids degradation of wilderness areas. Therefore, you would assume that once an area is designated as wilderness, all is suddenly right with at least a small corner of this world. But you would be wrong.
That’s because, despite the poetic and pragmatic brilliance of the Wilderness Act, land managers routinely ignore the law and thus nearly all units of the National Wilderness Preservation System fail to live up the promise of untrammeled wildness. To be fair, agency wilderness managers are often under tremendous pressure—often at the local level—to ignore abuse. Sometimes their budgets are simply inadequate to do the job. On the other hand, we citizens pay our public servants to implement the law. When they fail to properly maintain wilderness character, they violate both the law and the public’s trust.
Throughout the NWPS degradation is rampant. Weed infestations, predator control by state wildlife managers (yes, in designated wilderness!), eroded multi-laned horse trails, trampled lakeshores, bulldozer-constructed water impoundments, the proliferation of structures and motorized equipment use, over-grazing by livestock, and illegal motor-vehicle entry are just a few of the ongoing problems. Many of these problems seem minor in their own right, but collectively they add up to systemic decline, a plethora of small but expanding insults that I call “creeping degradation,” although some of the examples seem to gallop, not creep. External influences such as climate change and chemical pollution add to the woes of the wilds as we head into the challenging and perhaps scary decades that lie in wait.
In addition to wilderness as both a cultural idea and a legal entity, there’s another wilderness dichotomy. That’s the dichotomy of designated versus “small w” wilderness. America’s public lands harbor perhaps a couple of hundred million acres of relatively undeveloped, mostly roadless wildlands that so far, lack long-term Congressional protection. These “roadless areas” constitute “small w” or “de-facto wilderness.” Here’s a stark reality of the early 21st century: given the expanding human population and its quest to exploit resources from nearly every remaining nook and cranny on Earth, we are rapidly approaching the time when the only remaining significant natural habitats will be those we choose to protect—either as wilderness or as some other (lesser) category of land protection. Before very long, most other sizeable natural areas will disappear. In order to get as many roadless areas as possible added to the NWPS, some wilderness groups support special provisions in new wilderness bills in order to placate wilderness opponents. Examples include provisions that strengthen livestock grazing rights in wilderness, allow off-road motor vehicles and helicopters, grandfather incompatible uses like dams and other water projects, exempt commercial users from regulations, and much more. So we get legalized overgrazing, ranchers and wildlife managers on all-terrain vehicles, overzealous fire management and destructive new water projects, just to mention a few of the incompatible activities sometimes allowed in designated wilderness. This de-wilds both the Wilderness System and the wilderness idea. And when we allow the wilderness idea to decline, it is inevitable that society gradually accepts “wilderness” that is less wild than in the past. Again, it’s the disease of landscape or wilderness amnesia.
An equally egregious threat to wilderness is the recent tendency to create new wilderness areas with boundaries that are drawn to exclude all potential or perceived conflicts, also in order to pacify the opposition. So we get small fragmented “wilderness” areas, sometimes with edge-dominated amoeba-shaped boundaries that encompass little core habitat. Or legislated motor vehicle corridors that slice an otherwise large unbroken roadless area into small fragmented “wilderness” units. These trends alarm conservation biologists, who are concerned with biological diversity and full ecosystem protection.
Make no mistake, there’s a huge realm of unprotected public wildlands out there, and I’d give my right arm to get a big chunk of that largely roadless “small w” domain protected under the Wilderness Act. My arm yes, but not my soul. The soul of wilderness is wildness. When we sacrifice wildness by undermining the Wilderness Act, we lose both an irreplaceable resource and an irreplaceable part of ourselves. We lose soul. If we fail to demand and work for real wilderness, then we’ll never get it. That’s guaranteed. To some, particularly those who equate motors or resource extraction with freedom, wilderness designation seems restrictive. But in truth, wilderness is more about freedom than is any other landscape. I mean the freedom to roam, and yes, the freedom to blunder, for where else might we be so immediately beholden to the physical consequences of our decisions? Freedom, challenge, and adventure go together, and wilderness provides big doses of each. Should I try to cross here? Can I make my way around that bear? Is there really a severe storm approaching? When we enter wilderness, we leave all guarantees behind. We are beholden to the unknown. Things frequently don’t go as planned. Wilderness is rudimentary and fundamental in ways that we’ve mostly lost as a culture. This loss, by the way, weakens us. Wilderness strengthens us. Freedom. In wilderness we are free to hunt, fish, hike, crawl, slither, swim, horse-pack, canoe, raft, cross country ski, view wildlife, study nature, photograph, and contemplate whatever might arouse our interest. We are free to pursue our personal spiritual values, whatever they might be, with no pressure from the proclaimed authorities of organized church or state. And we are generally free to do any of these things for as long as we like. Wilderness is also the best environment for the under-utilized but vitally important activity of doing absolutely nothing—I mean nothing at all, except perhaps for watching clouds float past a wondrous wilderness landscape.
