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So-Called Conservation Groups Betray Wilderness
By Howie Wolke

photo_howieThis is the slightly amended written document that I worked from while giving my talk at the 50th Anniversary Wilderness Conference in Albuquerque this past October. My actual talk included some additions that I felt were important based upon what I’d already experienced at the conference and a few deletions due to the time constraint. I did begin with a brief story of a personal encounter with a sow grizzly with cubs that illustrates how much we still do not know about wildland ecosystems. The actual speech can be viewed on You Tube.

My name is Howie Wolke and I live in the foothills of the Gallatin Range in southern Montana just north of Yellowstone National Park, about a mile from the greater Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Complex. I’ve been a wilderness guide/outfitter for backpacking and canoe trips since 1978. I am also a past President and the current Vice-President of Wilderness Watch.

When I first applied to give a presentation at this conference I intended to share my thoughts about the state of our wilderness lands on the ground, given my perspective from having guided well over 500 wilderness treks. Most of these trips have been 5-10 days in duration, and after 36 years I still guide trips from the Arctic Refuge to the Gila including many areas in between. Our company’s major focus, though, are the wildlands of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, my primary home range. There may be someone out there with more guiding experience than I have but if so, I don’t know who that person is.

I mention this because unfortunately, my guiding perspectives will have to be shared outside the context of this panel, perhaps over a beer somewhere or at another forum. That’s because there’s little opportunity in this conference to examine as a group, with meaningful interchange, the failings of and potential remedies for, effective wilderness activism in the U.S. This is my attempt to focus at least a bit of attention on a very big problem that I will soon describe.

Let me be clear: I really appreciate the staggering effort put forth by conference organizers. They’ve secured some wonderful and well-known keynote speakers, like Terry Tempest Williams, Sylvia Earle and Dave Foreman — plus some famous media people, agency leaders and politicians, and that’s fine. But there were some glaring omissions and perhaps for the next Wilderness conference we could also include folks such as Michael Soule’, George Wuerthner and E. O. Wilson (who advocates that 50% of the planet should be biodiversity reserves, way more than most of the American Conservation Movement is willing to support). I should also mention Carole King, a real wilderness activist hero in addition to being a pretty fair singer/song-writer.

And perhaps future conferences could be better structured to facilitate debate and real interchange of ideas. In my mind, it is unfortunate that this very panel is competing with 11 other concurrent panels. That’s an insult. I came all the way to Albuquerque to talk to 8% of the participants? This conference is a wonderful gathering of some really great minds. But it’s very academic, not at all conducive to having wilderness advocates really examine and debate as a group where we should be going after 50 years of Wilderness legislation in the United States.

The truth is that a deep malaise afflicts wildland conservation. Certainly, there are some really great activist groups out there, on the local, regional and even national levels. Such as Friends of the Clearwater, Wilderness Watch, Western Watersheds Project, Friends of the Bitterroot, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Swan View Coalition, and many more. But these outfits are routinely undercut by a relatively small cadre of big national and regional groups with big budgets, and often with obscenely big salaries for their executives. Real activism that highlights education and organizing wilderness defenders has been swept aside, replaced by collaborative efforts to designate watered-down Wilderness. That’s where the money is, so the PEW Foundation and other funders who defend the status quo dictate strategy, favoring radical compromise and collaboratives where everyone holds hands and sings Kumbaya. These collaboratives forge deals that make some people feel good but almost always the land and its creatures get the shaft. These outfits work for legislative notches in their Beltway belts, at any cost — the costs often being special provisions in Wilderness bills and radically truncated Wilderness boundaries. This creates increasingly human-manipulated and tame “Wilderness”.

Unfortunately, I am not simply talking about honest differences of opinion over strategy. I’m talking about the Big Greens actively working against conservation, routinely teaming up with corporate exploiters and other anti-wilderness constituencies. There’s a fine line between strategic differences and actually working to oppose grassroots conservation; and that line is now routinely crossed. I’ll give you just a few examples, which is all that my time allotment allows, but there are, sadly, plenty more.

