Back to Stories

Who Is Willing To Defend American Wilderness?

As unprecedented attacks on wilderness and environmental laws rage, many wonder why some conservation groups are missing in action

The Palisades Wilderness Study Area in Wyoming
The Palisades Wilderness Study Area in Wyoming
"When they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do no know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not Guilty.’” —Theodore Roosevelt

The tally of bad bills emanating from Capitol Hill seems to be growing every day. Not surprisingly, Congress has launched yet another multi-pronged, broadside attack on our environment and this latest one has dire consequences for what remains of the wild West.

The question is, now that we citizens are fully informed of this fact, what are we willing to do about it

In the cross-hairs this time is something foundational to our relationship with the public lands of Greater Yellowstone and the larger Rockies—the 1964 Wilderness Act.  It’s among an unprecedented assault, via front room and backroom deals being struck, aimed at rolling back more than a century’s worth of our heritage.

Wallace Stegner referred to the creation of the National Park System as America’s best and most original idea, worthy of emulation around the world.

If attacking America’s second best idea–our system of Wilderness areas—isn't offensive enough, this assault also aims to take the public out of the public land management decision-making process. If successful, this one-two punch will devastate a landmark conservation law like no other effort in recent history.

The centerpiece of this radical attempt is contained within a bill fallaciously labeled the SHARE Act. Its full title is the: “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act” (HR 3668).

Introduced into the House last fall by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, Republican from South Carolina, it purports “to provide for the preservation of sportsmen’s heritage and enhance recreation opportunities on Federal land, and for other purposes."

Who could argue with that, except that it’s loaded with poison bills so distasteful that a few sportsmen's groups have sounded the alarm telling their members not to be duped.

The SHARE Act, if it passes, will reverse decades of federal authority by setting up a flawed system whereby the most critical Wilderness management decisions, now made by agencies with involvement from the public, are instead turned over to state wildlife agencies.

Make no mistake: the SHARE Act is an environmental disaster in the making. It guts a premier component of the Wilderness Act that has been crucial to our country’s cultural heritage and the very best of our few wild landscapes that remain.

Specifically targeted are the “Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, and lands administratively classified as wilderness eligible or suitable and primitive or semi-primitive areas” administered by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via our National Wildlife Refuge System. (Omitted are National Park Service designated Wilderness areas.)

Sadly, this attack on our Wilderness lands is being promoted as an alleged benefit to America’s sportsmen and women. It is not. Not if you are a hunter or angler who really cares about habitat. I apologize for maligning Canis lupus by metaphor, but the SHARE Act is nothing more than a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
Sadly, this attack on our Wilderness lands is being promoted as an alleged benefit to America’s sportsmen and women. It is not. Not if you are a hunter or angler who really cares about habitat. I apologize for maligning Canis lupus by metaphor, but the SHARE Act is nothing more than a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
Will citizens and conservation groups in our region be docile or will they stand up and make their voices heard? In this case, silence is not golden.

Tucked away in the SHARE Act’s original 29 pages is Title IV, the “Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage Opportunities Act” which mandates that wilderness managers support and facilitate state wildlife agencies with access to, and use of federal public lands for purposes of protecting and enhancing public fishing, hunting and general recreation.

Again, who could argue with that, except that, once again, the title belies the truth. Under this provision, if a state wildlife agency wants to, say, claim it is enhancing fishing opportunities within designated Wilderness areas or wilderness-qualified lands, they can dam streams, construct ponds, and plant fish favored by anglers- whether a native species or not.

In order to “increase forage production” for their most popular and lucrative big game animals to generate more revenue, state agencies can direct landscape-scale habitat manipulation projects.

They can construct cabins to comfortably accommodate hunters and anglers. They can also attempt to increase big game populations through extensive predator control programs aimed at removing wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and even, ostensibly, grizzly bears. It will be the states’ prerogative and given how our states have managed predators, you can predict the outcome.

To accommodate these objectives, access roads can be carved into our wild lands and used indefinitely for “program maintenance”. States could do most anything as long as they claimed it preserved or enhanced hunting, fishing and other recreation opportunities.

And, it would be the states acting alone, lead by only a handful of politically appointed wildlife commissioners, that will decide what constitutes enhancement and protection. If a commission, for example, is dominated by representatives from ranching and big game hunting interests, you again know what will happen.

Most noteworthy, the SHARE Act subverts democratic management of public lands that has been a hallmark. It conveniently cuts the public out of these decisions by waiving requirements for transparency as mandated by another law, the National Environmental Policy Act.