Wilderness provides numerous free services for humanity. It is an essential antidote for civilization’s growing excesses of pavement, pollution, technology, and pop culture. Wilderness provides clean water and flood control, and it acts as a clean air reservoir. It provides many tons of healthy meat, because our healthiest fisheries and game populations are associated with wilderness (Who says “you can’t eat scenery”?).
Another wilderness service is the reduced need for politically and socially contentious endangered species listings. When we protect habitat, most species thrive.
By providing nature a respite from human manipulation, wilderness cradles the evolutionary process. It helps to maintain connectivity between population centers of large wide-ranging animals—especially large carnivores. This protects genetic diversity and increases the resilience of wildlife populations that are so important to the ecosystem. We are beginning to understand that without large carnivores, most natural ecosystems falter in a cascade of biological loss and depletion.
Wilderness is also our primary baseline environment. In other words, it’s the metaphorical yardstick against which we measure the health of all human-altered landscapes. How on earth might we ever make intelligent decisions in forestry or agriculture, for example, if there’s no baseline with which to compare? Of course, wilderness only acts as a real baseline if we really keep it wild and untrammeled.
Wilderness is also about humility. It’s a statement that we don’t know it all and never will. In wilderness we are part of something much greater than our civilization and ourselves. It moves us beyond self, and that, I think, can lead only to good things. Perhaps above all, wilderness is a statement that non-human life forms and the landscapes that support them have intrinsic value, just because they exist, independent of their multiple benefits to the human species. Most emphatically, wilderness is not primarily about recreation, although that’s certainly one of its many values. Nor is it about the “me first” attitude of those who view nature as a metaphorical pie to be divvied up among user groups. It’s about selflessness, about setting our egos aside and doing what’s best for the land. It’s about wholeness, not fragments. After all, wilderness areas—despite their problems—are still our healthiest landscapes with our cleanest waters, and they tend to support our healthiest wildlife populations, particularly for many species that have become rare or extirpated in places that are less wild.
Having made a living primarily as a wilderness guide/outfitter for over three decades, I’ve had the good fortune to experience many wild places throughout western North America and occasionally far beyond. Were I to boil what I’ve learned down to one succinct statement, it’d probably be this: Wilderness is about restraint. As Howard Zahniser stated, wilderness managers must be “guardians, not gardeners.” When in doubt, leave it alone. For if we fail to restrain our manipulative impulses in wilderness, where on Earth might we ever find untrammeled lands?
Finally, when we fail to protect, maintain, and restore real wilderness, we miss the chance to pass along to our children and grandchildren—and to future generations of non-human life—the irreplaceable wonders of a world that is too quickly becoming merely a dim memory of a far better time. Luckily, we still have the opportunity to both designate and properly protect a considerable chunk of the once enormous American wilderness. Let’s not squander that opportunity. We need to protect as much as possible. And let’s keep wilderness truly wild, for that, by definition, is what wilderness is, and no substitute will suffice.
Howie Wolke co-owns Big Wild Adventures, a wilderness backpack and canoe guide service based in Montana’s Paradise Valley, near Yellowstone National Park. He is an author and longtime wilderness advocate, and is a past president and current board member of Wilderness Watch. This piece was published in “Wilderness: Reclaiming the Legacy.” ©2011
I recently came across an on-line forum asking whether “snow kiting” is allowed in Wilderness. While snow kiting in Wilderness might still be a rather rare activity, the question bears quite heavily on a variety of activities and the future of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, snow kiting is an offshoot of kiteboarding (a water sport), but conducted on land and on snow. Like kiteboarders, snow kiters use large inflatable kites – some are similar to parasails – that allow the wind to pull them along or to jump and glide in the air for seconds at a time. Kite lines run to a snow kiter’s harness and handle, which are used to maneuver the kite. Though many snow kiters use snowboards, some telemark and alpine skiers also use kites as part of their sport.
