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Wilderness More Important than Ever
by Kevin Proescholdt and Howie Wolke
Christopher Solomon got it wrong in so many ways in his July 6 New York Times editorial, “Rethinking the Wild: The Wilderness Act Is Facing A Midlife Crisis”. The history of the wilderness movement and of the 1964 Wilderness Act shows how wrong and myopic he was. In fact, the visionary Wilderness Act is needed now more than ever.
Solomon bases his argument on a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning and value of Wilderness. He argues that since all Wildernesses are affected by anthropogenic climate change, human manipulation of Wilderness is now acceptable — even desirable, since the genie is already out of the bottle. Intervene and manipulate without constraint, he proclaims. But this approach contradicts the very idea of Wilderness.
Mr. Solomon obviously confuses wildness with absolute pristine conditions. Congress never intended to set the bar so high that only entirely natural and pristine areas could qualify for Wilderness designation. Humanity’s global imprint is not new. Climate change is but the latest in a long history of human impacts to every corner of the planet, from smog and acid rain to habitat fragmentation and widespread human-caused extinctions.
A basic understanding of the Wilderness Act helps us understand the value of the uniquely American wilderness idea. A half-century ago, Congress defined 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.” Untrammeled means un-manipulated or unconfined, requiring humility and restraint, to allow Wilderness to function without the heavy-handed human manipulations that characterize most of the world.
Human impacts have never disqualified areas from becoming Wilderness. But once Congress designates a Wilderness, manipulations and interventions must cease. Fortunately, there still remain large untrammeled landscapes where human impacts are “substantially unnoticeable” and where “wilderness character” dominates.
The Wilderness Act’s primary author was Howard Zahniser. His thoughts and writings are central to what the Wilderness Act means, and Solomon would benefit by studying them. Zahniser wrote, for example, that (unlike Solomon’s contention of the central importance of absolute pristine conditions) it is wildness that is central to Wilderness. “We must remember always that the essential quality of the wilderness is its wildness,” Zahniser explained, and his choice of “untrammeled” in the poetic definition of wilderness in the 1964 law was intended to protect that core character of wilderness.
Solomon also repeats the misconception that Zahniser and other Wilderness System founders never anticipated threats to Wilderness like climate change. On the contrary, Zahniser anticipated the very calls like Solomon’s for manipulating Wilderness when he wrote, “Such tracts should be managed so as to be left unmanaged.” And he defined wilderness as a place where human impacts are “substantially unnoticeable”, not entirely absent.
Change is constant in wild nature; Mr. Solomon is obviously unaware that wilderness enthusiasts have long acknowledged this. Once again, Howard Zahniser provided the needed guidance: “In the wilderness we should observe change and try not to create it!” Even though changes may occur in Wilderness that we humans may not like, the true test of our commitment to the Wilderness idea is to exercise that humility and restraint and eschew intervention.
Zahniser anticipated calls to manipulate Wilderness, even for seemingly beneficial-sounding reasons such as some of those Solomon proposed. That’s why Zahniser famously wrote, “With regard to areas of wilderness we should be guardians and not gardeners.”
So while modern human impacts certainly tempt us to try to “fix” whatever we perceive to be wrong or undesirable, let us not forget that such efforts often backfire, simply because nature is far more complex than we can perceive. And such efforts in wilderness would eliminate wildness and the contrast between wilderness and the rest of the planet.
On this increasingly human-dominated planet, un-manipulated wild Wilderness now has more value than ever. Solomon concludes that Wilderness manipulation is a “necessary apostasy to show how much we truly revere these wild places.” Yet if we follow his suggestions and manipulate the wildness out of Wilderness, there will be no wild places left. And that is exactly what the Wilderness Act guards against.
Kevin Proescholdt is the Minnesota-based Conservation Director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization. Howie Wolke co-owns Montana-based Big Wild Adventures and has been a wilderness guide/outfitter for 36 years. He is the current Vice President of Wilderness Watch. Each has been actively involved with wilderness conservation for over 40 years.