It would force federal agencies to arbitrarily declare that none of the actions proposed by the state wildlife agencies constitute a major action and are therefore exempt from further analysis or public scrutiny and comment. Citizen voices would be stilled and there’s nothing we could do about it.
Montana's Lee Metcalf Wilderness was named after a visionary and courageous U.S. Senator from Montana who believed wilderness should be places set apart from the daily hubbub. Current efforts in Congress would gut essential protection professions that are hallmarks of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Montana's Lee Metcalf Wilderness was named after a visionary and courageous U.S. Senator from Montana who believed wilderness should be places set apart from the daily hubbub. Current efforts in Congress would gut essential protection professions that are hallmarks of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
The SHARE Act also declares that such actions fit within the minimum requirements necessary to carry out the purpose of the Wilderness Act. As a result, existing pristine Wilderness areas could become severely degraded and effectively turned into nothing more than multiple use landscapes brought on by state driven, consumptive agendas.

Further, roadless lands now classified as wilderness study areas could be developed to the extent that they would likely never be eligible for future Wilderness designation, at least not as defined by the 1964 Act.

In previous Congresses, such attempts were easily dismissed as radical positions that never went anywhere; positions advanced by fringe elements, many of them originating with western lawmakers having roots going back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the Ronald Reagan-James Watt years.

But now with the Trump Administration as an ally, and Democrats having no influence and moderate Republicans complicit, legislation never imagined is set to undo landscape protection that took GOP and Democrat conservationists generations to achieve.
In previous Congresses, such attempts were easily dismissed as radical positions that never went anywhere. But now legislation never imagined is set to undo landscape protection that took GOP and Democrat conservationists generations to achieve.
A major mystery is why more traditional environmental/conservation groups, including ones with offices in Greater Yellowstone, have not stepped up to express vocal opposition to gutting of the Wilderness Act. Am I missing something, or are they?

In the old days you knew where groups stood just by seeing their names, today that is far from the case. All too often, it appears that positions on the tough issues are determined more by popularity and expediency then by values and missions. How do we expect to inspire the next generation to care about the land if today’s conservation leaders cower from tough decisions?

The SHARE Act would allow mountain bikes to roam throughout the existing Wilderness system, much like a controversial packrafting bill proposed for Yellowstone and Grand Teton would have opened protected waterways, against the will of the Yellowstone superintendent, to paddlers. That was a poignant example of user groups, who thought only of themselves and not of wildlife and wildness, masquerading as conservationists.

Now the threat comes on wheels. Imagine bikers similarly racing through the Teton, Absaroka-Beartooth or Bob Marshall wildernesses, or any of the 110 million acres of our nation’s other designated Wilderness areas and the hundreds of millions of acres of our remaining wilderness-qualified wildlands.

What effect would that have on secure habitat for grizzlies and calving grounds for elk? How would turning wilderness into a gymnasium for cyclists affect the slow-paced quietude of the backcountry? Ranchers express concern when their cattle are disturbed by hikers, even on public lands. Why shouldn’t we have the same concern when elk, deer, moose or grizzlies are disturbed by fast-peddling mountain bikers?

Do the self-interested mountain bikers pushing this radical agenda care? Do they understand ecology? If the answer to these questions is no, then they have no business calling themselves wildland conservationists.

Provisions of the SHARE Act will effectively grant state wildlife agencies, with their commercially- and politically-driven agendas defacto primacy over some of our nation’s most treasured and protected public lands and their dependent wildlife.
I have long felt that most public land states privately recognize that they can’t afford to take on the economic and political burden of assuming ownership of our vast public lands.

However, they are very anxious–in fact, they are working every angle to assume greater management authority over those same lands. Their hope is to gain the best of both worlds; manage the resource for their own parochial self-interests and leave the federal government—i.e. we the owners and tax-payers— left to pick up the tab for developing and maintaining the infrastructure and enforcing the remaining regulations. With limited funding they will also have to deal with the consequences of the environmental degradation that is certain to occur.
In the old days you knew where conservation groups stood just by seeing their names, today that is far from the case. All too often, it appears that positions on the tough issues are determined more by popularity and expediency. 
It has been argued by many that some conservation groups are more devoted to advocating for expanding recreational uses than they are about holding the line in protecting wildlife and habitat, even though the explosion of outdoor recreation uses is already a serious conservation concern.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: For more on this read an excellent essay in Mountain Journal by former Forest Service recreation and wilderness specialist Susan Marsh who spent more than 30 years on the Bridger-Teton and Custer-Gallatin national forests].