Snow kiting in units of the wilderness system seems to have increased in recent years. But I believe snow kiting violates the Wilderness Act, even though the federal agencies have been slow in writing specific rules spelling out such a ban. I hope that soon, before this use becomes too entrenched in units of the wilderness system, all four agencies will ban snow kiting in Wilderness for two main reasons.
First, snow kiting violates the Wilderness Act, most notably its ban on mechanical transport in Wilderness. U.S. Forest Service wilderness policy comes close to articulating a ban on snow kiting, by prohibiting (among other banned mechanical transport) hang gliders and parachutes, which are similar to snow kiting:
Forest Service Manual 2320.5
Mechanical Transport. Any contrivance for moving people or material in or over land, water, or air, having moving parts, that provides a mechanical advantage to the user, and that is powered by a living or nonliving power source. This includes, but is not limited to, sailboats, hang gliders, parachutes, bicycles, game carriers, carts, and wagons.
At least some of these specific prohibitions have held up in the courts. A federal court upheld a Forest Service ban on sailboats on wilderness lakes, for example, in one of a series of court cases involving the Sylvania Wilderness in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in this case, “Certainly, Congress could rationally conclude that certain forms of mechanical transport, including sailboats and houseboats, should be excluded from the Sylvania Wilderness in order to preserve the ‘wilderness character’ of the property.”
The National Park Service also appears to have prohibited snow kiting in Wilderness, though under its regulations that govern aircraft (snow kiting meets its definition of aircraft in the Code of Federal Regulations) and “aerial delivery,” and not under its regulations prohibiting mechanical transport in Wilderness. As a result, the Park Service has prohibited snow kiting in Glacier National Park’s Recommended Wilderness as well as in other national park Wildernesses.
In addition to violating the ban on mechanized travel, snow kiting runs against the grain of the types of recreation the Wilderness Act sought to provide. The law defines Wilderness in part as providing “a primitive and unconfined type of recreation….” Snow kiting is clearly not this type of primitive recreation envisioned by the Wilderness Act.
Second, beyond the legal violations, snow kiting should be banned in Wilderness because the activity makes Wildernesses less wild. This is not about snow kiting’s physical impacts on Wilderness, but about our relationship to Wilderness. Snow kiting is a modern transportation method, not one envisioned by the founders of the Wilderness Act or the ideals behind it. It is not travel by primitive means. It ignores the humility and restraint that Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser urged us to use in our relationship to Wilderness.
Wilderness is in part about preserving and experiencing these places from an earlier time and an earlier pace of travel, such as by foot, horseback, or canoe. According to the Wilderness Act, designated Wildernesses are to be “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape….” If snow kiting and other yet-to-be-created transportation means are allowed in Wilderness, that contrast will be increasingly diminished and indistinct, and Wilderness will cease to be that special place set apart from modern civilization. I believe that we must stand up for that distinction or we open the door to untold and unforeseen levels of non-human- or non-animal-powered transportation in Wilderness, making Wilderness little different from the rest of our human-dominated landscape.
I understand the concern expressed by some that any restrictions short of an outright ban on all mechanical devices (including, for example, a ski binding) would be somewhat arbitrary. But it seems that the most reasonable, protective, and defensible rule is one rooted in the methods of travel in common use at the time the Wilderness Act was passed. This is the approach a federal court took when several members of the Chippewa (also called Ojibwe or Anishinaabe) tribe challenged the prohibition on snowmobile use while exercising their treaty rights to fish in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. The court relied on the fact that Band members traditionally accessed the area by canoe or on foot at the time of the 1854 treaty, and therefore the Wilderness Act’s ban on modern snowmobiles didn’t constitute an infringement on treaty rights.
If we don’t keep wilderness protections anchored to something solid like the primitive modes of travel contemplated in the law, what’s to protect Wilderness from any whimsical fad, recreational pursuit, or technological advance that comes its way?
Kevin Proescholdt is conservation director (and former board president) for Wilderness Watch. He has written extensively on the Boundary Waters, and wilderness policy and history.
GOP-backed bill is most serious attack on America’s Wilderness Act in history
The Wilderness Act has protected America’s wild lands for 50 years. It is now under threat by a House bill deceptively called The Sportsmen’s Heritage Act. Citizens must demand the US Senate do nothing to advance its devastating provisions.
Christian Science Monitor
By Stewart Brandborg / November 30, 2012
Conservationists and wilderness enthusiasts across America are mobilizing to defeat a bill passed by the House of Representatives in April that would eviscerate the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Deceptively entitled the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, the bill (H.R. 4089) purports to protect hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting. The bill is being pushed by powerful groups like the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International and supported by some of the most anti-wilderness Republicans in Congress. And it would effectively gut the Wilderness Act and protections for every wilderness in America’s 110-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System – everywhere from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness along the Montana-Idaho border that I can see from my home.
The House bill’s provisions could still become law during the current lame-duck session of Congress. Though the Senate is considering a different sportsmen’s bill that does not include the harmful elements, the Senate bill could eventually be merged with the devastating House bill in order to pass both chambers.
The Wilderness Act eloquently defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The statute further designates wilderness as an area that retains “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation” and is “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”
I know the Wilderness Act. I worked alongside my mentor, Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society (the bill’s chief author and proponent), from 1956-1964 to gain its passage by Congress. After Zahniser’s untimely passing in 1964, I directed the Wilderness Society for the next 12 years in implementing the new law and in adding new areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Congress responded to requests from the American people by adding tens of millions of acres to the wilderness system. Today, that system has grown from the original 9 million acres in 1964 to nearly 110 million acres. The Wilderness Act provides the best and most protective standards of all types of federal public land protection.
But this great legacy of American Wilderness is essentially destroyed by H.R. 4089 in several key ways.
First, H.R. 4089 elevates hunting, fishing, shooting, and wildlife management above wilderness protection within designated wilderness areas. Visitors or wildlife managers could drive motor vehicles and build roads, cabins, dams, hunting blinds, aircraft landing strips, and much more in wildernesses if any of these activities could be rationalized as facilitating opportunities for hunting, fishing, shooting, or managing fish and wildlife.
The only limitation in H.R. 4089 on motor vehicles or development is that the activity must be related to hunting, fishing, shooting, or wildlife management, though that need not be its only or even primary use. In reality, almost any recreational or management activity could be shoehorned into one of these exceptions and thereby exempted from Wilderness Act safeguards.
Perhaps even more troubling, H.R. 4089 would waive protections imposed by the Wilderness Act for anything undertaken in the name of wildlife management or for providing recreational opportunities related to wildlife. This would allow endless manipulations of wildlife and habitat.
This could include logging, if done to stimulate new forest growth on which deer might graze. Similarly, bulldozing new dams and reservoirs could be validated as a way to enhance fishing habitats. Poisoning lakes and streams to kill native fish and then planting exotic fish might be allowed under the guise of increasing fishing opportunities. And predator control (including aerial gunning and poisoning) could be defended for boosting the numbers of popular hunted species like elk or bighorn sheep that predators also eat.
There is no limit to what managers could do in designated wilderness areas all in the name of wildlife management or providing opportunities for recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting. These provisions strike at the heart of the Wilderness Act and its foundational underpinnings to preserve wilderness untrammeled and native wildlife in its natural environment.
Sportsmen and sportswomen – those who hunt and fish – were, and continue to be among the strongest supporters of the original wilderness law, of designating wilderness lands, and of the special quality of fishing and hunting experiences that wild and undeveloped lands provide. Many of these folks are fighting to prevent eviscerating the law and its wilderness preservation safeguards.
For nearly a half-century, the Wilderness Act has protected the finest of America’s wild lands and created a National Wilderness Preservation System that is the envy of much of the world. H.R. 4089 would negate all that we have preserved. In my 60 years of work for wilderness preservation and management, our nation has never been threatened by a more serious attack on this irreplaceable publicly owned resource. Citizens must demand that the US Senate do nothing to advance the House provisions of the so-called Sportsmen’s Heritage Act and instead protect our grand wilderness legacy for future generations.
