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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.

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.

 

Wilderness in the Eternity of the Future
By Ed Zahniser

*Editor’s note: The following is reprinted from a speech Ed Zahniser gave this past May in Schenectady, NY.

Ed Zahniser speaks at the Kelly Adirondack Center of Union  College in Schenectady, NY, May 8, 2014. The Center includes  the former home of Paul and Carolyn Schaefer and family.  Photo: Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

Ed Zahniser speaks at the Kelly Adirondack Center of Union College in Schenectady, NY, May 8, 2014. The Center includes the former home of Paul and Carolyn Schaefer and family. Photo: Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

My father Howard Zahniser, who died four months before the 1964 Wilderness Act became law 50 years ago this September 3, was the chief architect of, and lobbyist for, this landmark Act. The Act created our 109.5-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System.

Had I another credential, it would be that Paul Schaefer—the indomitable Adirondack conservationist—was one of my chief mentors and outdoor role models. Paul helped me catch my first trout. I was seven years old. That life event took place in what is now the New York State-designated Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area in the Adirondacks. Izaak Walton should be so lucky.

I worked for Paul Schaefer’s construction outfit, Iroquois Hills, for two high school summers. I lived here in the family home—897 St. David’s Lane—along with three of Paul and Carolyn’s four children, Evelyn, Cub, and Monica, and Paul. I slept in the Adirondack room—in the loft. Carolyn Schaefer, Ma Schaefer, was cooking for the weather station on Whiteface Mountain those two summers. Evelyn and Monica and I were on our own in the kitchen with an oven that had just two settings, “off” and “hot as hell.”

I spent many of those summer weekends with Paul in his Adirondack cabin, the Beaver House, near Bakers Mills. It was his heart’s home. And so for me, as in much of life, it’s not what you know. It’s who. But I must add that trying to fry three two-minute eggs the way Paul Schaefer liked them—with NO cellophane edges!—could bring down more wrath than Marine boot camp. And don’t ever let Paul sleep too late on Sunday morning to make it to mass in nearby North Creek.

Paul Schaefer lived by letterheads. He had a double fistful over the years. I was born the same year as Paul’s letterhead group Friends of the Forest Preserve, formed in 1945 to fight the Black River Wars. I must now confess—with all due respect—that my siblings and I still often address each other as “Dear Friends of the Forest Preserve.” Today the official group is Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

When I first read James Glover’s A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall it reminded me that the many family friends I grew up taking for granted as national conservation associates of my father Howard Zahniser had been recruited by New Yorker Bob Marshall in his travels. Bob Marshall’s cohorts and co-founders of The Wilderness Society included Benton MacKaye, Bernard Frank, Harvey Broome, Aldo Leopold, and Ernest Oberholtzer. They carried on his wilderness work as The Wilderness Society after Marshall died at age 38 in 1939.

MacKaye, Frank, and Leopold were trained foresters, as was Marshall, who also had a PhD in plant physiology. Broome was a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, where MacKaye and Frank worked as foresters. Also helping with Marshall’s early Wilderness Society work were his personal recruits Sigurd Olson, an advocate with Ernest Oberholtzer of today’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, and Olaus and Margaret E. “Mardy” Murie, who would play crucial roles in the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Bob Marshall inspired wilderness advocacy not only for federal public lands but also for the Adirondack wilderness of his youthful summers at the Marshall family camp near Saranac Lake. In July 1932, three years before The Wilderness Society was organized, Bob Marshall ran into a young Paul Schaefer atop Mount Marcy. Schaefer was photographing ravages of forest fires caused by careless logging of Adirondack High Peaks forests above the elevations that loggers had assured Bob Marshall and others that they would not cut.

Paul Schaefer was doing what his conservation mentor John Apperson said we must do. Stand on the land you want to save. Take pictures so the public sees what is at stake. John Apperson’s rallying cry was “We Will Wake Them Up!” Paul would practice just that for more than a half century of wildlands advocacy. Atop Mount Marcy, not far above Verplanck Colvin’s Lake Tear of the Clouds, Bob Marshall captured Paul Schaefer’s wild imagination. Marshall called for wilderness advocates to band together, which took place with The Wilderness Society’s birth three years later, in 1935.

