User Group Pie: The Folly of Collaboration

Image by Lucas Parker.

With encouragement from both corporate foundations and the U.S. Forest Service, many “conservation groups” have adopted the collaboration model for conflict resolution. In each of these collaborations, local wilderness proponents and opponents negotiate the fate of our remaining unprotected wildlands. The general public is excluded in favor of “local stakeholders”, even though public lands “belong” equally to all Americans. I’ve written about this disastrous paradigm elsewhere, as have other wilderness advocates. This approach treats wildlands as little more than a user group pie to be divvied up for the various self interest groups rather than viewing a wildland as a fragile and endangered ecological entity that needs protection. Wildlife does not get a seat at the table.

Note that these collaborations do not represent groups with a common interest cooperating in an effort to achieve a common goal. Such traditional collaborations used to represent strength in the conservation movement. For example, back in the early 1980’s when I still lived in Wyoming, the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, the Wyoming Wilderness Association, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Earth First! plus numerous individuals cooperated in an effort that ultimately led to the passage of the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. It wasn’t a great bill, but considering our republican congressional delegation, we did pretty well getting a million acres of Wilderness designated. The groups had their strategic differences, but the goal that everyone shared was to maximize wilderness designations. Contrast that with today’s “collaboratives” in which conservation groups deal away public wildlands to self-interest groups that are in complete opposition to basic conservation goals. Like timber companies and off-road vehicle groups, including organized anti-wilderness mountain bikers. The difference between the two “collaboration” models is night and day. Nowadays when I hear the term I cringe. Because I know that wilderness is going to get the shaft.

Here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Gallatin Range is the only major mountain range within and adjacent to Yellowstone National Park with no designated Wilderness. A big chunk of the range is a congressionally designated Wilderness Study Area, but over the years the Forest Service chose to illegally allow off road vehicles including mountain bikes, to proliferate, despite a legal mandate to preserve the area’s wilderness character. In other words, the agency allowed local anti-wilderness constituencies to proliferate; once the door was opened to them, the off road vehicle people felt that they had an established right. And the Forest Service didn’t want to make the hard decision to kick them out and re-establish wilderness character as required by law. Instead, the agency initiated a collaboration process designed to force local citizens to resolve the conflict, or put another way, to do the agency’s job. This pitted citizen versus citizen, exacerbating community polarity.

The “Gallatin Forest Partnership” (GFP) collaboration was initiated by the Forest Service, and enthusiastically embraced by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wild Montana (formerly the Montana Wilderness Association) and The Wilderness Society, groups that have long been happy to deal away roadless areas to satisfy self-interest groups including mountain bikers, dirt bikers, all-terrain vehicle riders (ATV’ers) and snowmobilers. In other collaborations, loggers and oil companies join the feast. That’s how these collaborations are usually organized, by user group, rather than by environmental considerations such as water quality or wildlife habitat. In other words, roadless area ecosystems are treated as little more than a user group pie, with wilderness being what’s left over after all of the self-interests get their chunk. Some of the results are worse than others. But more often than not, these collaborations usually end up proposing “Wilderness” areas that are greatly reduced or oddly-shaped with much edge and minimal secure interior habitat. What’s particularly insidious about these collaboratives is that often, effective grass-roots groups that work for maximum wilderness protections are intentionally excluded from the process. They are simply not allowed to participate. That’s exactly what happened with the GFP.

It is important to realize that the 1964 Wilderness Act excludes “mechanized” transportation from designated wilderness. It could have used the term “motorized”, but fortunately, the Act’s primary author, Howard Zahniser, anticipated the invention of new devices for off-road travel, even though the mountain bike wasn’t invented until the early 1980’s. In my early days as a wilderness activist in Wyoming during the late 1970’s, the primary opposition to protecting roadless areas with new Wilderness designations came from timber, mining, livestock and oil interests. Today, the playing field has changed. Those extractive industries remain problematic, but throughout much of the public domain the primary opposition to new Wilderness designations comes from off road vehicle interests including the well-organized mountain biking lobby, folks who view public wildlands as little more than an outdoor gymnasium for their adrenaline-fueled sport. After all, these user groups want a piece of the pie. In addition, some mountain bike organizations even lobby to open the existing National Wilderness Preservation System to biking, including e-bikes!