Wilderness icon Stewart Brandborg worked hand-in-hand with wilderness bill-author Howard Zahniser in the late-50s/early-60s to get the Wilderness Act passed and is the only person living today who worked day-to-day on the bill. After Zahniser’s untimely death in 1964, Brandy took over as executive director of the Wilderness Society until 1976. He remains very active in Wilderness and public lands issues, is a long-time Wilderness Watch board member and now serves as a senior advisor. He is an incredible inspiration to all.
The Surgeon’s Strike Against the Wilderness Act
by Jeff Smith
An undercurrent of hostility toward wilderness boiled over in the U.S. House of Representatives when members passed H.R. 4089, the so-called Sportsmen’s Heritage Act, on April 17. The vote was a slam-dunk, 274 to 176, with 39 Democrats joining 235 Republicans to support a bill that green groups, big and small, agree will eviscerate the Wilderness Act.
My colleagues George Nickas and Kevin Proescholdt have written a thorough analysis on how H.R. 4089 would effectively repeal the Wilderness Act. Others have written about how the law undermines other public lands protections.
Now the fight moves to the Senate, where the bill arises as S. 2066 sponsored by Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and a Farm Bill amendment by Jim Risch of Idaho. It’s important to contact your Senators to oppose both bills. Most effective is an email or a letter in your own words. Here is our alert with background information. Please also sign Wilderness Watch’s petition, which is well on its way to 10,000 signatures.
What’s going on here is sad and astonishing. We’re seeing the end of a 50-year consensus that brought into being our environmental infrastructure, the laws, agencies, and regulations that have kept the air and water clean, moved the national forests away from unsustainable harvests, given citizens a voice in natural resources decisions, and created the ultimate benchmark, a Wilderness system loaded with 110 million acres of unparalleled landscapes we hope to leave as a legacy to our progeny.
H.R. 4089 demonstrates how vulnerable Wilderness has become to the whims of the radical fringe within the Beltway increasingly willing to sabotage Wilderness by burying revisionist language in otherwise unrelated legislation.
Let’s take a closer look at how Wilderness Act repeal language found its way into a bill supposedly concerned with hunting and fishing issues.
The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Doc Hastings, a Pasco, Washington Republican, stitched together H.R. 4089 from a handful of separate bills sponsored by grandstanding GOP congressmen and a congresswoman reacting against the possibility that federal agencies or the President might do things they objected to:
- Following the outcry of the National Rifle Association, Arizona’s Jeff Flake objected to the idea that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might shut down recreational shooting in several national monuments in Arizona, a controversy simmering for the last decade. Shooters were killing trees and saguaro cacti, leaving piles of trash, and scaring ranchers whose cattle graze the landscapes. Three BLM officers weren’t able to control the damage and debris in half a million acres of desert. In any event, Congressman Flake’s solution – added to H.R. 4089 – was to require congressional approval for all existing and future shooting restrictions on BLM-managed national monument lands.
- Florida’s Jeff Miller sponsored a bill he called the Hunting, Fishing and Recreational Shooting Protection Act, objecting to the possibility that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might use the Toxic Substances Control Act to regulate lead in ammunition and fishing tackle. The EPA had twice rejected petitions from conservation and hunting groups to ban lead bullets, shotgun pellets, and fishing tackle. These groups had brought forth data saying lead poisoning was killing millions of birds and animals each year and that hunters who eat wild game show higher lead levels in their bloodstreams. EPA rejected the idea and told petitioners, twice, that this was beyond the agency’s authority. No matter. Miller’s bill became part of H.R. 4089.
- Alaska’s Don Young wanted an exception to the Endangered Species Act so that 41 American hunters could bring into the U.S. polar bears they had killed in Canada. The dead “trophies” were being held in cold storage in Canada, complicated by the recent addition of polar bears on the endangered species list. Young played up the fact that several of the hunters were wounded Iraq War vets. His provisions became part of H.R. 4089.
- North Carolina’s Virginia Foxx offered the Preserve Land Freedom for Americans Act to severely limit the President’s ability to set aside historic or culturally important federal lands as national monuments using the 1906 Antiquities Act. Though previous Presidents had used this law 129 times to preserve important landscapes, Foxx didn’t want our current president to be able to do so without each state’s governor and legislature also approving the declaration before the President’s actions would become law. This, too, became part of H.R. 4089.
