Saving the Big Wild

What do the Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument all have in common? Besides their common designation as national parks and monuments, all these conservation areas were initially opposed by local people.

After the creation of Yellowstone NP in 1872, the Helena Gazette opined “We regard the passage of the act as a great blow to the prosperity of the towns of Bozeman and Virginia City.” Montana’s Congressional representatives were so opposed to the park that they introduced bills into Congress every session for twenty years to undesignate the park. When these attempts to dissolve the park failed, they tried other mechanisms to eliminate the park, including an attempt to split off the northern part of the park so a railroad could be built. To justify removing this area from the park, Montana’s delegate characterized the Lamar Valley as “wholly unattractive country”, hence not worthy of park protection. Others proposed damming the Yellowstone River just below Yellowstone Lake for hydroelectric power. This too was prevented-but only by the intervention of dreaded “outsiders” from the Eastern United States.

When President Teddy Roosevelt established the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908, Arizona’s Congressional delegation successfully prevented any federal funding for the park operations and tried unsuccessfully to legally challenge Roosevelt’s monument designation.

In 1910 when Glacier National Park was created, the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce went on record opposing the park designation, fearing the park would preclude oil and gas and logging operations. Locals submitted a petition to the federal government in 1914 to dismantled the park, arguing: ” that it is more important to furnish homes to a land-hungry people than to lock the land up as a rich man’s playground which no one will use or ever use.”

In 1943 when Franklin Roosevelt designated 210,000 acres in the Tetons as a national monument, folks in Wyoming predicted Jackson would become a “ghost-town.” In fact, the Wyoming delegation introduced legislation to undesignate the park. Jackson now is home to more than 16,000 “ghosts.”

And even the creation of our national forest system was largely opposed by western interests who wanted to see these lands available for unrestricted development and exploitation. In 1907 Senator Fulton of Oregon added an amendment to the Agricultural Appropriation Bill barring President Teddy Roosevelt from creating any additional national forests in six Northwest states. Roosevelt, knowing he could not veto such important legislation, signed the bill into law, but not before he created another 16 million acres of national forest by Presidential fiat. Today most residents of California, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington are grateful that local interests did not prevail and Roosevelt set aside these lands as national forests.

In 1980 when President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Alaska Lands Bill (ANILCA) he was strongly opposed by the entire Alaskan delegation who, like all previous boosters of the West, predicted wreckage and ruin to the local economy if lands were protected from exploitation. So strident was local opposition that residents of Fairbanks burned Carter in effigy to protest park creation. The towns of Eagle and Glennallen each proclaimed opposition to the parks and even offered to shelter anyone from federal authorities who was willing to violate new park regulations.

Undaunted, Carter signed ANILCA into law setting aside more than a hundred million acres of federal land as new parks, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers and wilderness areas. Among other things ANILCA established 10 new national parks, including Gates of the Arctic, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St Elias and expanded three other existing parks (Glacier Bay, Katmai, and Denali). Most Americans-and even many Alaskans-now celebrate these parks and other protected lands as crown jewels of our national park system.

They say history repeats itself when people do not learn from the past, and certainly this appears to be the case once more as seen in the recent flap over NREPA, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. Montana Senator Max Baucus was quoted as saying “Montanans don’t take kindly to people on the East Coast telling us how to manage our lands.” (Uh, Max, these are federal lands owned by all US citizens). Despite Baucus’ implied message that once again “outsiders” from the East Coast were imposing something on poor westerners, he conveniently overlooked the fact that NREPA was created by conservationists in the region and its chief sponsor, the Alliance for Wild Rockies, is a Montana-based group.

Barbara Cubin, Wyoming’s Congressional representative called NREPA a “147-page assault on our Western way of life.” She bemoaned that local input and control would be slipping away. Local control, of course, means resource exploitation of public resources for private gain.

Montana Congressman, Denny Rehberg, opposed NREPA because he considered it a “top-down” measure rather than a locally-generated proposal. Rehberg favors local “cooperative” approaches like the Blackfoot Challenge and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership in Montana as the right way to designate wilderness. Of course, Rehberg is enamored with “partnerships,” “collaborative” and other so-called local approaches that are compromises because they usually wind up advocating for the continuation of logging, ORV use, and mining on most of the public land base, and ultimately protect less land from exploitation than landscape-scale and ecologically-driven proposals like NREPA.

People like Rehberg and other advocates for such collaborative or compromise approaches to wildlands protection never acknowledge that the starting point for compromise was passed decades ago. The vast majority of the United States is already committed to industrial uses, and we are now fighting over the last little scraps of wildlands. Conservation history has shown repeatedly that invariability future generations will not complain that we protected too much land; rather they will wonder why we protected so little.

What is clear from any review of conservation history is that in nearly all cases even local people come to value the designation of conserved lands after the fact. If you were to ask the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce what is most distinctive and valuable about Kalispell’s location, they would tell you its close proximity to Glacier National Park. And when Newt Gingrich and his Republican majority shut down the federal government in 1995, Arizona volunteered to pay the salaries of Park Rangers so that Grand Canyon NP could remain open. And though residents on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula opposed establishment of Olympic NP and continuously sought to open up the park’s forests to logging, most residents of the Olympic Peninsula today realize that the park’s trees have far more value standing upright in the forest than if they had been cut for two-by-fours

The take-home message I get from a broad reading of conservation history is that local opposition to anything worthwhile is to be expected. Trying to accommodate entrenched local interests invariably weakens protective measures and typically reduces the effectiveness of conservation efforts. Imagine what we would have had if civil rights activists had tried to work with southern racists to hammer out a “collaborative” agreement on civil rights. If they were lucky, they might have gotten modest accommodations as such as allowing African Americans to sit anywhere on buses, but it is doubtful that we would have the sweeping changes that enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act created, such as ending discrimination in employment as well as segregation in schools and other public places. As citizens and conservationists we ought to learn from these history lessons and look beyond parochial regional interests to advocate what is in the best long term interest of the nation and that best preserves our collective natural heritage.

We might not get all what we advocate for, but in conservation, as in civil rights, we ought to strive for what is ultimately best for the land and nation, not what is politically acceptable now.

In 1935, Bob Marshall, on founding the Wilderness Society wrote: “We want no stragglers. For in the past far too much good wilderness has been lost by those whose first instinct is to compromise.” This is advice that many in the West’s conservation movement would be wise to remember when they attempt to work with “local interests” to protect wildlands.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, writer and photographer. His latest book is Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation. He is the author of 32 books including Wildfire.


George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy