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Alternatives to Wilderness?

Photo Source Blake Lemmons | CC BY 2.0

In recent years it has become fashionable for conservationists to substitute and promote other land classification in place of wilderness designation. Wilderness is “passé” so we are told, even though it is the “gold standard” for land protection.

In a recent white paper, The Wilderness Society outlined some of these alternatives such as National Recreation Area, Conservation Management Area, Special Management Area (Newberry Crater), National Scenic Area, Wildlife Management Area, and other titles.

While such designations may confer greater flexibility than wilderness designation, and often more protection than no special label, since there is no “organic act” for such classifications, there is no consistent policy protection for such designations. The degree of protection provided can vary and depends entirely on the original language that created such areas. By contrast, with Wilderness designation, we know what we are getting.

Many of these designations allow uses and activities that are non-conforming in designated wilderness. For instance, the Lolo National Forest has proposed logging the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area near Missoula, Montana. Logging also occurs in other NRAs including the Sawtooth NRA in Idaho, Hells Canyon NRA in Oregon, among others. Such logging would not be permitted in designated wilderness.

However, TWS was careful to note “These designations are often referred to as ‘alternatives to wilderness.’  This description is not accurate because other designations are often applied to landscapes that are worthy of protection but are not appropriate for wilderness designation. “

In other words, TWS recognizes that these alternative designations should not be advocated as an alternative to wilderness designation.

Unfortunately, we find that many conservation groups automatically go to alternatives classification for land that is suitable for wilderness. Typically, the alternatives are offered before any legislation is finalized, and typically to reduce the animosity or opposition from a “user” groups like ranchers, mountain bikers or snowmobilers.

An example, the advocacy of “Wilderness Management Area” designation for portions of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalohorn WSA in the Gallatin Range of Montana is the use of lesser protection instead of promoting wilderness classification. The HPB area is the most important wildlife habitat in the entire Gallatin Range, and advocating for an alternative designation fails to fully protect the superb wildlands/wildlands value of these lands.

This contrasts with the strategy that was common in the past with successful wilderness campaigns. For instance, when the North Cascades were under consideration for national park and wilderness status, a compromise was reached to create a national recreation area for Ross Lake adjacent to the park, even though the lands qualified as wilderness.

But park/wilderness advocates did not start with the proposal to have a national recreation area, rather the NRA status was a compromise they accepted when their attempt to include those lands in the Pasayten Wilderness area did not fly.

Similarly, when the 1994 California Desert Wilderness bill was passed, one of the compromised that was accepted (not promoted by conservationist) was the establishment of a Mojave National Preserve. Conservationists had been promoting a national park, but opposition from hunters, ranchers, and conservative politicians precluded the park designation and preserve (which allows hunting among other things) was accepted in the end. And despite this political setback, a considerable proportion of Mojave National Preserve is designated wilderness.

Today, however, conservationists are often ready to abandon advocacy for wilderness for other classifications, often the result of “collaboration” which tends to result in less wilderness and thus less protection.

For example, the 2014 Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act designated the majority of the roadless lands along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana as a 208,000 acre “Conservation Management Area”.

The Conservation Management Area designation was settled on by a collaborative group that included wilderness advocacy groups like The Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association and other groups. Settling for something less than wilderness short-charged an area that during the Forest Service’s RAREll evaluation rated the wilderness qualities of the Front the highest of any area in the United States outside of Alaska. In other words, if any place in the lower 48 states should be designated wilderness, it is the lands along the Rocky Mountain Front.

How does Conservation Management Area differ from wilderness? For instance, the Conservation Management Area language allows for “constructing a temporary road on which motorized vehicles are permitted as part of a vegetation management project in any portion of the Conservation Management Area located not more than 1⁄4 mile from the Teton Road, South Teton Road, Sun River Road, Beaver Willow Road, or Benchmark Road”. “Vegetation management” is a euphemism for logging.

It also allows use of motorized vehicles “for administrative purposes (including noxious weed eradication or grazing management.” Again, this is not typically permitted in a designated wilderness.

The legislature also allows mountain biking and even requires creating more mountain biking trails. “Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Agriculture, in consultation with interested parties, shall conduct a study to improve nonmotorized recreation trail opportunities (including mountain bicycling) on land not designated as wilderness within the district.”

Since the area designated as Conservation Management Area consists of the less steep and in general better wildlife habitat, this requirement will create more human disturbance in the most important wildlife habitat of the Rocky Mountain Front.

Anyone who argues that the Conservation Management Area is the equivalent of wilderness designation is misleading the public.

While the Heritage Act did designate 67,000 acres of new wilderness adjacent to the Bob Marshall and Lincoln Scapegoat Wildernesses, however, the same bill released the Zook Creek and Buffalo Creek wilderness study areas in Montana from further study for wilderness designation to allow potential energy development.

The organizations that supported Conservation Management Area would suggest that without a compromise on the designation, no legislation would have been introduced. Maybe, maybe not. There are many instances in conservation history where strong advocacy for maximum protection of lands were successful even as some naysayers predicted failure

Another example of capitulation by wilderness advocates is the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club which has given up on protecting the Maiden Peak Roadless area as wilderness. The Maiden Peak is the largest unprotected roadless area in the Cascades. But the Sierra Club has decided that opposition from “stakeholders” primarily mountain bikers has caused them to advocate for a “conservation area” instead of wilderness, though the Maiden Peak area clearly qualifies as wilderness.

The Sierra Club goes on to suggest that mountain bikers are “strong environmentalists” and “active stewards of the trails they use.”

Here the Sierra Club clearly conflates recreation use with conservation.  A  “strong environmentalist” would be advocating for the strongest protection for the land—which in this case is wilderness designation, not whether they can personally “use” the land.

It is worth noting that in previous wilderness debates, conservationists did not immediately fold and concede to non-wilderness designations or options.

For instance, during the debate over the creation of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in the 1970s, one of the major issues was whether to leave what was known as the “Slough Creek Corridor” out of the wilderness proposal.

At that time, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and even jeeps were traveling up the Boulder River and over through upper Slough Creek and eventually to Cooke City, Montana. The “corridor” split the proposed AB Wilderness into two segments with an eastern “Beartooth Unit” and a western “Absaroka” unit.

This motorized group was opposed to closing this corridor to motorized travel.  And bowing to this pressure, some wildlands advocates were willing to reduce the wilderness proposal, leaving out the Absaroka portion west of the Slough Creek Corridor. Fortunately, advocates for a single large wilderness nearly million acre wilderness won out, and today the AB Wilderness is one of the largest protected areas in the United States. (To read more about this issue see here.)

The point is not that a compromise occurs—all politics is about compromise. Rather it is when that compromise occurs.  As David Brower often reminded more timid conservationists, “Our role is to stake out the high ground and let the politicians cut the deals.”

Ironically it was Bob Marshall who stated that one of the reasons he founded the Wilderness Society in 1935 was because too many people were willing to compromise wilderness away. He wrote “We want no straddlers, for in the past they have surrendered too much good wilderness and primeval which should never have been lost… Above all, we do not want in our ranks people whose first instinct is to look for compromise.”

As conservationists, we have a moral obligation to fight for wilderness designation for all lands that can possibly qualify for designation under the 1964 Wilderness Act. There will be compromises, but we should not be the ones promoting them.

More articles by:

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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