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Wilderness: The Next 50 Years?

webversionbarnsBy: Martin Nie and Christopher Barns

September 3, 2014 commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. No other environmental law, save perhaps the Endangered Species Act, so clearly articulates an environmental ethic and sense of humility. The system the law created is like no other in the United States. Once designated by Congress, a wilderness area is to be managed to preserve its wildness, meaning that these special places are to be free from human control, manipulation, and commercial exploitation.

Celebrations are being planned throughout the country and each will undoubtedly take a look back at the history of this law and the land it now protects. But what is the future of the wilderness system?

The story of wilderness is far from finished. Most at stake are lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Both agencies manage millions of acres that are potentially suitable for wilderness designation. For the USFS, this includes land that is currently managed pursuant to the 2001 roadless rule (35.7 to 45 million acres depending on the inclusion of the ever-contested Tongass National Forest), and state-specific roadless rules covering Idaho (9.3 million acres) and Colorado (4.2 million acres). Also at stake are wilderness study areas (3.2 million acres) and places recommended for wilderness designation by the agency itself (5 million acres).

The BLM manages 528 Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) totaling approximately 12.8 million acres, most of which were identified in the initial BLM inventory of its lands in the late 1970s. The agency is currently updating its inventory of other areas with wilderness characteristics, and a very rough estimate is that an additional 5 to 10 million acres will be identified – not including Alaska. The first inventory for areas with wilderness characteristics on lands managed by the BLM in Alaska has started, and perhaps 40 million acres will be found.

These lands provide the base from which future wilderness designations on USFS and BLM lands may come. Complicated planning processes, interim management measures, and politics will ultimately determine whether or not these lands are protected in some form in the future. The politics of wilderness is more complicated and challenging in 2014 than it was in 1964. We believe that three interrelated factors will shape wilderness designations in the future: extreme political polarization, trends in collaboration, and increasing demands for the manipulation of wilderness.

Congressional Polarization
We begin by focusing on the increasing polarization of Congress and its impact on wilderness politics. Since the Wilderness Act requires an act of Congress to designate wilderness, what happens in this institution necessarily impacts what happens to wilderness-eligible lands.

The history of the Wilderness Act makes clear that Congressional partisanship and ideology have always factored into wilderness politics. After all, Congress considered some 65 versions of the law over an eight-year political process. Politics notwithstanding, the U.S. House of Representative still passed the law by a vote of 374 to 1, and in the previous year, the U.S. Senate passed a version of the Act by a 73 to 12 margin.

What has so remarkably changed since these votes is the degree of partisan and ideological polarization of Congress. The so-called “orgy of consensus” that ostensibly characterized the environmental lawmaking of the 1960s and 1970s has all but disappeared in a loud and angry falling out of the center.

Political scientists show the extent to which the parties have polarized, or become more ideologically consistent and distinct, since the 1970s. A drastic homogenization and pulling apart of the parties is evident. A task force convened by the American Political Science Association shows there to be a major “partisan asymmetry in polarization.” According to the authors, “Despite the widespread belief that both parties have moved to the extremes, the movement of the Republican Party to the right accounts for most of the divergence between the two parties.”

Polarization has already impacted wilderness politics. For example, the 112th Congress was the only Congress to actually decrease the size of the Wilderness System. And we cannot recall a House session that has introduced or passed so much anti-wilderness legislation.

There is little reason to believe that polarization will abate any time soon so chances are good that gridlock and dysfunction will characterize wilderness politics, as it does in so many other policy areas. Designations will become more difficult and those opposing them will ask for a more absurd list of political concessions. If legislative channels remain blocked, we also suspect that a wilderness-friendly President will take more protective actions in the future, such as using Executive powers to withdraw lands from mineral development or by using the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments.

Compromise and Collaboration
Some wilderness advocates have embraced more collaborative approaches to wilderness politics, an approach whereby those seeking additional wilderness make deals with an assortment of interests that want something else, from rural economic development to motorized recreation. While collaboration could potentially break long-time wilderness stalemates, we fear that those collaborating in today’s polarized political context may make deals that collectively threaten the integrity of the Wilderness System.

The move towards collaboration in contemporary wilderness politics is understandable for a couple of reasons. First is the nature of the remaining wilderness-eligible lands managed by the USFS and BLM. Many wilderness battles of the past were focused on protecting “rocks and ice,” high altitude alpine environments with fewer pre-existing uses than found on lower elevation lands. But many current wilderness proposals now aim to protect lower elevation landscapes—and thus places with more “historic” uses and entrenched interests associated with them. The growing use of motorized recreation also helps us appreciate why some wilderness advocates have a sense of urgency when it comes to making deals to get wilderness designated sooner rather than later. Wilderness advocates fear that these machines will increasingly intrude into potential wilderness areas and make their protection more difficult in the future because of associated impairments and claims of “historic use.”

