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Can We Still Keep Wilderness Wild?
by Louise Lasley

ML photo head shot 2Most of us probably believe we can correctly figure out fact from fiction, good from bad, and many other distinctions we make every day. But sometimes our perceptions are forged by subtle, if inadvertent, messages we receive. And before long the collective perspective becomes our culture with an almost unobservable change in what is believed to be right or good or necessary. This shift from original intent to accepted practices applies to our best-protected lands and threatens not only designated Wilderness, but the Wilderness Act, too.

I recently received information on an upcoming wilderness festival, and the first thing that caught my attention was the phrase: “management is a necessary part of our interaction with this resource” (meaning Wilderness). I count this as one of those subtle messages that tend to shift behavior. To manage something is a dynamic, manipulative action that implies human intervention and control. The responsibility of the four federal agencies that oversee Wilderness is to administer these lands using a hands-off approach rather than manage them. Congress and the American people have set aside Wilderness to allow nature to call the shots.

The Wilderness Act 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.” Howard Zahniser explained in a 1957 speech the intended meaning of “untrammeled” as “free, unbound, unhampered, unchecked, having the freedom of the wilderness.”

Stewart Brandborg worked closely with Zahniser on the Wilderness Act, and then served as executive director of the Wilderness Society for 12 years after the law’s 1964 passage. These two roles created millions of acres of designated Wilderness. The late Bill Worf, a former Forest Service (FS) supervisor and fierce advocate for Wilderness, was part of a small group tasked with writing the FS regulations for the Wilderness Act. For years these two men were the backbone of Wilderness Watch, the only national organization working exclusively to assure that Wilderness is administered according to the law. Neither would stray from their conviction that the Act does not allow for compromise nor should it be subject to individual interpretation.

I can’t tell you when the shift from the original intent for stewardship of these lands began, but it has been moving a lot. The other night at dinner Stewart Brandborg said that the next presentation regarding Wilderness should be titled: “It’s all Screwed Up.” Here are a few examples of how the law is being disregarded:

  1. A private company used a helicopter to haul materials to repair the Fred Burr High Lake dam in the Montana portion of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, even though in the past materials were carried in by packstock or found onsite.
  2. A proposed road would cut through the Izembek Wilderness in Alaska.
  3. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, commercial towboat traffic has increased significantly instead of maintaining levels existing at the time of designation.
  4. There is a proposal to considerably expand the Fish Lake airstrip in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho.
  5. In the Emigrant Wilderness in California, buildings have been rebuilt and commercial packstations exceed historical numbers.
  6. Commercial shellfishing is occurring in the Monomoy Wilderness in Massachusetts.
  7. 450 Helicopter landings have been proposed for bighorn management in Wildernesses in Arizona.
  8. Motorized cattle herding has been proposed in Wildernesses in the Owyhee region of Idaho.
  9. Water developments have been built in the Kofa Wilderness in Arizona, using construction equipment and helicopters.
  10. Unnecessary structures have been restored and rebuilt in the Olympic Wilderness in Washington.
  11. And on and on…

Such illegal actions were probably considered acceptable by the agencies, weren’t that much different than some earlier action, or would help with an issue unrelated to Wilderness. Or as my friend Howie says, “They have landscape amnesia.” In other words, they’ve forgotten what Wilderness is supposed to be. All illegal actions are damaging to Wilderness, but cumulatively they amount to a “death by a thousand cuts,” with incremental changes sometimes only obvious over longer periods of time.

How did we get to this place? Who is responsible? Often, agency employees notify Wilderness Watch of violations occurring in Wilderness. The most abused part of the Wilderness Act is the administrative exception in section 4(c), which allows the minimal action necessary to administer the Act. It was intended to apply to those exceedingly rare instances where motorized equipment, motor vehicles, aircraft, structures or installations are truly necessary and constitute the absolute minimum required to preserve Wilderness.  Instead, the agencies increasingly invoke the exception whenever it is convenient or to promote recreation or one of the other uses of Wilderness. Unfortunately, many of these violations provide the jumping-off step for the next, bigger illegal action.

The U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have a long history of resisting the Wilderness Act. But it is not just the agencies that have dropped the ball. Congress has failed in its oversight of the agencies and its review of the state of the Wilderness system. A 1989 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report requested by the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands found that the Forest Service was “devoting only minimal attention to wilderness,” but nothing came of the report’s recommendations to prevent further degradation of Wilderness. In 1995, Congress passed the Paperwork Reduction Act, which rescinded a provision of the Wilderness Act that required the agencies to submit substantive annual reports to Congress on the state of the Wilderness system. And in perhaps the most alarming assessment of the Wilderness system, a 2001 report by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation warned, “The four wilderness agencies and their leaders must make a strong commitment to wilderness stewardship before the Wilderness System is lost.” Yet neither Congress nor the agencies have made any meaningful actions to address the recommendations of this in-depth, comprehensive report. It is now largely forgotten.

Current stewardship oversight, or lack thereof, is only part of the degradation of Wilderness by Congress. Congress is proposing bills as damaging to Wilderness as the violations the agencies are carrying out—and maybe more so. Bills designating Wilderness in the past were clear and simple and adhered to the Act. Increasingly, wilderness bills include exceptions not in the Act, have language that undercuts the Act, or add damaging non-conformities to both existing and proposed Wildernesses. The current Congress includes 51 such bills. , Many of the proposed bills are supported by the larger conservation organizations, who, because of their size, proximity to DC, and their budgets, have usurped negotiations from local organizations who are working to designate additional Wilderness. These larger organizations who claim that compromise is necessary to gain more public support, along with Congress, are making the Wilderness Act into something other than what was envisioned during its long and inclusive passage into law.

So whose responsibility is it to ensure that Wilderness retains the character that makes it wild, that ours and future generations are able to experience the wild, and that accountability for wilderness is acknowledged and accepted? I believe this responsibility belongs to Congress, to the four administering agencies, and finally to us—the “public”, the folks who know the wilderness lands around them, cherish their unique and special qualities, and are grateful for what Wildernesses don’t have: those activities that would make a Wilderness just the same as any other place. The question remains, can we still keep Wilderness wild in the face of so many challenges to the Act’s original intent?


Louise Lasley’s (president of Wilderness Watch) pursuit of backcountry activities produced a strong advocacy for wilderness and the values we find in wild places. She has worked for years to protect those values around the globe and particularly within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Work on public lands and wildlife issues for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Africa Rainforest and River Conservation, and as a naturalist for the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Spring Creek Resort has been fundamental to her new endeavor to look at local issues as she travels around the West. After living in Jackson Hole for 30 years, Louise began the life of a gypsy this year looking for a someplace to call home. She hopes that her knowledge and experience of public lands and wildlife concerns will help in her transition to a new community.

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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.

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.

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