- A freshman Member of Congress and retired surgeon from Iron River, Michigan, Dan Benishek wanted to block environmental groups from someday convincing federal agencies to restrict hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting on public lands. His legislation would guarantee “that opportunities are facilitated to engage in fishing and hunting on federal public lands.” In the hearing, Congressman Raul Grijalva pointed out that four of every five acres of federal land are currently available, with more than 95 percent of both BLM and national forest lands – a total of 438 million acres – open for hunting and fishing, but that wasn’t enough. Benishek thought the redundancy was necessary.
Benishek’s bill also contained surgical strikes against the Wilderness Act. Indeed, all the banter about hunting and fishing access was really a Trojan Horse obscuring the real intent behind the law―a thinly veiled attempt to gut the Wilderness Act pushed strongly by the NRA and Safari Club. Hastings adopted the language unchanged into H.R. 4089, and, without much fanfare, the bill passed the House.
With few exceptions, the Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motor vehicles, aircraft, motorboats, other mechanized transport, motorized equipment, and the building of temporary roads, structures or installations. Benishek’s language in H.R. 4089 does away with these restrictions if a person is hunting, fishing, or recreational shooting. In other words, if you’re carrying a gun or fishing rod under Banishek’s provisions, you can drive your ATV or other motorized vehicle into any designated Wilderness. Similarly, an endless array of manipulations and trammeling would be allowed by the House bill: construction of roads, dams, hunting cabins, and much more would be allowed if they could be justified as aiding recreational hunting, fishing, or shooting.
H.R. 4089 hijacks the Wilderness Act’s prime directive. Federal agencies are supposed to measure their decisions by whether they contribute to maintaining the wilderness character of the areas they manage. Banishek’s language would shift wilderness managers’ focus to promoting easier access for hunting, fishing and shooting recreation and to managing wilderness as game farms, where managers could employ virtually any measure to modify natural conditions in order to increase game numbers.
“These [Banishek] provisions strike at the heart of the Wilderness Act and its foundational underpinnings to preserve an untrammeled Wilderness,” Nickas and Proescholdt write in Wilderness Watch’s analysis. The bill “would allow any sort of wildlife habitat manipulation that managers desire to do . . . logging, chaining, roller-chopping, or bulldozing forests and other vegetation to create more forage for deer, elk, or other game species.”
The Congressional Research Service points out that H.R. 4089 would also bar the application of NEPA, meaning an agency could cite H.R. 4089 to weaken wilderness protections and not do the environmental analysis required by NEPA. Citizens’ comments would no longer be welcome if the Senate passes this bill unchanged and the President signs it.
Early in the floor debate, Congressman Hastings stressed that the bill was nothing to worry about, just “an affirmative declaration that Americans’ ability to fish and hunt is not arbitrarily subject to limitations by the whim of federal bureaucrats.” But, by the end of the debate it was clear Congressman Hastings understood precisely the ramifications of Banishek’s wilderness language.
We know this because New Mexico Congressman Martin Heinrich offered an amendment that would have made clear that nothing in H.R. 4089 could be construed “to allow oil and gas development, mining, logging or motorized activity on Federal public land designated or managed as wilderness.” Hastings led the fight to not only defeat the amendment but to insert his own amendment saying the bill’s provisions “are not intended to authorize or facilitate” these destructive uses.
That’s the amnesia defense, like saying you didn’t intentionally rob a bank after you just walked out with all the money. In other words, Hastings understood and approved this stealth attack to eviscerate the Wilderness Act, and Wilderness Watch will do everything we can to stop the bill from becoming law.
Link to George and Kevin’s analysis: www.wildernesswatch.org/pdf/HR%204089%20Analysis–WW.pdf
Link to Wilderness Watch alert and more information: www.wildernesswatch.org/issues/index.html#Repeal
Link to Wilderness Watch petition: www.change.org/petitions/united-states-senate-block-passage-of-the-sportsmen-s-heritage-act-of-2012
Link to Wilderness Watch website: www.wildernesswatch.org
Jeff Smith is Wilderness Watch’s membership and development director.
By Jeff Kane
Last month I had the good fortune to hear a lecture by Dr. Frederick L. Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at a conference on food justice at the University of Oregon. In the midst of discussing several aspects of food justice – from environmental sustainability to energy consumption to human health to conditions for agricultural workers – Dr. Kirschenmann discussed how we can bring about the change needed to create an equitable and sustainable food system.
He noted that in the book The End of Oil, author Paul Roberts made the point that bringing about the changes needed in energy policy worldwide would not be a matter of convincing the powers-that-be to make those changes. Rather it would require preparing for the inevitable change that will be forced upon us by dwindling fossil fuel supplies, pollution, climate change, despotic regimes, etc.
The lesson for food activists is not to be worried about persuading beneficiaries of the current broken system to change. Rather, we should focus on developing alternatives that allow the system to adapt. We should focus on the doing ourselves, rather than trying to convince others to do it our way.
What struck me about this idea – in addition to fostering a vision of change and action that we as individuals can achieve whether politicians, Monsanto, or Cargill ever find it in their interests to tag along – was how the Wilderness Act embodies the concept of planning for the inevitable before the crisis arrives in full force.
Congress’ purpose in enacting the Wilderness Act in 1964, articulated in the Act’s preamble, was
to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.
In other words, Congress recognized that development and technology would soon extend to all corners of the country absent concerted planning and statutory intervention. If we sit back and let the inevitable pressures of population growth and economic development act unimpeded, little or none of our country’s landscape heritage would be left in its natural state.
Congress’ solution was to designate large tracks of existing, relatively pristine federal public lands as Wilderness areas. Within each Wilderness, motorized and mechanized uses, commercial activities, and roads, new buildings, and other infrastructure would be prohibited except when consistent with, or necessary to, preserving wilderness character.
Congress’ prescience in recognizing and planning for the inevitable march of development and technology is reaffirmed with each passing day. Wild lands, designated as Wilderness or not, are increasingly under threat of expanding settlement, the tentacles of technology, and economic enterprise. At one time, the agencies that manage wilderness could generally be counted on to understand and work to uphold the Wilderness Act. Now the four federal land management agencies—the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management—seem increasingly to believe it’s their duty to bend and ignore the requirements of the Wilderness Act to accommodate desires for more structures, motorized intrusion, and excessive recreational use.
Each of these trappings, so normal to life everywhere outside Wilderness, threaten to undermine the natural conditions Congress sought to preserve, and the legacy of wildlands unique to America and our history. Thus, the Wilderness Act provided the precise tool needed to plan for the inevitable pressures of change. It is now up to Wilderness lovers and our public servants to bring that plan to fruition and ensure our National Wilderness Preservation System is truly wild.
Jeff Kane recently completed law school and is a member of Wilderness Watch’s Board of Directors.
For several years Wilderness Watch has been been a leading voice in opposition to the the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA). Working alongside 46 other grassroots conservation groups, we have vigorously fought the most egregious terms of this dangerous, precedent-setting, quid pro quo land bill. Some of those most concerning to us included highly fragmented, watered-down Wilderness-in-name-only designations—where private interests would take precedent over the public good, 5,000 acres of land giveaways and the release of 200,000 acres of potential Wilderness from current protections—opening them to damaging off-road vehicle (ORV) abuse.
This year, Wilderness Watch is happy to report that our work has vastly improved Wilderness provisions in CIEDRA, Senate Bill 3294. Gone from the bill are most of the provisions allowing extensive motor vehicle use, habitat manipulation, and commercial special interest rights in the Wilderness it designates. We’ve asked Congress to make a few additional changes to CIEDRA so it adequately protects the wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds of central Idaho. These requests include removing motorized corridors splitting the Wilderness into four fragments, protecting Wilderness Study Areas released by the bill from degradation—by prohibiting increased ORV use and corridors, and modifying CIEDRA’s language to precisely match that of the Wilderness Act so the Boulder-White Clouds is administered to protect its wilderness character.
Thank you to all of the groups and individuals who helped clean up this bill! This is a real victory for activists and public land lovers who reject the harmful trade-offs of quid pro quo wilderness legislation.
Click here to read a statement by Wilderness Watch, Western Lands Project, and Friends of the Clearwater on CIEDRA for the hearing record
Click here to listen to the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests hearing on 6/16/10