“The Peaceable Kingdom of Wilderness,” by internationally-acclaimed artist Monte Dolack, commemorates the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary and celebrates our 110 million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System, which spans ancient forests, vast arctic reaches, sweeping deserts, soaring mountains, remote coastal islands, and wild canoe country.
Wilderness Poster thoughts
“I worked through several ideas for this commissioned painting thinking about the important individuals who contributed to the idea of preserving Wild places. It is diverse and many people made this happen. I decided instead to focus on a rather formal portrait of some of the animals of our wild places with a backdrop of some of the wilderness areas across the United States. This painting for the 50th anniversary of the American Wilderness Act is about the interconnectedness of life and richness of landscape. All of our wilderness areas, though separated from each other physically are non-the-less connected, as is everything on this small planet spinning in space. The idea of the Peaceable Kingdom of Wilderness springs from Edwards Hicks’ 1820 Peaceable Kingdom which is folkloric in nature.
It is one of the best ideas we as a nation have ever had.”
Mr. Dolack was commissioned to create the original artwork and poster by Wilderness50, a group of non-profit organizations, academic institutions, and government agencies planning events around the country to commemorate the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary. Wilderness Watch has played a key role in Wilderness50’s planning efforts and recommended Mr. Dolack for this special project. Wilderness Watch worked closely with the artist throughout the process and is handling distribution of the posters.
Purchase a poster here: https://www.charity-pay.com/d/donation.asp?CID=75
By Susan Morgan and John Miles
On March 22, 2014 Polly Dyer received her honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA to recognize and celebrate her lifetime of conservation achievements.
Four years ago, after Polly’s 90th birthday party, The North Cascades Conservation Council reported that three hours of speakers stories hadn’t scratched the surface of her remarkable history. “The fruits of Polly’s leadership have blossomed wherever there is wilderness, from the Wilderness Act of 1964 through WA State’s three National Park Wilderness Areas and our various National Forest Wilderness Areas.”[i] Through six decades of championing wilderness, she has nurtured generations of wilderness supporters.
Polly would be the first to say that her life’s work began in 1945 when she met Johnny Dyer walking up a trail on Deer Mountain near Ketchikan AK. Sparks flew. They were engaged in six weeks and married four months later, and for the next 63 years, Johnny Dyer (“Climber, Sierra Club” pronounced the pin on his hat) fostered his wife’s activism and shared her passion for wilderness preservation.[ii]
The Dyers became a great team; no conservation task was too big or too small. Polly persuaded people to join the cause and served as mentor and model; the network she developed was vast and ranged from local activists to politicians, agency personnel and players on the national stage. She gained the respect of all and grew close to many.
Long-time wilderness advocate Karen Fant remembered going with Polly to the Mt. Rainier National Park Centennial. As they made their way to the car after the program, for more than two hours Polly joyously stopped to talk to dear old friends and associates with the Park Service, Forest Service, USFW, agency and conservation representatives. Karen concluded that she needed a leash or they would never get home. (Polly was driving.)[iii]
Though Washington became her home and center of operations, Polly’s scope is national. When she and Johnny lived for briefer times in the San Francisco area or on the East Coast, Polly organized Girls Scouts and together they started Sierra Club chapters and other organizations. Alaska remains one of her most treasured wild places. So moved by it’s natural beauty and scope, she called her life there “the basis for my whole life since.” In 1947, Johnny crafted leather saddlebags for her three-speed Schwinn, and Polly and friend Dixie shipped their bikes to Juneau where they picked them up and barged to Haines. As they biked toward Haines Junction, Canadian Mounties gave them a lift the last few miles into town. The Mounties also generously offered mattresses to the girls in a building that turned out to be the local jail. “There weren’t any hotels in those days,” Polly says. “Jail was easier than tent camping at that point. Then we biked on to Valdez to get more cash and finally to Anchorage.”[iv]
In 1953 the Dyers joined their friend David Brower and a host of conservation organizations in the historic fight against Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument. Wearing her hat as the conservation chair of the Mountaineers and another hat as a citizen activist, after a two-year skirmish, she and cooperators prevailed. Dinosaur was saved.