In 1946, 14 years after his peak experience with Bob Marshall, Paul Schaefer recruited our father Howard Zahniser to defend Adirondack forest preserve wilderness. Apperson and Schaefer showed their documentary film about the dam-building threats to western Adirondack forest preserve lands at the February 1946 North American Wildlife Conference in New York City. My father had gone to work for The Wilderness Society the previous September 1945. After their presentation, my father told Schaefer that The Wilderness Society would help defend the western Adirondacks against dams in what became known as the Black River Wars.

When they took up the gauntlet in 1946, to block the series of dams was universally deemed a lost cause. But Schaefer and Zahnie—as our father was known—went from town to town in western New York, testifying at public hearings, meeting with news people, and identifying and cultivating local advocates of wildlands.

Zahnie also brought national experts from Washington, D.C. to New York to testify against the dams. So Paul Schaefer was Zahnie’s mentor in sticking with lost causes, too. As Olaus Murie later said—and this is my all-time favorite quotation about our father—“Zahnie has unusual tenacity in lost causes.” That was a New York State skill. I hope you have that skill, too, “. . . unusual tenacity in lost causes.”

Schaefer invited Zahnie and our family to experience Adirondack wilderness firsthand that summer of 1946. Backpacking across the High Peaks wilderness that summer with Schaefer and his fellow conservationist Ed Richard, Zahnie remarked that the ‘forever wild’ clause of New York’s state constitution might well model the stronger protection needed for wilderness on federal public lands. The next summer, 1947, The Wilderness Society governing council voted to pursue some form of more permanent protection for wilderness. That 1947 vote set the stage for the 1964 Wilderness Act.

The administrative classifications that Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold had won to protect wilderness on federal, national forests were proving ephemeral. A housing boom followed World War II’s end in 1945. Federal bureaucrats started de-classifying administratively designated wilderness areas for exploitation of timber, minerals, and hydropower.

Under Schaefer’s tutelage, Zahnie dove into the Black River Wars here in New York. Zahnie’s federal government public relations work had taught him the machinations of multi-media publicity. But from and with Paul Schaefer in the Adirondacks, Zahnie learned firsthand the art of grass roots organizing and stumping for wilderness. Paul Schaefer built a statewide coalition of hunters, anglers, and other conservationists and held it together by the strength of his personality for 50 or 60 years. If you’re looking for a job, there’s one that is probably going begging tonight.

This truths our calling the Adirondacks and Catskills “where wilderness preservation began.” The epic early 1950s fight against the Echo Park Dam proposed inside Dinosaur National Monument in Utah built the first-ever national conservation coalition. Then, having defeated the Echo Park dam proposal by 1955, Zahnie and the Sierra Club’s David Brower put that coalition to work for the legislation that would become the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Zahnie and David Brower, who then headed the Sierra Club, led the Echo Park Dam fight. Brower told Christine and me at the National Wilderness Conference in 1994 that Zahnie was his mentor in the practical technics of conservation advocacy. So this also puts David Brower in the direct line of mentoring by Bob Marshall and John Apperson and Paul Schaefer’s Adirondack wilderness advocacy. It was also during the western Adirondack dam fights that Zahnie met the philanthropist Edward Mallinkrodt, Jr., who helped bankroll the campaign against Echo Park Dam in the early 1950s.

In 1953 Zahnie gave a speech in Albany, New York to a committee of the New York State legislature. This was my father’s first major public formulation of the wilderness idea. His topic was the remarkable record of the people of the Empire State in preserving in perpetuity a great resource of wilderness on their public lands. The speech was titled “New York’s Forest Preserve and Our American Program for Wilderness.” The 1953 speech also included a sentence that, unfortunately, does not appear in the 1964 Wilderness Act. Zahnie told the legislators that “We must never forget that the essential character of wilderness is its wildness.”

