Wild, Natural Wilderness Requires Restraint

Red Rock Lakes Wilderness Area. Photo: Erin Clark, USFWS.

Trout Unlimited (TU) recently published a piece in Montana disparaging Wilderness advocates’ opposition to an arctic grayling project that TU is pursuing in the Red Rock Lakes Wilderness. The project calls for using heavy machinery to bury a 14-inch pipeline through the Wilderness to artificially increase winter oxygen levels in Upper Red Rock Lake. As the executive director of Wilderness Watch, one of the organizations bringing the lawsuit against the project, I’d like to correct the record and explain why people should be skeptical of TU’s approach.

TU writers quoted our website for the notion that Wilderness is reflected by “native wildlife at naturally occurring population levels.” That’s true, but they omitted the rest of the statement in which we also discuss why Wilderness is dependent upon a “lack of human structures, roads, motor vehicles or mechanized equipment” and how Wilderness must be “untrammeled, wild and self-willed, where natural processes occur without intentional human interference.” The bottom line is that a species’ naturally occurring population levels—by definition—cannot be those that rely upon human structures and human machinery to exist. Re-engineering the landscape takes away what’s natural and replaces it with human infrastructure and value bias, a scenario that inevitably harms wildlife and their habitat in the long run.

This has been a fundamental tenet of the Wilderness Act from the beginning. As Howard Zahniser, the wilderness bill’s author and chief advocate explained during testimony on the wilderness bill, efforts to conserve wildlife should be encouraged, but “[i]n no such [wilderness] areas…should management for any purpose be permitted to include modification of the wilderness character of the area. Management for wildlife…should not include the installation of water-control or other structures modifying the wilderness, even though these might be deemed to be measures to increase the area’s wildlife.”

It’s extremely rare to protect wild, unmanipulated wetland areas where nature persists without our modern technology and without manhandling to meet immediate desires. That’s what Congress had in mind when it set aside the Red Rock Lakes Wilderness a half-century ago to be preserved in its wild, untrammeled condition forever. And that’s why we’ve taken the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court over its decision—prompted by TU and Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks—to reconfigure Upper Red Rock Lake into an arctic grayling aquarium, where oxygen levels—and seemingly the number of grayling in the lake—are controlled by turning a valve on a pipeline.

The whole point of wilderness preservation is to have areas that humans leave alone, where we exercise restraint and let nature call the shots. Allowing federal managers—of their own volition, or in this case prodded by a state agency and special interest groups—to manage for their desired conditions rather than what nature provides undermines the whole idea of Wilderness and our relationship to it.

As for the arctic grayling, the writers from Trout Unlimited lament the “very real possibility of extinction.” As a factual matter, arctic grayling are nowhere near going extinct; they’re abundant in their native habitats further north and artificially stocked in lakes and waterways all around western Montana and in other states. The challenge that southwestern Montana’s arctic grayling face, in the southern extreme of their native range, is habitat degraded by human activities—herds of cattle, roads, water diversions, other man-made infrastructure, and too much stomping around in the creeks and streams. Yet, instead of addressing these issues, TU points the finger at winter, arguing that seasonal oxygen levels in the lake should be reengineered to make winter easier. That concept just doesn’t pass the smell test; it’s no secret that grayling decline in the Centennial Valley is the result of people’s impact on the landscape, not winter.

Wilderness benefits wildlife by providing habitat security and allowing nature to evolve on its own terms as it has since time immemorial. Grayling won’t be saved at Red Rock Lakes by trying to change winter. Their only chance is if we’re willing to change ourselves, to stop doing the things that harm the fish and give wild nature a chance.

The plan pushed by TU and the Fish and Wildlife Service is rooted in a different approach, one of protecting ourselves from having to deal with our impacts on nature by re-engineering wild habitats once they start reflecting the harm we’ve inflicted. This approach is unlawful in places we’ve set aside as Wilderness, and that’s why we sued.

To learn more about this issue, check out this resource page we put together.