During that fight, Polly met Howard Zahniser, Executive Secretary of The Wilderness Society. Zahnie prepared the first draft of proposed wilderness legislation in 1956, and in 1957, Polly began working with Zahnie and other national, state, and local conservation groups. As they crafted language along the way, Polly suggested that Zahnie use the word untrammeled to “describe the character of the public lands that should be eligible for designation.”[v] After sixty-six versions, the act was finally passed in 1964 to establish the National Wilderness Preservation System and of course that little-used word was in it. Twenty years later she was at the center of the successful campaign to pass a Washington State Wilderness Act, which brought nineteen new wilderness areas into the national system.
In 1958 Polly organized a three-day hike along the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula with then U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to increase public awareness about a planned portion of U.S. Highway 101. If constructed, the highway expansion would have destroyed what is now the 73-mile wilderness coastline of the Olympic National Forest. This successful hike now stand out in northwestern and National Park history.
Today, at 94, Polly moves more slowly but continues her work, primarily to “finish” North Cascades National Park. “I want to put my arms around wilderness” she says “and save it all.”[vi]
In 1967 Susan began her conservation career of twelve years with The Wilderness Society, and she subsequently worked with various conservation outfits (Earth First!, LightHawk, NM Environmental Coalition, Washington Wilderness Coalition, Forest Guardians, and others) that focused on wilderness, wildlands, and public lands conservation. Currently she is a copy editor and is president of The Rewilding Institute.
John is retiring after forty-six years as professor of environmental studies at Huxley College, Western Washington University. He is the author of several books on national park and wilderness history, and through these years in the Pacific Northwest has hiked, skied, and taught and studied the history of the North Cascades. He continues to write and plans much wilderness time in retirement.
Read more about the word “untrammeled” and its inclusion in the Wilderness Act in Kevin Proescholdt’s essay, “Untrammeled,” by clicking here.
[i] Olympic Park Associates, “Polly Dyer Chosen as Wilderness Hero,” Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 2004
[ii] HistoryLink.org, The Seattle Times, August 7, 1974
[iii] Personal communication with Susan Morgan
[iv] Personal communication with Susan Morgan
[v] [v] Olympic Park Associates, “Polly Dyer Chosen as Wilderness Hero,” Vol 12, No. 1, Spring 2004, and personal communication with Susan Morgan
[vi] Personal communication with Susan Morgan
Cheering 50th Anniversary of Wilderness Act
By Michael Frome
Early in my career, when I was writing travel articles for various magazines and newspapers, I found myself reading the travel section of The New York Times every Sunday. The attraction for me was not in the stories about going places, but in a column called “Conservation,” in which the writer, John B. Oakes, expressed his lifelong concern for the environment.
In the edition of May 13, 1956 his conservation column commended new legislation introduced by Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota to establish a national wilderness preservation system. It was another step in the long political fight leading to passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. That column impressed me as something I should know more about, and do something about too. It set me off on a path of identifying and celebrating wilderness wherever I found it, and now to cheer the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014.
But first a few words about John Oakes, who was a hero and friend of mine. His job at the Times initially was editor of Review of the Week; the conservation column was something he did on the side. Then, in 1961, he was named editor of the editorial page. For the next 15 years, until his retirement, Oakes editorialized about civil rights, the presidency, foreign affairs, politics and the environment, defining a lofty agenda of public policy. Even after retirement Oakes contributed powerful opinion pieces to the Op-Ed page (which he had started in 1970), including “Watt’s Very Wrong,” December 31, 1980, when James G. Watt’s nomination was pending in the Senate; “Japan, Swallow Hard and Stop Whaling,” January 19, 1983; and “Adirondack SOS,” October 29, 1988 (which elicited a letter to the editor of the Times from Gov. Mario Cuomo pledging renewed commitment to preserving the Adirondacks).
He was the kind of person I met and associated with in advocacy of the Wilderness Act. Another was Rep. John P. Saylor, a Pennsylvania Republican, who was the sole sponsor of the Wilderness Bill in the House. It was uphill all the way but he never gave up. “I cannot believe that the American people have become so crass, so dollar-minded and exploitation-conscious that they must develop every last bit of wilderness that still exists,” he declared on the floor of the House in 1961.
