The Problem With Wilderness Collaboration

Mt Thielsen. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Recently there has been a spate of commentaries advocating collaboration as a means of resolving issues surrounding which public lands should be given the “Gold Standard” of wilderness protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Advocates of collaboration, including some representatives of Montana’s various conservation organizations, argue that only collaboration can “resolve” the issues in today’s world.  Advocates of the compromise suggest that garnering support for wilderness is more complicated than in the past.

What is incredible to me is that back in the day, nearly all successful wilderness campaigns were organized and run by volunteers. Today many groups have dozens of paid staff, several million-dollar budgets, and yet suggest that it is more difficult to garner support for wilderness than in the past.

They don’t know the history of wilderness efforts.  Compared to today when most communities recognize that wildlands protection is good for wildlife, climate change, and even local economies, back in the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the 1990s, Montana was much more reliant on resource extraction industries. There were far more timber jobs, more mining operations, more high elevation livestock grazing, and so forth. To suggest that it was easier to garner wilderness designation in the past demonstrates a real failure to understand conservation history.

In the past, conservationists did accept compromises, but only at the end of a long process of wilderness advocacy. As David Brower, former ED of the Sierra Club quipped about compromise: “We are to hold fast to what we believe is right, fight for it, and find allies and adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or them to win, then let someone else produce the compromise. We thereupon work hard to coax it our way. We become a nucleus around which the strongest force can build and function.”

Because of Brower’s steadfast efforts, we have protected old-growth redwoods in Redwood National Park, a North Cascades National Park, and several large wilderness areas in the North Cascades, and there are no dams in the Grand Canyon as once proposed.

David Brower’s campaign to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon is worth reviewing. Imagine what an impossible task it may have seemed to any outsider to oppose building dams in the Grand Canyon? You had the entire Congressional Delegations from all nearby states supporting the barriers. You had the support of the Corps of Engineers, cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, irrigators in the surrounding region who wanted more water storage and motor boaters who suggested that the resulting reservoirs would make it easier for visitors to “see” the canyon.

But Brower did not accept the idea that dams were inevitable. He led a brilliant campaign that included ads in the New York Times that asked the question as to whether we should flood the Sistine Chapel so visitors could get closer to Michelangelo’s paintings.

Responding to growing opposition to Grand Canyon dams, proponents of the reservoirs offered as a “compromise” to construct only one barrier in the canyon instead of two if Brower would accept the compromise.

Brower did not accept that compromise. Instead, he led a national effort to safeguard the Grand Canyon’s integrity. Today there are no dams in the Grand Canyon.

Montana’s early wilderness advocates were proteges of Bob Marshall. Upon founding the Wilderness Society, Marshall proclaimed: “We do not want those whose first impulse is to compromise. We want no (fence) straddlers for in the past they have surrendered too much good wilderness and primeval areas which should never have been lost. ”

Unfortunately, Bob Marshall’s organization, The Wilderness Society, is now one of the organizations whose first instinct appears to compromise-and in the process giving up “too much good wilderness.”

Many of today’s paid staff conservationists seldom know from firsthand knowledge the lands they are so glibly trading way. They are, it would appear, more interested in claiming success by putting “acres “designated up on the scoreboard than whether they are protecting biodiversity, wildlands, and engendering a respectful ethic towards Nature.

The contrast between today’s “collaborative” approach and the successes of the past grassroots efforts are evident to anyone who knows conservation history.

The very first citizen-initiated wilderness in the country was the Lincoln Scapegoat Wilderness (LSCW) near Lincoln, Montana. Back in the late 1960s, the Forest Service proposed a major “scenic” highway through the heart of what is now the LSGW with plans for massive logging operations.

Imagine how difficult it was when timber was king in the 1960s and 1970s to oppose a significant logging proposal, not to mention support for that logging from some of the major timber corporations.

Yet a storekeeper in Lincoln named Cecil Garland, along with an outfitter named Hobnail Tom, felt the Lincoln Backcountry deserved a better fate than being cut up by clearcuts. They mounted a grassroots effort to designate 240,000 acres of what was known as the Lincoln Backcountry as wilderness.

