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The Attack on Wilderness From Environmentalists

Photo by Alexander Cahlenstein | CC BY 2.0

My title may seem excessively harsh by some groups who are doing what they believe is the best way to protect public lands from industrial development. However, when you consider that we have only 2.7% of the lower 48 states in designated wilderness, while at the same time there are calls from many ecologists to increase protection to half of the Earth, then any concessions for lesser protection than Big W wilderness is unacceptable.

Increasingly we find many environmental groups, even those who profess to be advocates for wildlands, giving away wilderness protection before they have even begun any legislative or lobbying process.

It comes down to poor negotiating skills and what appears to be a generation that avoids confrontation at all costs. They are guilty of ‘negotiating against yourself”. They make a bunch of giveaways before they have even gotten to the table, often as part of some collaborative, and then agree to even more concessions as the process continues.

If these areas were in serious jeopardy from development and had little political chance of ever being protected as Big W wilderness, then it might make sense to go for some kind “halfway” designation at the negotiating table. However, I never say never. I’ve been very surprised over the years by the serendipitous nature of conservation politics. Things that seemed like lost causes or impossible dreams are realized.

Had you queried even ardent conservationists about the chances of getting more than 8 million acres designated as wilderness in the 1994 California Desert Wilderness Bill prior to its enactment, you would have few people who would have said it was not possible. But it happened. However, if some of these desert areas had been previously designated as “Backcountry” or some other lesser status, I am certain few would now be wilderness.

Alternative designations used in place of Big W wilderness, whether they are called Backcountry Management Areas, Special Management Areas, Conservation Areas, Recreation Area, Wildlife Management Areas, etc., whatever the name, will undermine the Wilderness Act and severely limit future wilderness designation. To suggest these designations are as “good” as wilderness is not accurate. At least in the areas that have already been given these kinds of special designation, I would argue they provide less protection.

Not only do they have less legal protection, but in the public’s mind, they don’t deserve as much protection due to their name. All things equal, it is easier to defend wilderness areas against intrusions than other kinds of designation. The public gets the idea that something designated as wilderness is “special”, but if designated Backcountry, or whatever, it just doesn’t have the same imaginative power as Wilderness.

I see this as tragic because we are losing wildlands across the globe. And I cannot accept that conservation groups would assist in that loss of wildlands by proposing lesser protective status.  Maybe we will have to accept some lesser status designations due to the political process, but we should never be the ones advocating these lesser designations.

Many of these roadless areas are not going to be developed in any way in the next few decades (except for mountain biking trails). The reason they are still roadless is that they aren’t attractive for mining, logging, etc. So, in my view, keeping them with their Roadless Area Conservation Rule (RACR) status is acceptable until one can mount the political effort to designate them as wilderness.

Even for those areas that are not covered by the RACR status, many are not going to be lost as potential wilderness. But once they are designated as something other than wilderness, then I believe it will be much harder to get them designated as wilderness in the future.

For many of these areas, the biggest current threat comes from mountain biking. We find that mountain bikers are creating new trails, co-opting old trails and often are permitted to use existing trails with the permission of the Forest Service. Some conservation groups believe, if they propose other less restrictive classification for lands, they will gain mountain biker support for the areas they seek as wilderness.

In general, most mountain bikers are not avid supporters of wilderness designation, if it reduces or eliminates their use of these lands.

Although the presence of mountain biking does not disqualify an area for future wilderness designation, I am concerned that it creates a constituency for non-wilderness in any area with an extensive mountain biking use. I believe the Forest Service encourages mountain bike use because, in general, the agency is not supportive of wilderness designations.

By assigning lesser designations like “backcountry,” “special management area,” or other classifications to permit mountain bike use, as supported by some conservation organizations such as The Wilderness Society (TWS), Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), and many others, these organizations are effectively reducing the chances of future wilderness classification.

I am concerned that any lessor designation will only entrench mountain biking in many areas that should be designated as Big W wilderness. In other parts of the West, wilderness advocates have worked to limit, with varying degrees of success, mountain biking in the proposed wilderness areas. The main argument used is that allowing mountain biking will compromise the potential for future wilderness designation, which I believe is true. It creates mountain biker advocacy for no wilderness.

I fear that this will become the “default” designation chosen by politicians and agencies for most roadless lands.

Yes, we might get some exceptional lands designated as wilderness, but what I have seen around the West is that many groups cave in and go for the “easier” designation because it is more “expeditious” and reduces controversy.

So, we have in Wyoming, TWS, among other groups, advocating for “Special Management Area” (essentially backcountry designation) for some Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) that have been proposed for wilderness for decades like the Palisades WSA, High Lakes WSA, and Shoal Creek WSA. We are not talking about “marginal lands” These are among the best roadless areas left in Wyoming. The only designation that any conservation group should be advocating is wilderness.

Similarly, in Montana, the Gallatin Range, which is the last, best roadless area in the Montana portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem at about 230,000 acres is being compromised-not by the loggers, miners, ranchers, etc. but the environmental groups!

The MWA, TWS, GYC, are proposing wilderness only for high alpine crest (rocks and ice) and lesser protection for low elevation wildlife habitat as “Wildfire Management Area or Recreation Management Area”.

A similar designation of some of the best “wilderness” in the lower 48 along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana was designated a “Conservation Area’ with the help of some of the same players mentioned above.  And in Oregon the Sierra Club has proposed “Conservation Area” for Maiden Peak Roadless area, the largest roadless area left in the Cascade.

We see a similar trend in the southern Sierra where again The Wilderness Society, along with Sierra Forest Legacy, California Wilderness Coalition, some Sierra Club chapters, and others are supporting “backcountry” status for many roadless areas in the Forest Plan revision for the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests.

The idea of less protective status than wilderness has periodically arisen in the past. Back in the 1970s, there were efforts by some organizations to champion a “backcountry” designation for the eastern U.S. called “Wild Areas” with lesser protections in place of Big W wilderness. At that time, The Wilderness Society led by Stewart “Brandi” Brandborg and the Sierra Club’s Brock Evans fought this proposal aggressively and the idea was dropped. Too bad The Wilderness Society is now one of the organizations promoting such status.

I believe advocating for other than wilderness status is a very poor strategy for any place that could be designated as wilderness—that is not to say this may be an acceptable strategy for areas that could not qualify under the Wilderness Act.

However, if an area is good enough to be designated as wilderness, then I believe conservation groups must advocate for wilderness. You may not achieve that designation, but I am certain we will achieve more wilderness designation than if we advocate for half-way measures like Backcountry. I understand there are probably some places that will never be designated as wilderness. But we will never know how many of the RACR status areas could be wilderness unless we aggressively advocate for this status.

 

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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