Meeting and knowing such people spurred me on to a new career leading to publication of “Battle for the Wilderness” in 1974. I found the Wilderness Act opened the way to a new level of citizen involvement and activism, a grass-roots conservation movement in which local people could be heard in behalf of wilderness areas they knew best.
In time I went to many different wilderness areas. I met with individuals and groups in many parts the country, observing the work that individuals do, rising above themselves and above institutions. I came to appreciate wilderness preservation as an idea that works, a manifestation of democracy, an expression through law of national ethics.
The American wilderness is many things to many people of our time: a sacred, spiritual place to the sheer idealist who persists in dreaming the old American dream; a laboratory of learning to the natural scientist; a test of hardihood to the outdoorsman and hunter; and rather an encumbrance on the land to the materialist whose modern view dictates that real estate must be used in order to be useful. I think that many scholars and educators would insist on speaking objectively with scientific rationale. But Aldo Leopold, even though equipped with the proper education and credentials, demonstrated emotion and aesthetic sensitivity as wholly compatible with science.
I met a different kind of people who showed ethical concern, a creative force in the battle for wilderness. They are legendary. Olaus Murie was already gone, but his wife, Margaret, or “Mardy,” and I became lasting friends. She had been with Olaus on his pioneering surveys and research in Alaska and elsewhere for the Biological Survey (later the Fish and Wildlife Service) until he left the government to be free of its restraints. And she had been with him in the epochal 1956 expedition that led to establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, embracing the largest mountains of the Brooks Range and their foothills sloping north to the coastal plain and southward toward the Yukon River as a book the way God made it.
Olaus was a leader of the Wilderness Society from its incorporation in 1937 until his death in 1963. In addition to extensive technical and popular writing, he executed many exceptional paintings of animals as he saw them in the wild. His strength, like the strength of Aldo Leopold, Howard Zahniser and the others derived from more than admiration of nature, but from the desire to save nature through personal involvement.
The Wilderness Act, however, stimulates a fundamental and older tradition of relationship with resources themselves. A river is accorded its right to exist because it is a river, rather than for any utilitarian service. Through appreciation of wilderness, I perceive the true role of the river as a living symbol of all the life it sustains and nourishes, and my responsibility to it.
Wilderness is friendly, not forbidding. Now that experts have so many plans for its disposition, enlightened use, enthusiasm and appreciation will help place it in proper perspective. Best of all, perhaps, is that wilderness is endowed with the absence of artificial noises, the absence of artificiality and a tremendous store of basic nourishing reality.
Land use embodies both science and philosophy, but the philosophy is more important by far. It must come first, based on love of the earth and respect for all creatures with which we share it. How to utilize wilderness, and public lands in general, as an educational and inspirational resource so that upcoming generations respect the natural world, is part of the fundamental challenge as we look ahead to the next 25 years and beyond.
We need to learn much more about wilderness: where it is and where it was; its physical and psychic therapeutic qualities; its relation to science, art, ethics, and religion; the contributions of individuals who have helped, in their own way, to save it and give meaning to it for society.
No other country is so enriched by its parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other reserved administered by towns, cities, counties, states and the federal government. Land is wealth, and we the people ought to hold onto every acre of it in the common interest. Public lands provide roving room, a sense of freedom and release from urbanized high-tech super-civilization. Without public lands there would be no place of substance left for wildlife, which has shared our heritage since time immemorial.
Americans should be proud of the many millions of acres safeguarded by the Wilderness Act, for wilderness preservation treats ecology as the economics of nature, in a manner directly related to the economics of humankind. Keeping biotic diversity alive is the surest means of keeping humanity alive. But conservation transcends economics—it illuminates the human condition by refusing to put a price tag on the priceless.
Michael Frome, Ph.D., has pursued an illustrious career as author, educator and tireless guardian of the environmental commons. Former Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin declared in Congress: “No writer in America has more persistently and effectively argued for the need of national ethics of environmental stewardship than Michael Frome. ” Michael has been a member of Wilderness Watch’s board of directors or advisory council for nearly 20 years.