So, of course I am disappointed but not surprised that TWS President Jamie Williams is a conference keynote, because – as I will shortly explain – his organization has turned its back both on the Wilderness Act and it’s formidable but increasingly distant pro-wilderness past. Now, before anyone accuses me of getting personal, I assure you that there is nothing personal about this. I don’t know Jamie Williams; I’ve never met him. He is probably nice man who believes that he’s working for the greater good. But I do know that his organization has abandoned its formidable history of wilderness defense and advocacy and that in The Wilderness Society, the buck stops in his office.

Yet, Stewart Brandborg, former Executive Director of TWS who helped pass the Wilderness Act, was not invited to be a featured speaker here, and don’t let anyone tell you that he was, because that’s simply not true. If they really wanted him they could have got him; he wanted to come. He told me this in a personal conversation just a few days ago. But perhaps because some of the organizers knew that he was planning to strongly reprimand TWS/PEW/USFS etc., he remains in Montana. Like many of us, Brandy is truly horrified by what’s happened to the wilderness movement and he wanted me to convey that message to this group.

In some ways, the problem really materialized during RARE II, when a small group of TWS and Sierra Club Washington, D.C.-based employees, I’m told led by Doug Scott (another of this conference’s keynote speakers, by the way) decided that conservationists should propose less than half of the available national forest roadless acreage for Wilderness. My old friend Dave Foreman was one of those D.C. strategists at the time, but to his credit, he later renounced the RARE II strategy of minimal proposed Wilderness. Unfortunately, out of 80 million available national forest roadless acres (62 million inventoried in RARE II), the Carter Administration, constrained by the conservation movement’s radically compromised vision, recommended just 15 million acres for wilderness designation. The dye was cast. The opportunity to define the wilderness/roadless debate on biocentric terms by advocating Wilderness for all or nearly all roadless areas was blown. Millions of wild acres were subsequently bulldozed, and with exceptions, the wilderness movement has behaved like a beaten dog ever since.

The Wilderness Society has fallen far. Earlier I complained about TWS President Jamie Williams being a Keynote speaker at this conference. Here are just a few examples why: TWS has opposed the efforts of Wilderness Watch and local conservationists to keep Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore wild, by supporting the National Park Services’ running motor tours through this designated Wilderness. TWS has also encouraged the BLM to allow ranchers to use ATV’s in the Owyhee Canyons Wilderness in Idaho, and it has supported an extremely absurd Forest Service plan to burn nearly the entire Linville Gorge Wilderness in North Carolina! Of equal shock value, a couple of years ago, TWS staffer Paul Spitler produced a paper entitled “Managing Wildfires in Wilderness”. That paper supported logging, road-building and bulldozing pre-emptive fire-breaks in designated Wilderness. I quote from this TWS Paper: “In short, any fire suppression activities that are allowed outside of wilderness are allowed within wilderness as well”. That is an incorrect interpretation of the Wilderness Act, arguable at best, but why is TWS working to promote rather than restrain heavy-handed management in wilderness? Do they not recall Howard Zahnisers’ poignant reminder that in Wilderness “we must be guardians, not gardeners”?

And then there’s Green Mountain, in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness. That’s where the Forest Service illegally replaced a dilapidated fire lookout with a brand-spanking new lookout/visitor center under the phony guise of historic preservation. Wilderness Watch sued the Forest Service and won a legal slam-dunk victory for Wilderness and for the Wilderness Act. The FS was ordered to remove the structure. But TWS again undercut conservation by working to exempt Green Mountain from the requirements of the Wilderness Act. And Congress did exactly that. Obviously, TWS is so determined to appease the agencies that they have abandoned their mission, with zeal. When Stewart Brandborg was running TWS, there were certainly strategic differences among groups, sure, but this kind of undermining could never have occurred. Back in the 60’s and 70’s TWS understood the need to support, not oppose, the grassroots. But that was a long time ago. Long before TWS saw fit to put Wilderness deconstructionist Bill Cronin on its Board of Directors. Even worse, TWS is now paying former timber lobbyist and Assistant Agriculture Secretary Mark Rey for lobbying services! Rey has a veritable history of radical anti-environmentalism and his lobbying for TWS is like the NAACP hiring the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Clan! Yesterday we hard speakers Chris Barnes and Ken Brower eloquently describe this problem in general terms, and suggest that first and foremost we all need to love wilderness. I suggest that we also stop hiring those who don’t!

