Wilderness Needs Our Humility and Restraint, Not Our Poison

Ted Williams’ recent op-ed attacking wilderness advocates like Wilderness Watch for opposing fish poisoning projects in designated Wilderness and incorrectly asserting that we oppose saving mountain yellow-legged frogs contained a number of factual errors, and demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of Wilderness and the 1964 Wilderness Act. Readers deserve some corrections.

My friend Ted, who I’ve known since 1996 and admired long before that, is a dedicated conservationist who has done much good through the years. But his zeal to promote fishing and the poison rotenone has seemingly blinded him to the negative implications of fish poisoning projects in designated Wilderness.

First, some of Ted’s factual errors:

+ “But the Wilderness Act explicitly provides for the use of poisons to eradicate alien species.” False. There is no such provision in the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act does allow some specific exceptions, such as controlling fire, but not the provision that Ted claims.

+ Wilderness Watch opposes the use of “even gillnets….” False. While we oppose the use of the poison rotenone in Wilderness, my organization is the leading advocate for using gillnets and other nonmotorized, non-poisonous methods to remove fish from naturally fishless wilderness lakes and streams.

+ “Leading the charge against frog recovery…was Wilderness Watch.” False. Wilderness Watch has championed frog recovery, and opposed planting fish in naturally-fishless wilderness lakes because those fish consume native frogs, amphibians, and other native biota.

+ “Wilderness Watch had litigated against, and dangerously delayed, rotenone treatment to save native Paiute cutthroat trout.” False. Paiute cutthroat trout occupied pretty much all of its very limited native habitat; the project Wilderness Watch and several allies challenged was aimed at establishing a trout population upstream of its native range and in naturally fishless waters in order to create a new angling opportunity.

Wilderness advocates would like to see imperiled fish saved. But this important work, when proposed in designated Wilderness, must not degrade Wilderness by further damaging natural aquatic ecosystems.

The central focus of the 1964 Wilderness Act is “preserving the wilderness character” of the areas Congress designates. It’s hard to imagine wilderness character being preserved by dumping poisons into wilderness waterways that kill all organisms that use gills—fish, amphibians, and even macroinvertebrates, and then stocking these same waterways with an alien fish predator.

Wilderness is not merely an empty storeroom waiting for humans to fill it with fish because managers place a higher value on fish than native ecosystems. Wilderness is a vibrant ecosystem in its own right that functions without our interference, providing secure habitat for wildlife, fish, and even macroinvertebrates. Wilderness designation allows ecosystems to function naturally without our human interference. Some threatened and endangered species live in Wilderness because these areas often provide their last best habitat, but we shouldn’t jam fish that never before lived there into a Wilderness or into lakes and streams that were historically fishless.

The main descriptor in the Wilderness Act is the word “untrammeled,” and this word actually does appear in the law. It was chosen very carefully by Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser. Untrammeled doesn’t mean untrampled or untouched, as some assume, but it means unmanipulated, unconfined, or unhindered. After designation, Wilderness must be allowed to evolve on its own terms without our manipulations, even if humans had damaged the landscape in the past or manipulated its ecosystem previously.

The Wilderness Act thus requires us to stop imposing our human desires or whims on wilderness landscapes, and to allow Wilderness to function without our manipulations and interferences. At a time when humans are putting our planet in peril, Wilderness needs and deserves our humility and restraint, not our poisons.

Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis serves as the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization. He has worked to protect the BWCAW for nearly 50 years, guided wilderness canoe trips in the area for 10 years, helped pass the 1978 BWCAW Act through Congress and co-authored the definitive history of that effort: Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.