Throughout the West, mountain bike groups work to either negate new Wilderness designations or to reduce them to exclude their favorite “rides”, often with the blessing of some so-called “conservation” groups. For example, the GFP proposed only about 100,000 acres of designated wilderness in the Gallatin Range, out of a 250,000 acre roadless area that lies adjacent to contiguous wilds in Yellowstone National Park. Most of the missing 150,000 acres were excluded to mollify mountain bikers and snowmobilers. Instead of wilderness, the GFP proposed alternative designations of “backcountry” and “wildlife management area” for portions of the roadless area. Under these alternatives, big chunks of the Gallatin Range Roadless Area will remain open to damaging uses including snowmobiling, dirt-biking and even logging and road-building — under the guise of “forest health” or “fuel reduction”, euphemisms designed to greenwash destructive industrial logging. Clearly, these alternative designations more resemble traditional multiple (ab)use than a protected natural landscape.

On many unprotected roadless lands under BLM management, livestock grazing has decimated native ecosystems. To support even more cattle and sheep, destructive “chainings” annually destroy thousands of acres of pinyon-juniper woodlands in order to increase livestock forage. At least some of these lands would be protected as Wilderness — in which such destructive actions would be prohibited — were it not for lobbying by mountain bikers and other off-road vehicle abusers.

By the late 1970’s, “ecology” was catching on, and some of us were beginning to relate wilderness with biodiversity, the Earth’s naturally occurring assemblages of species, subspecies and genetic variation. The old paradigm of “monumentalism” – in which conservation focused mostly on protecting ruggedly scenic landscapes – was on the wane. Sure, the alpine peaks were great, but what about the migration corridors, the low elevation winter ranges, wetlands and the river valleys that are so important for so many species, especially in the arid West? Gradually, the conservation movement began to outgrow its infatuation with monumentalism, increasing its emphasis on protecting habitats and biodiversity. In 1980 Congress enacted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, our first true large-scale ecosystem-based preservation law since the 1964 Wilderness Act. And roughly during this period came the idea that wildlands – and their dependent life forms – have inherent value, a right to exist simply because they do exist.

There are many reasons to fully protect our remaining undeveloped public wildlands, primarily as designated Wilderness under the Wilderness Act. Only designated Wilderness is statutorily protected against degradation (the Wilderness Act requires agencies to “preserve wilderness character”) and only designated Wilderness must, by law, remain wild (“untrammeled”) where natural processes, rather than human interventions, prevail. Of course, wilderness promotes diverse economies, protects watersheds, maintains clean air and provides opportunities for primitive recreation, solitude and sanity in an increasingly insane world. These are all valuable services for humans. But for me, I choose to focus on the biocentric values of habitat, biodiversity and the inherent rights of wild places and organisms to remain wild, that is, to thrive and evolve as they will, without heavy-handed human manipulation. We now know so much more about the importance of wilderness and related wild landscapes in providing habitat for endangered species, wilderness-dependent species, and even for protecting the genetic diversity of local populations that populate a wildland. And no, I cannot prove that wilderness lands or wildlife have inherent or intrinsic value. But nor can I prove that Grandma has a right to exist. Lack of proof is not lack of truth.