Then, in 1957, Zahnie addressed the New York State Conservation Council’s convention in Albany. He titled this speech “Where Wilderness Preservation Began.” In it Zahnie said: “This recognition of the value of wilderness as wilderness is something with which you have long been familiar here in New York State. It was here that it first began to be applied to the preservation of areas as wilderness.” In August 1996 Dave Gibson and Ken Rimany, Paul Schaefer’s grandson David Greene, and my brother Matt Zahniser and I and our four sons backpacked across the High Peaks to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1946 trip made by Schaefer, Ed Richard, and Zahnie. It remains crucially important to speak clearly and strongly for this unparalleled legacy of wildness—here and nationally—that we love and cherish. And only astute wilderness stewardship can put the forever in a wilderness forever future.

Bob Marshall, who was Jewish, early fought for wilderness as a minority right. Marshall also fought for a fair shake for labor and other social justice issues. On his death at age 38 in 1939, one-third of Bob Marshall’s estate endowed The Wilderness Society, but two-thirds went to advocate labor and other social justice issues. Wilderness and wildness are necessity; they are not peripheral to a society holistically construed.

This bit of biography underscores how Congress declares the intent of the National Wilderness Preservation System Act to be “for the permanent good of the whole people…” —and this by a 1964 House of Representatives vote of 373 to 1. Isn’t that amazing? And by an earlier Senate vote of 78 to 12.

Wilderness and wildness are integral to what Wendell Berry calls the circumference of mystery. Wilderness and wildness are integral to what the poet Denise Levertov calls the Great Web. Wilderness and wildness are integral to what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls our inescapable network of mutuality. Wilderness and wildness are integral to what God describes to Job as the “circle on the face of the deep,” to the bio-sphere, to our circle of life, to our full community of life on Earth that derives its existence from the Sun.

The prophetic call of wilderness is not to escape the world. The prophetic call of wilderness is to encounter the world’s essence. John Hay calls wilderness the “Earth’s immortal genius.” Gary Snyder calls wilderness the planetary intelligence. Wilderness calls us to renewed kinship with all of life. In Aldo Leopold’s words, we will enlarge the boundaries of the community—we will live out a land ethic—only as we feel ourselves a part of the same community.

By securing a national policy of restraint and humility  toward natural conditions and wilderness character, the Wilderness Act offers a sociopolitical step toward a land ethic, toward enlarging the boundaries of the community.

Preserving wilderness and wildness is about recognizing the limitations of our desires and the limitations of our capabilities within nature. But nature really is this all-encompassing community—including humans—that Aldo Leopold characterized simply as “the land.” With preserving designated wilderness we are putting a small percentage of the land outside the scope of our trammeling influence.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964. Our mother Alice Zahniser stood in our father’s place at the White House signing, and President Johnson gave her one of the pens he used. The future of American wilderness lies in continued concerted advocacy by spirited people intent on seeing our visionary legacy of thinking—and feeling—about wilderness and wildness taken up by new generations. Howard Zahniser said that in preserving wilderness, we take some of the precious ecological heritage that has come down to us from the eternity of the past, and we have the boldness to project it into the eternity of the future. If you are looking for good work, you will find no better work than to be a conduit for those two eternities. Go forth, do good, tell the stories, and keep it wild.

Ed Zahniser recently retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the Wilderness Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer: a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

Wilderness More Important than Ever

by Kevin Proescholdt and Howie Wolke

Kevin and Howie

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.


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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.