“One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Right before the holidays last December, an anonymous caller alerted Wilderness Watch that the Forest Service (FS) had approved the use of one of its cabins deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (FC-RONRW) as a base camp for an Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) hunter-trapper. The cabin would support the hired trapper’s effort to exterminate two entire wolf packs in the Wilderness. The wolves, known as the Golden Creek and Monumental Creek packs, were targeted at the behest of commercial outfitters and recreational hunters who think the wolves are eating too many of “their” elk.
Idaho’s antipathy toward wolves and Wilderness comes as no surprise to anyone who has worked to protect either in Idaho. But the Forest Service’s support and encouragement for the State’s deplorable actions were particularly disappointing. Mind you, these are the same Forest Service Region 4 officials who, only a year or two ago, approved IDFG’s request to land helicopters in this same Wilderness to capture and collar every wolf pack, using the justification that understanding the natural behavior of the wolf population was essential to protecting them and preserving the area’s wilderness character. Now, somehow, exterminating those same wolves is apparently also critical to preserving the area’s wilderness character. The only consistency here is the FS and IDFG have teamed up to do everything possible to destroy the Wilderness and wildlife they are required to protect.
Wilderness Watch, along with Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and Idaho wildlife advocate Ralph Maughan, filed suit in federal court against the Forest Service and IDFG to stop the wolf slaughter. Our suit alleges the FS failed to follow its own required procedures before authorizing IDFG’s hunter-trapper to use a FS cabin as a base for his wolf extermination efforts, and that the program violates the agency’s responsibility under the 1964 Wilderness Act to preserve the area’s wilderness character, of which the wolves are an integral part. Trying to limit the number of wolves in Wilderness makes no more sense than limiting the number of ponderosa pine, huckleberry bushes, rocks, or rainfall. An untrammeled Wilderness will set its own balance.
The FS’s anemic defense is that it didn’t authorize the killing, therefore there is no reviewable decision for the court to overturn, and that it was still discussing the program with IDFG (while the trapper was in the field killing the wolves). Unfortunately, the district judge sided with the FS and IDFG, so we filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Rather than defend its action before the higher court, Idaho informed the court that it was pulling the trapper out of the Wilderness and would cease the program for this year. In the meantime, nine wolves are needlessly dead.
We will continue to pursue our challenge because the killing program will undoubtedly return. The Forest Service can’t and shouldn’t hide behind the old canard that “the states manage wildlife.” Congress has charged the FS with preserving the area’s wilderness character and the Supreme Court has held many times that the agency has the authority to interject itself in wildlife management programs to preserve the people’s interest in these lands. Turning a blind-eye is a shameful response for an agency that used to claim the leadership mantle in wilderness stewardship.
Wilderness Watch expresses its deep appreciation to Tim Preso and his colleagues at Earthjustice for waging a stellar legal battle on our behalf and in defense of these wilderness wolves.
George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch. George joined Wilderness Watch as our policy coordinator in 1996. Prior to Wilderness Watch, George served 11 years as a natural resource specialist and assistant coordinator for the Utah Wilderness Association. George is regularly invited to make presentations at national wilderness conferences, agency training sessions, and other gatherings where wilderness protection is discussed.
Beginning in the late 1990s, a new kind of land deal materialized in Congress that would present a huge challenge to grassroots public land activists and wilderness advocates and create a significant schism in the environmental movement. Quid pro quo wilderness, as it came to be called, was carried forth in legislation that combined wilderness designation with exchanges, sales, even outright giveaways of public land designed to “buy” Wilderness. As the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approached, controversy was roiling around this new strategy. As we approach the 50th, we need to remind ourselves of the threats posed to Wilderness and public land, and rededicate ourselves to the fundamental ideals and hopes we hold for them.
Traditionally, wilderness legislation simply designated the boundaries of newly-protected areas and might include “release” language that dropped Wilderness Study Areas from interim protection, and/or from any future consideration for Wilderness status. Quid pro quo wilderness, promoted by big-name, big-money organizations like the Wilderness Society, Campaign for America’s Wilderness, and the Sierra Club, turned this simple tradition of wilderness protection on its head.