The collaboration dynamic represents backsliding into re-emphasizing recreation over ecosystem health, since one function of the collaborations is to placate mechanized user groups. And the Forest Service and the BLM are notorious for approving nearly any mechanized use, nearly anywhere outside of designated Wilderness. So the agencies often rubber stamp the collaboratives’ watered down Wilderness proposals. It gets them off the hook and provides a low end starting point for Congress to consider for a Wilderness bill. For example, in its new Forest Plan for the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, the minimal Forest Service Wilderness proposal for the Gallatin Range is similar to that of the GFP. Both the GFP and the Forest Service proposal for the Gallatin Range excluded most of the high ecological value lower elevation wildlands, resulting in a “rock and ice” wilderness proposal. This is a typical result of many collaborations and it represents backsliding into monumentalism rather than ecosystem conservation.

Roadless wildlands in the U.S. are rapidly disappearing. About 83% of the land area of the contiguous 48 states is already within one kilometer (a little over a half mile) from a road. Only about 12% of the land area of the contiguous 48 states remains roadless and undeveloped in tracts of 5,000 acres or more, the general minimum acreage requirement for a designated Wilderness (five thousand acres is only about 8 square miles, a tract that most folks could cross on foot in an hour). And only about 2.6% of the lower 48 is designated Wilderness.

Another way to look at this is that if all qualifying federal public lands were to be designated as Wilderness, nearly 90% of the landscape would still be non-wilderness. Most of those lands are open to mountain bikes, e-bikes, four-wheelers, snow-machines, drones and just about every kind of motorized and mechanized vehicle imaginable. In fact, just on national forest and BLM lands is an existing (mostly dirt) road network of well over a half million miles! So there are ample places for humans to play with their mechanized toys, without intruding into roadless backcountry (potential wilderness) on public lands.

The destructive impacts of off road motor vehicles are well-documented. They compact the soil, spread weeds, stress wildlife and create air and noise pollution. And they drive off other users creating single use zones. But mountain biking off road, though quiet, is also problematic. Let’s face it: all backcountry users impact trails and displace wildlife to one extent or another. Even hikers. But because a mountain biker can travel at least five times the speed of a hiker or horseback rider, depending upon the terrain, the biker will displace wildlife at five times the rate, and will impact five times as much trail. Also, because of their speed, the core of large roadless areas are rendered less remote, more accessible, more crowded and therefore less wild, less special and of less value as secure habitat for sensitive wilderness-dependent species. Hike any trail with heavy mountain bike use and I guarantee that the area will feel less wild than designated wilderness or other non-mechanized wildlands.

And also, riders of all types of off-road travel machines tend to scar the landscape with lots of new user-created trails, because many of these people don’t obey laws that prohibit off trail riding. This includes mountain bikers.

Modern Day collaborations legitimize the view that mechanized off-road transportation is an acceptable use of public lands, even in roadless areas. They create the illusion that everyone can get a piece of the pie in a “win-win” scenario, but when the dust settles, wilderness gets the leftover scraps. Wild nature loses. The inherent value of wildness and wildlife is ignored. Those off-road vehicle users who selfishly promote their own personal interests over what’s best for the wildlands and wildlife are to blame, sure, but so are the federal agencies and the so-called conservation groups that almost invariably sell out big chunks of wild country in these collaborations. They are violating the public trust. Rather than collaborating with die hard wilderness opponents to dice up wildlands, the conservation movement should organize, educate and lobby for big wild wilderness. And demand that the Forest Service and the BLM do their job and protect the land. The political system will nearly always compromise away valuable wildlands; that is not the job of conservation groups. We need to show the world that the National Wilderness Preservation System of the United States of America is one of the best ideas that humanity has ever had. There are now eight billion humans on the planet, busily converting what’s left of wild nature into even more human biomass and the infrastructure to support it. Wild nature is on the ropes. It is time to just let it be. Let it be primitive, let it be free of humanity’s trappings; let it be wild, just because it is.

Howie Wolke is a retired wilderness guide/outfitter and a past President of Wilderness Watch, a national conservation group based in Missoula, Montana. He lives in the foothills of the Gallatin Range in southern Montana. The views expressed in this essay are his own.