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By Brett Haverstick

Brett2

Taking a long trip into the backcountry during winter doesn’t appeal to some people. That’s understandable. But I enjoy it, and it’s something I try to do a few times a year. Winter backpacking is very different, and more challenging, compared to strapping on the pack during other seasons.

For one it’s darn cold, with many trips never getting above freezing, day or night. Two, there’s usually lots of snow on the ground, which means you’re probably wearing snowshoes, and, perhaps, breaking trail too. Three, your pack is heavier because of all the extra warm gear you are carrying, including more food because you need to consume a lot of calories each day. Four, you have to work harder in just about everything you do, from setting up your shelter and trying to stay warm to melting water and attempting to stay hydrated. Five, there’s not a lot of daylight, so you have to stay motivated and keep moving if you want to cover some miles. Lastly, not too many people want to spend 5-6 days in the cold, blowing snow of the northern Rockies in January! But find someone to share the workload if you can!

My recent trip into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness was with a friend, and, perhaps more importantly, an individual with a skill set that I could trust and depend on. Once the weather report showed a high-pressure system moving across the region, Russell and I finalized our plans and set out for the trailhead. We felt confident we could cover 50 miles before the next weather front moved in.

For two and a half days, we trudged across the frozen ridge, one foot after the other, breaking snow almost the entire time. Occasionally, we would hear the call of the raven or the knock of the woodpecker, but for the most part we walked in silence and deep in thought. Accompanying us the whole time was a set of moose tracks, with deer and elk tracks scattered about. It appeared snowshoe hare were in the area too. Blood on the trail indicated that a mountain lion, or another carnivore, might have wounded one of the ungulates.

The daily routine of building the morning fire, boiling water, drying gear, packing up, snowshoeing 10-16 miles, and then searching for a place to dig out the next snow cave was in some ways more mentally challenging than physical. But the white silence of the forest was peaceful, views of the snow-covered mountain peaks were tantalizing, and the cold, crisp air was exhilarating. With each arduous step, the wilderness boundary drew nearer.

You know the feeling. As one travels down the trail, through the forest, around the next bend or over the saddle, your heart pounds like a kid at Christmas. You anxiously await the sign that reads “…Wilderness, “…National Forest.” Yes, you say to yourself. Hope for humanity. Escape from the madness. Refuge for the plants and animals. Nature’s Bill of Rights at last. Leave me here and let me die with my true friends! And down the trail you continue.

Prior to our trip departure, Russell and I learned about the intent of the Idaho Fish & Game Department to land helicopters, and harass and collar elk, in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. We were angry, concerned, disappointed, and flabbergasted by the fact that the Forest Service gave the green light to land machines in the Wilderness, up to 120 times over a 3-month period. Of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s 1 time or 12 times, but 120 times was mind-blowing. Who the hell is running the Forest Service? Didn’t they, along with millions of Americans, just celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act not too long ago? Looks like that was lip service!

And what about the people running the Idaho Fish & Game Department? Why do they still have authority over wildlife management on federal public lands? Why are their intensive and intrusive management plans being permitted in federally designated Wilderness? When is that going to change? Why is the Forest Service continually shining the shoes of the state hook and bullet departments? Who is really administering the Wilderness?

As Russell and I descended in elevation on the third day, the sun shined warmly, the skies stretched a bright blue, and the mighty Salmon River came within view. We peered though the binoculars, and combed the south-facing slopes for herds of elk. Dozens of ungulates lay basking on the hills, while those closer leaped and bound to a more secure place. We also observed whitetail and mule deer (strangely enough together) and lots of wolf tracks. Far off in the distance, we saw what looked like two golden eagles circling a spot on the hill, as if a kill had recently occurred.

Despite seeing a number of horses by the river late that afternoon (why are horses running freely on the national forest in winter, particularly in crucial winter-range habitat?), not a human was in sight, and the frozen riverbank was ours to explore and make home. We rested and dreamily watched small pieces of ice float downstream along the sides of the quiet, rolling river.

Later that evening, after a hot meal, warm fire, and the usual time-to-get hydrated routine, we dozed peacefully under a star-studded sky when suddenly we were awoken by the yips, screams, and howls of coyotes. After shaking our heads no, those are not wolves, we gleefully listened to the songs (and celebrations?) of a dozen coyotes not far from our tarp. They yipped for 3-4 minutes but it felt like a lot longer than that. The sweet music of the Wilderness had finally reached us!

When day broke and our bags were packed, Russell and I contemplated where the Idaho Fish & Game helicopters could be. Were they invading to the south along Big Creek? Were they harassing and stressing dozens of cows and calves to the east? The mere thought of these non-conforming, highly mechanized machines flying and landing wherever they want in the Wilderness made us sick to our stomachs. We both wanted to know how can the uses of helicopters, net-guns, tranquilizers, and GPS-collars be the minimal tool(s) needed to administer the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness? None of it made any sense. Little did we know that wolves were being collared too.

Which leads me to my final thoughts. What good is a National Wilderness Preservation System if the federal officials charged with administering the system, and individual areas, continues to approve projects that are incompatible with the Wilderness Act? Why are the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly rubber-stamping proposals that harm Wilderness? How is the collaring of wildlife in federally designated wilderness representative of a self-willed landscape? Explain to me how helicopters, net-guns, and radio-collars enhance or preserve wilderness character?

This tragedy (“accident”) should serve as a lightning rod to spark a discussion, better yet, a movement, to do two things: create an independent federal department solely charged with stewardship of the wilderness system, and pressure Congress to pass legislation that forbids all state fish and game agencies from conducting any operations inside federally designated Wilderness.