Look closely and you can see a herd of elk on the crest of the Gallatin Mountain Range, an area that is considered crucial habitat for wildlife, especially with coming climate change, and home to a large wilderness study area. Some conservation groups have come under fire for being willing to negotiate away its full protection.
Look closely and you can see a herd of elk on the crest of the Gallatin Mountain Range, an area that is considered crucial habitat for wildlife, especially with coming climate change, and home to a large wilderness study area. Some conservation groups have come under fire for being willing to negotiate away its full protection.
The SHARE Act by itself is bad enough, it is accompanied by several other hydra-heads of anti-environmental extremism.

One is House Bill H.R. 1349  that would “amend the Wilderness Act to ensure that the use of bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and game carts is not prohibited in Wilderness Areas.”

This bill was passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee on December 13, 2018. Only one Republican, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming voted against the bill, stating that: “While I believe we need to do all we can to provide access to our public lands, our wilderness areas are special and those who enjoy those pristine lands, including our guides and outfitters, should not have to worry about mountain bikes and other vehicles on our wilderness land and trails.”

A surprisingly bold, and commendable position statement yet it comes replete with inconsistency on the part of Wyoming’s Congresswoman.

As of the time of this writing, H.R. 1349 has not been scheduled for a vote by the full House and appears to be a low priority for House Speaker, Paul Ryan. Fortunately, if it were to get to the Senate, its passage there is considered by observers to be slim, but far from zero.

Passage of this bill is the singular mission of the non-profit California-based Sustainable Trails Coalition, and represents the second time in as many years that they have attempted to open Wilderness areas to mountain biking.

It must be noted that the International Mountain Biking Association has come out against this bill. Another vey commendable position but why haven’t they been more vocal in defending wildlands conservation?

In an inexplicable twist of position, a week after Rep. Cheney voted against the mountain bikes in wilderness bill, she introduced her own bill, H.R. 4697 that completely contradicts her earlier position.

This bill specifically targets three Wyoming Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs): the Palisades (135,840 acres), High Lakes (15,224 acres), and Shoal Creek (32,374 acres). It would legalize “…all recreational uses occurring within such Wilderness Study Areas on the date before the day of the enactment of this Act, including horseback riding [already allowed in all WSA’s], snowmobiling, dirt bike riding, mountain biking, and helicopter skiing.”

With respect to heli-skiing in the Palisades WSA, H.R. 4697 will allow for the current 65 skier-day per season cap increased twenty-fold to 1,200 skier days (likely not all of which would occur in the Palisades-WSA).

Regardless of the final number, rest assured, it will be an unprecedented increase in heil-skiing within the WSA, and it will effectively render moot a U.S. District Court decision handed down over a decade ago that established the current cap. A cap that was based on the number of skier-days used when the Wyoming Wilderness Act was passed in 1984, which also established Wyoming’s WSAs. 

Those WSAs were themselves the result of compromise and, in fact, reflecting only a percentage of what could have been protected but is now degraded by illegal multiple use.
Snowmobile and mountain bike use has expanded exponentially through illegal trespass that inexplicably has been abided by the Forest Service which was supposed to vigorously protect the character of the WSAs. 
Since then, snowmobile and mountain bike use has expanded exponentially through illegal trespass that inexplicably has been abided by the Forest Service which was supposed to vigorously protect the character of the WSAs. In other parts of the West, the Forest Service has been sued, and lost, because it did not follow the law in protecting WSAs.

It is currently estimated that upwards of 240 snowmobiles enter the area on a good snow day. Estimates for mountain bike use have not been made, however the area is widely presented as a favorite destination, with groups identifying the best entry and egress sites as well as most popular trails and loops.

This growth in mechanized use has occurred even though the Wyoming Wilderness Act clearly states that the WSAs “shall be administered …so as to maintain their presently existing [1984] wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System” and, “snowmobiling shall continue to be allowed in the same manner and degree as was occurring prior to the date of enactment of this Act.” (This Act makes no mention of mountain bike use.)
The Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area is yet another wild area which, because of lack of enforcement by the Forest Service, has been inundated with illegal trespass. If a new radical bill passes, motorbikes, mountain bikes, snowmobiling and heli-skiing would be permitted, also dimming hope of it achieving full-fledged wilderness status.
The Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area is yet another wild area which, because of lack of enforcement by the Forest Service, has been inundated with illegal trespass. If a new radical bill passes, motorbikes, mountain bikes, snowmobiling and heli-skiing would be permitted, also dimming hope of it achieving full-fledged wilderness status.
For decades, Forest Service officials turned a blind eye to the steady increase in unauthorized mechanized uses within the three WSA’s. Wilderness advocates fear that mechanized user groups will now argue that current levels and growth trends should be used to establish future limits.