Suddenly, staff time was spent not in gathering public support for Wilderness and campaigning for passage of concise, protective bills, but in negotiations with anti-wilderness “stakeholders”—ranchers, local politicians, developers, and motorized recreation enthusiasts. Wilderness designation came to be but one provision in sometimes voluminous legislation that also privatized public land, facilitated major water and land development projects and allowed non-conforming, wilderness-damaging uses in the newly designated wilderness lands.
On Oregon’s Steens Mountain, environmental groups negotiated a deal that traded more than 100,000 acres of federal land to ranchers in order to get 18,000 acres that would go into a new Wilderness. In Nevada, wilderness advocates supported the privatization of tens of thousands of acres of public land in Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine counties. In Idaho, two huge quid pro quo bills proposed to give federal land away to local government—including in the beloved Sawtooth NRA–and to force land exchanges with ranchers who would be allowed to name the value of their land.
Well-staffed groups with lavish funding—much of it provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts– engaged in complex, closed-door negotiations with members of Congress, county commissioners, and others who sought to extract a heavy price for allowing wilderness designation to advance. In the meantime, grassroots groups working to uphold the sanctity of Wilderness and the integrity of public lands had a huge task on our hands. In addition to lobbying Congress and explaining the pitfalls of quid pro quo to the public, we had to try to change the trajectory of organizations that had at times been allies.
In our view, quid pro quo wilderness proposals that sanctioned land disposals and developments had grave potential to undermine environmentalists’ efforts to protect and retain federal lands and to secure real Wilderness protection. In promoting these actions, wilderness negotiators were legitimizing the view of anti-public land politicians and other interests who regarded federal land as a low-value, disposable asset, and Wilderness as a prize that could be won only through damaging, far-reaching concessions.
By late 2006, as several quid pro quo bills we had managed to keep from passage stood in the end-of-session Congressional queue, Western Lands, Wilderness Watch, and Friends of the Clearwater composed an open letter to the conservation community calling for “a moratorium on damaging public land and wilderness legislation.” With the very real possibility that the House would be changing from a Republican to a Democratic majority in the coming election, and countless other reasons to abandon the quid pro quo approach, we urged proponents to back away from these bills. The letter was signed by 88 groups from across the country, and distributed to both Congressional offices and the deal-making groups.
As it happened, only one of the poisoned bills passed before Congress adjourned—a quid pro quo for White Pine County, Nevada sponsored by then-minority Senate Leader Harry Reid. Reid, an incorrigible public-land dealer had managed to attach it to a tax-relief bill.
We in the grassroots persisted in our battle against these bills and eventually gained the critical support of Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, and Nick Rahall (D-WV), his counterpart in the House. Bills laden with giveaways and development projects were either buried or substantially re-written.
In 2009, the phalanx of quid pro quo bills that had prompted the moratorium call fell into disparate pieces. One Idaho bill passed after being gutted of its worst provisions. The same fate came to a Utah bill mandating the sell-off of 25,000 acres of public land for housing development. But these were not total victories—some bad provisions for Wilderness access and use remained in these bills, and scores of public-land related measures ended up passing in a 1,300-page omnibus bill, the worst of which opened the door for the State of Alaska to build a 15-mile-long road through across the Izembek Wilderness. This horrible, precedent-setting provision was described by Pew Trust’s wilderness program leader, Mike Matz as the “art of legislating. It’s about compromise.”
Since then, the national groups have bemoaned the lack of new wilderness designations and have pushed for another public-lands omnibus. Perhaps they realized that individual quid pro quo measures left them too exposed, and—as members of Congress have so often done—seek the cover of a big bill, where the bad gets passed with the good, and no one is the wiser. One can barely imagine what they might come up with in negotiations with the current crop of legislators, including a House full of public land-averse Republicans and Harry Reid heading up the Senate.
Janine Blaeloch is founder and director of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, which monitors federal land exchanges, sales, giveaways, and any proposal that would privatize public lands. She has written three books on these issues, including “Carving Up the Commons: Congress and Our Public Lands.” Janine earned a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Washington, with a self-designed program focusing on Public Lands Management and Policy. Before starting Western Lands, she worked as an environmental planner in both the private and public sectors. She has been an activist since 1985.
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
by Kevin Proescholdt
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.