They did not negotiate with the timber companies, the ORVers, and other opponents to wilderness designation. They did not ask where do you want to log or drive, and we’ll accept what’s left as wilderness as today’s conservationists are apt to do.

Some politicians and the timber industry offered Garland a “compromise”  protecting only 75,000 acres as wilderness and allowing logging and the scenic highway to go forward.

But Garland, who by then was President of the all-volunteer Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), refused to accept compromise. Instead, he mounted a grassroots effort to garner more support for the 240,000-acre wilderness. Today when we can contemplate the Lincoln Scapegoat Wilderness vastness and we can be thankful for Garland’s unwillingness to accept collaboration and compromise.

Another example is the history of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, a wilderness campaign where I played a small part. Back in the 1970s, Montana conservationists proposed an immense wilderness that would unite the Beartooth Range with the Absaroka Range to create a 900,000 plus-acre wilderness.

Opponents to the 900,000-acre proposal included eight local sawmills, ranchers who grazed sheep and cattle in the high country, the oil industry which hoped to drill for oil on the fringes of the area by Red Lodge, miners who wanted to operate gold operations, and ORVers. Adding to the opposition was every Chamber of Commerce from Billings to Bozeman, who thought protecting the wildlands of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness would harm the local economy.

One of the most significant controversies of the AB Wilderness campaign was what was known as the Slough Creek Corridor, which ran from the Boulder River south of Big Timber over the mountains to Cooke City on the northeast edge of Yellowstone. A primitive “road” split the AB Wilderness in half, and some people traveled the route by dirt bike and snowmobile. Chamber of Commerces also envisioned paving this route to shorten the distance required to get to Cooke City and as an alternative route to Yellowstone Park.

Because of this opposition to the full 900,000 plus acres proposal, some members of the conservation community, including some in the MWA,  wanted to “compromise.” They were ready to accept protection for only the high elevation lake country of the Beartooths and allowing the road proposal to go forward. But other conservation leaders, including Bob Anderson of Livingston, and other wilderness advocates said only the whole 900,000 acres adequately protected the wildlands.

Fortunately for all of us, including the wildlife that roams this 900,000 plus acre wilderness can rejoice that at least some wilderness advocates held steady. They worked hard to raise awareness of the AB Wilderness wildland’s values.

Luckily today’s collaborators working for the MWA, GYC, and TWS weren’t the ones negotiating the AB Wilderness back then, or we would likely have a major road through the heart of the AB area, and far fewer wildlands acres protected. Indeed, I have no doubt that had the collaborative strategy of today’s conservation organizations prevailed back in the 1970s, we would have gotten a much reduced Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.

These groups would have been crowing about “win-win” because some wilderness was protected. However, they would have ignored the reality as Bob Marshall so eloquently suggested, “they have surrendered too much good wilderness and primeval areas which should never have been lost.”

I do not enjoy chastising my fellow conservationists. I am sure they sincerely believe that collaboration results in some limited wilderness protection. And it often does, but the question is whether it is the best we can expect? Given what I know about conservation history and past wildlands campaigns, I am certain that more grassroots organizing and stronger advocacy for wildlands based on maintaining ecological integrity, restraint, and humility towards the natural world resonates with most people.

It’s not that compromise doesn’t’ occur in any political system, and wilderness designation is a political activity. But “when” you compromise is the question. Do you negotiate upfront primarily with people who are not allies of wilderness? Or do you do work hard for wilderness protection and garner more wildlands supporters as David Brower, Bob Marshall, Brock Evans, and other old wilderness advocates advised?

I am convinced, in most instances, and conservation history suggests I am right, in the end, you often wind up with more wildlands protection by holding fast to what you believe. Let the politicians do the compromising-that is what we are paying them to do. We can then decide whether to accept (often reluctantly) the compromised outcome or oppose and hope for a better result in the future.

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