By Gary Macfarlane

Gary Macfarlane“The temptation for wilderness users themselves to resort to practices that modify through convenience their own wilderness experiences is indeed one of the great threats to the maintenance of wilderness. When this temptation is used by administrators and other friends of wilderness areas to attract more people into the wilderness the result is a compound threat.”  Howard Zahniser, 1949

Howard Zahniser, the author of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the single person most influential in developing the idea of Wilderness, was perhaps prescient. This quote foreshadowed, more than 60 years ago, one of the most insidious threats to Wilderness, technological communication gadgets. Cell phones and GPS units are the most obvious examples with the second generation of tech toys also including satellite and smart phones, notebook computers, eBook readers, digital cameras and video recorders, personal locator beacons, and MP3 players. And if that isn’t enough, new devices formerly undreamed of are being developed right now.

By using these devices, the user diminishes Wilderness and the wilderness experience for himself and other visitors. Real time web-posting of trips to sensitive, “undiscovered” places can lead to overuse and a loss of solitude, which the Wilderness Act seeks to protect. Viewing photos and/or video of a wilderness spot online certainly diminishes one’s sense of discovery and mystery upon seeing the “real thing.” The GPS-supported sport of geo-caching has led some people to leave illegal caches of junk and litter all over some Wildernesses. Evidence suggests that cell phone use is increasing visitor requests for motorized rescues in Wilderness. Gadgets provide a false sense of security and people fail to prepare for the unexpected conditions inherent in wild places, rather than rely on self-sufficiency to keep themselves safe in wild country. And for those of us who value wilderness as a place to unplug, meeting someone shouting, “Can you hear me now?,” certainly lessens our wilderness experience.

The agencies are also using these devices in Wilderness. They radio-collar wildlife, destroying the wildness of wildlife and wilderness.  There ought to be a few places where we don’t poke, prod, and collar wildlife, where they can live out their lives as wild creatures, and where our science is done the way Aldo Leopold used to do it: with a notebook and field observation. If not in Wilderness, then where? Neither should human visitors be tagged and collared with miniature satellite tracking devices on backpacks, even if agencies believe doing so will improve user management in Wilderness.

A few years ago the idea of radio collars for humans would have been considered absurd.  Already, there are chips embedded in drivers licenses and passports. All too soon, visitors may be required to carry tracking beacons, at least in certain areas. Thus we will be, in effect, tracked and collared wherever we wander. This will be sold as a safety device and a way to better provide a “quality” wilderness experience. All it would take would be a location chip embedded into the wilderness permit, something the agencies have begun discussing in the name of “safety.”

As usual, the agencies and most environmental groups are way behind the curve on this major wilderness threat. The outdoor industry’s aggressive marketing and promoting of gadgets certainly doesn’t help. Indeed, some environmentalists may support and see nothing wrong with the use of these wilderness-destroying technologies.

Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahniser both issued warnings against technology in wilderness. Leopold despised the technology of his day—guidebooks and hunting gadgets. How far we have sunk in the decades since his death! The academic community issued a direct warning, in 1998, about the very kinds of devices that have proliferated (see Wilderness @ Internet: Wilderness in the 21st Century—Are There Technical Solutions to our Technical Problems? Wayne Freimund and Bill Borrie, International Journal of Wilderness Volume 3 Number 4. P. 21-23).  The few warning voices in the environmental movement have been literal voices crying in the wilderness. Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness has written passionately about this problem. Wilderness Watch addressed the issue at a conference in the late 90s when the threat was emerging.

You can do something for Wilderness to keep it wild. Don’t take tech toys on your next wilderness visit. Instead, learn outdoor survival and route-finding skills and be prepared for the unexpected. Learn how to read a map or better yet, navigate by sight or teach yourself to follow a rough game trail. You will be amazed by how much you may experience if you are not always consulting that small luminous screen. Perhaps you will catch a glimpse of a wolf, hear a hummingbird fly by, smell the decomposing leaves on a wet forest floor. Your wilderness experience will be real and authentic if you shed the gadgets. Not only you, but wildness itself deserves no less.

Gary is the ecosystem defense director for the Friends of the Clearwater, an advocacy group in central Idaho’s Wild Clearwater Country. For nearly 30 years, Gary has been one of the country’s most dedicated public lands’ activists working throughout the Intermountain West and Northern Rockies. He serves on the WW board of directors.

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