TWS is not alone at working to undermine the efforts of other conservationists. In my home region, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) produced a display at a recent Montana Wilderness Association convention extolling the virtues of broad-scale national forest thinning/logging for nebulous and scientifically incorrect “forest health” reasons. They did this as other groups work to educate the public about the folly of the so-called “forest health” claims made by some in the Forest Service and industry. With friends like GYC, who needs enemies? And a few years ago, MWA betrayed the Central Montana Wildlands Association, a small grassroots group based in Lewistown, Montana. These folks had sued the Forest Service over a travel plan allowing snow-machines in the Big Snowies WSA. But it turns out that MWA had cut a deal with the Montana Snowmobile Association to allow snow-machines in part of the Wilderness Study Area. Then, MWA actually intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of the Forest Service and the snowmobilers, opposing the grassroots effort. You did not hear me wrong.

The Wilderness Society, MWA and GYC have also refused to support a grassroots wilderness proposal for a 545,000 acre Gallatin Range Wilderness in Montana and Wyoming, and in a number of instances that I’d be happy to detail when I’m not on the clock, have intentionally undermined the efforts of a local group, Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness. A GYC representative even told us that their group wouldn’t support any more Wilderness than our Democrat Senator Jon Tester supported. Huh?

TWS and its cohorts seem to forget that our job is to push, pull, cajole, embarrass and encourage the agencies and politicians to support new Wilderness designations and to keep designated Wilderness wild, even when – no, especially when – individual bureaucrats and politicians drag their heels. Our job is not to rubber stamp agency plans or to appease Congressional Democrats. We must challenge public officials whenever their actions diminish or degrade Wilderness!

I could continue, but time is running short. Again, I respect strategic differences within the conservation community but what I’ve described is something entirely different. In the past I’ve counseled fellow conservationists to avoid public criticisms of other conservation groups. I thought we should not air our dirty laundry for all to see. But I’ve changed my mind. The situation has gone too far. When a wheel is broken, ignoring it won’t fix the problem. The Conservation Movement has lost its way. John Muir, Bob Marshall and Howard Zahniser spin in their graves. The malfeasance must end.

I don’t know what the solution is except to say that perhaps it’s time for groups such as TWS, MWA, GYC, The Nature Conservancy (whose chief scientist Peter Kareiva argues that Wilderness has become irrelevant) and maybe some others to simply disband and get out of the way. Of course I know that this won’t happen. I also appreciate that occasionally these outfits do good work. But occasionally doesn’t cut it. Protecting our priceless heritage of both designated Wilderness and potential designated Wilderness Areas is not going to get easier as the already overpopulated United States of America continues to expand its already bloated amount of human biomass. As the U.S. population climbs toward 350 and 400 million Americans, pressures on wilderness are going to increase from every imaginable direction. Continued destructive behavior by so-called conservation groups simply exacerbates an already difficult situation.

In summary, recall that Ed Abbey once wrote that “the idea of wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders”. That’s true today, more than ever. Wilderness is about restraint and humility. It teaches one that we don’t know it all and never will. There is wisdom in the rocks and the trees and the deserts, the prairies and the tundra. Wild habitats speak to us, if we listen. And one thing they tell me is to heed the wisdom of the wilderness movement’s early visionaries. Now is not the time to abandon their ship. Let’s quit playing “Let’s Make A Deal” and other political games and get on with the real job of really defending what remains wild.

I realize that many people will find what I just discussed to be profoundly disturbing. I certainly do. And believe me, I would have much rather discussed what I’ve learned about wilderness on the ground from my 37 years as a wilderness guide. But I also feel strongly that to avoid this difficult discussion would have been neglecting my responsibility both to the Conservation Movement and to the Wilderness itself.

Howie Wolke, Vice President Wilderness Watch
& Co-Owner, Big Wild Adventures
Emigrant, Montana

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.

 

BD_BlaelochJanine Blaeloch,
Board member, Wilderness Watch
Director, Western Lands Project

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.

Steens lowlands

100,000 acres of public lowland habitat near Steens Mountain were traded to ranchers in the first big quid pro quo deal.
Photo: Western Lands Project

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.

01_Slides_007

Quid pro quo deals have pushed pavement and development farther out into the magnificent desert of the Las Vegas Valley.
Photo: Western Lands Project

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.

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

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