That compromise is part of wilderness, as it is for politics more generally, is not the dispute. What is disputed is whether these compromises have gone too far in recent years and what precedent they set for the future of the Wilderness System. We suspect that multi-faceted negotiations, in which wilderness is but one part of larger deals, will increase in scale and complexity. Wilderness may become currency in lop-sided negotiations—providing something to trade in return for more certain economic development on non-wilderness federal lands.

We are also concerned that those interests collaborating will view the original 1964 law as simply a starting point for negotiations and that there will be increasing calls for non-conforming uses and special provisions in newly-designated wilderness areas, such as language pertaining to grazing, wildlife management, motorized use, and fire. Precedent is a special concern in this context because of how often special provisions—to meet the desires of those opposed to wilderness—are replicated in subsequent wilderness laws. There appears to be a disturbing trend in the collaborators representing “conservation” interests negotiating away central tenets of the Wilderness Act in exchange for simply getting an area called “Wilderness” designated. As a result, recent legislation appears to be enshrining the WINO – Wilderness In Name Only.

Wilderness Manipulation
The third issue pertains to what we believe will be increasing demands to control and manipulate wilderness in contravention of the law’s mandate to preserve wilderness areas as “untrammeled.” Such demands will likely be made in the context of ecological restoration and efforts to mitigate and adapt to various environmental changes, such as threats posed by climate change. We suspect that future wilderness designations and the politics surrounding them will increasingly use climate change—whether as a legitimate concern, or merely an excuse—to focus on issues such as water supply, fire, insects, disease, and invasive species.

The relationship between water and wilderness will be particularly problematic in the West. Testifying before Congress on the proposed San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act of 2011, the USFS shocked many by opposing the bill’s provision to prohibit new water development projects in the new wilderness areas.

The water issue is also likely to manifest itself through the artificial delivery of water to wildlife populations in wilderness. The USFWS acquiesced to the state of Arizona’s request to build two artificial wildlife waters to benefit bighorn sheep within the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness, despite the presence of over 60 such installations already in the area. However, this decision to manipulate the wilderness ecosystem was contested, and in 2010 the Ninth Circuit ruled that the USFWS failed to adequately analyze whether these “guzzlers” were necessary to meet the law’s minimum requirements. It seems that the courts will defend the undeveloped nature of an untrammeled wilderness where the agency charged with its stewardship will not.

Recently introduced legislation goes even further – beyond simply providing artificial water: the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act of 2012 version that passed the House would guarantee that any action proposed by a state wildlife agency would automatically satisfy the “necessary to meet minimum requirements” test mandated by Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act.

Manipulating wilderness ecosystems frequently involves placing structures or installations in areas that are, by law, supposed to be undeveloped. They may make the area less natural, even though the law requires wilderness to be “protected and managed to preserve its natural conditions.” And, uniformly, they manipulate areas “where the earth and its community of life are [supposed to be] untrammeled.” These demands may end up as bargaining chips in the designation process – part of the increase in collaboration and compromise that is the hallmark of recent legislation. Manipulating wilderness ecosystems, which now seems acceptable to some “conservation” interests, may become a de facto political requirement in an increasingly polarized political climate where it seems one side seems to not care how an area is managed as long as it’s called “Wilderness,” and the other side doesn’t care what it’s called as long as it’s not managed as wilderness.

So, is “Wilderness” an idea whose time has come and gone?

***

We reflect on the words used by Congress in establishing the Wilderness System in 1964:
In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

The italicized words are emphasized because they explain why the reasons for adding to the Wilderness System are stronger in 2014 than they were fifty years ago. In 1964, the U.S. population was 192 million, it is now approaching more than 319 million. Along with this increasing population has come a staggering expansion of settlement, especially in the American West, and a phenomenal increase in the amount and power of motorized and mechanized use on public lands. The Wilderness System remains vital in protecting places and values that are increasingly rare in modern society.

Now, more than ever, we need the transcendent anchor provided by Wilderness. This is not asking for too much when we consider that roughly 5 percent of the entire U.S. is protected as wilderness, and a mere 2.7 percent when Alaska is removed from the equation. Nor is it too much when we consider that the majority of the U.S. has already been converted to agricultural and urban landscapes, with much of the remaining lands networked with roads. We are not so poor economically that we must exploit every last nook and cranny of our wild legacy for perceived gain; we are not yet so poor spiritually that we should willingly squander our birthright as Americans.

This is why we must fight for “Capital W” Wilderness, as originally envisioned, and make a stand for those last remaining roadless areas with wilderness characteristics that deserve our protection. It also means pushing back against the tide of compromising away the very essence of wilderness, and resisting the urge to manipulate wild places as if they were gardens to produce some desired future as if we knew what was always best for the land.

We need Wilderness, real Wilderness. Now, more than ever.
***

Martin Nie is Director of the Bolle Center for People & Forests at the University of Montana. Chris Barns is a BLM Wilderness Specialist in the National Landscape Conservation System Division, and that agency’s representative at the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center. His contribution to this essay should not be taken as an official position of the Department of the Interior or BLM. The Article from which this essay stems was published by the Arizona Journal of Environmental Law & Policy in October of 2014. Click here to view.

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