To hell with the Forest Service and the other federal agencies, which continue to trammel the Wilderness and our natural heritage. We cannot keep leaving it to the attorneys to defend the Wilderness Act. We must do something bold. The status quo is badly broken and only getting worse. Ed Abbey is rolling in his grave and still screaming, “The Idea of wilderness needs no defense, just defenders.” This message needs to reach every living room in America.

Brett Haverstick is the Education & Outreach Director for Friends of the Clearwater, a public lands advocacy group based in Moscow, Idaho. He has a B.S. in Parks & Recreation Management from Northern Arizona University and a Master’s degree in Natural Resources from the University of Idaho. He has been a member of Wilderness Watch since 2007. The views expressed are his own.

ImageOf Wolves and Wilderness
By George Nickas

“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.

Middle Fork Salmon River, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho

Middle Fork Salmon River, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho: Where nine wolves were killed by IDFG’s hired hunter-trapper. Photo: Rex Parker

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.

UPDATE, 9/10: After Idaho Public TV completed filming in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Forest Service released an interim rule authorizing even more commercial filming in National Forests, including Wilderness. This is in blatant disregard of the Act’s prohibition on commercial enterprise. The only qualification in the new rule is that the agency must approve of the film’s message. The content of the message has no relevance in determining whether the activity is commercial, nor is the regulation of free speech an appropriate role for the Forest Service or any other government agency. An agency spokesperson conceded in a Montana Public Radio interview (1/3 of the way through) that the policy would allow James Cameron (of Titanic and Avatar fame) to shoot his next film in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We find ourselves in the absurd situation where the agency takes on the Orwellian role of authorizing a “wilderness” experience we view from the comfort of our living rooms, while degrading true wilderness to produce this virtual experience.

The following comment was posted on Idaho Conservation League’s blog in response to their 5/20 post, “Wilderness Take Two.”

Filming in the Wilderness
Posted by Nellie Bunce at Jun 04, 2010 09:17 AM

I was the crew leader on the Trails project, of which was the center of this controversy.
The film crew from IPTV was allowed on our trail project.
I withdrew my consent to be filmed as I have strong beliefs that this type of filming should NOT ever be allowed in our Wilderness areas.
My suspicion that this filming was completely unnecessary was confirmed shortly after our trail work began. We were working the Camas Creek Trail, which begins in the Salmon-Challis National Forest and after 4 miles or so it crosses into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The film crew would ask several times a day if we could move any faster, If we really needed to fix everything on the trail, When we would get to the wilderness boundary, all the time with the tone of hurry, hurry, hurry….
It was ridiculous. When we finally moved across the wilderness boundary the cameraman stayed long enough to film 2 of my crew members put up a tent and then the cameraman left. Not a single second of trail conservation work was filmed inside the wilderness. This section of filming for, Outdoor Idaho, was a joke. They could easily have filmed outside of the wilderness and avoided this argument altogether and in doing so showed a concerned and valid wilderness ethic, instead of making a mockery of our last best places, our wilderness.

Sincerely,
Nellie A. Bunce

__________________________________________________________________________________________________
Not Open for Business

By Dawn Serra
Wilderness Watch • Missoula, MT

The Forest Service initially made the right decision in denying Idaho Public Television’s (IPTV’s) request to film a trail maintenance project in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.  It might have gone a step further by suggesting an alternative location where IPTV could obtain the desired footage, thereby avoiding much of the controversy that has ensued.

The Wilderness Act prohibits commercial enterprise, including commercial filming, in these special places, and it’s the responsibility of the Forest Service to implement the laws that Congress passes.  Unfortunately, after receiving pressure from Idaho Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter and Congressman Mike Simpson, Regional Forester Harv Forsgren reversed the decision of local Forest officials and permitted the filming to start immediately.

Many of the commentaries critical of the Forest Service’s original decision are based on the mistaken notion that IPTV’s “non-profit” status under the Internal Revenue Code makes its activities inherently non-commercial.  That represents a misunderstanding of what “non profit” status means.  Courts have routinely held that private, non-profit corporations can engage in commercial activities, and many do, including public televisions stations.  These stations use their programming to obtain advertisers (“corporate sponsors”), not unlike the network and cable channels do, and to solicit contributions from their viewers.

Others have suggested that IPTV’s record of pro-environment programming justifies ignoring the Wilderness Act and giving the station a filming permit.  However, the content of the message has no relevance in determining whether the activity is commercial, nor is content-based speech regulation an appropriate role for land managers in the Forest Service.  One person’s “educational video” is another’s “fundraising tool.”  I’m sure there will be more than a few Hollywood directors willing to put Wilderness on the big screen for the educational benefit of us all.

The Wilderness Act bars commercial enterprise, including filming, because the Act’s framers saw the benefit, indeed the need, to protect Wilderness from being viewed and used as a commodity, and from having its management compromised by economic interests.  Upholding this aspect of the law may not always be politically popular, but it’s the job of the federal land management agencies to make sure they uphold the law.  When public officials put private interests above those of the people they erode the public’s faith in government and its ability to carry out its responsibilities under the law.

There was a simple solution that met the needs of the television station without compromising the protections afforded wilderness.  IPTV could have done its filming on another trail project in the backcountry, but outside the Wilderness.  Idaho certainly doesn’t lack other wild public lands where trail work could be filmed.  This would be a “win-win” solution that provided the desired film footage without compromising the Wilderness Act or the ethics of the agency responsible for managing the FC-River of No Return Wilderness.

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