Should this be the case, the Palisades WSA would no longer qualify as a Wilderness Area. And perhaps neither would the Shoal Creek and High Lakes WSA’s qualify. Unfortunately, due to the failure of the Forest Service to enforce the existing law, perhaps this tipping point has already been reached.

Not only is Rep. Cheney’s latest bill contrary to her earlier anti-mountain bike vote, it throws a wrench into Wyoming’s two-year old Public Lands Initiative established specifically to determine the fate of all 45 Wyoming WSA’s.

The WPLI structure asked county commissioners to convene a cross section of local public land user groups and tasked them with forming management recommendations to be pass up the political chain for eventual resolution by Congress. These recommendations could range from “hard release”, whereby the areas would revert to complete multiple use status, to full Wilderness designation, or anything in between.

If passed, Rep. Cheney’s bill will turn 183,000 acres (an area over half the size of Grand Teton) of wilderness quality land into year-round mechanized and motorized playgrounds. And it will happen without any comprehensive public debate.

Lost will be the opportunity for “feet on the ground” recreationists to enjoy the land’s year-round quiet solitude, even in the most remote canyons and peaks of the Palisades, Shoal Creek or High Lakes WSA’s. Gone will be the expansive, undisturbed seclusion so critical for the survival of the wolverine, grizzly bear, lynx, wolf, and countless less charismatic species.

What we, as today’s land stewards will be faced with is being identified as having failed to pass onto future generations these last remnants of our nation’s wildland heritage.

In an apparent effort not to be outdone by Rep. Cheney, Montana’s U.S. Sen. Steve Daines introduced his own anti-wilderness bill in December 2018 titled “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act” (S. 2206). His bill would “hard release” for multiple use five of-seven Forest Service WSA’s in Montana totaling 449,500 acres. Daines claims that these WSA’s have been “Improperly managed” and that his bill would “protect public access and use.”

The Senator’s press release listed the following organizations as supporting “better management and more access” to these lands: Citizens for Balanced Use, Big Game Forever, Safari Club International, Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, Montana Snowmobile Association, Montana Mining Association, Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Treasure State Resource Association. It’s quite clear whom the senator is pandering to.
Imagine a new landing strip recently cleared to facilitate fishing access to your favorite blue-ribbon wildlands stream. Imagine your favorite Wilderness no longer untrammeled and wild. 
Imagine our Wilderness areas if state wildlife agencies were allowed to carve “temporary” roads deep into these last wild places and then use them indefinitely under the guise of administering and improving public hunting, fishing and recreation opportunities.

Imagine packing deep into your favorite wilderness valley only to find forest thinning operations underway aimed at encouraging grass and forb production in an attempt to enhance big game populations.

Or imagine a new landing strip recently cleared to facilitate fishing access to your favorite blue-ribbon wildlands stream.

Imagine your favorite Wilderness no longer untrammeled and wild. 

If you want an example of vision, check out the plan by Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness to protect the Gallatin Mountains, an area that famed ecologist Olaus Murie of Jackson Hole, and a founder of the Wilderness Society, said was one of the most important elk habitat areas in the world and will become ever more so with climate change. Read the scientific assessment done by the Craighead Institute.
Wilderness has long been proposed for the Crazy Mountains northeast of Bozeman but inexplicably the U.S. Forest Service has unilatterally decided to take wilderness off the table here and in other places. It has left many to wonder who is calling the shots and on what basis. The Crazies are not only stunning and wild but they provide important habitat for mountain species facing climate change.
Wilderness has long been proposed for the Crazy Mountains northeast of Bozeman but inexplicably the U.S. Forest Service has unilatterally decided to take wilderness off the table here and in other places. It has left many to wonder who is calling the shots and on what basis. The Crazies are not only stunning and wild but they provide important habitat for mountain species facing climate change.
For over half a century, The Wilderness Act has successfully protected nearly 110 million acres of our Nation’s wildland heritage. It has done so in a manner that allows for many, low impact, non-mechanized activities ranging from solitude hiking and cross country skiing, to hunting, fishing, rock climbing, and horse packing.

Wilderness has given sportsmen and women some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the Nation. And Wilderness has provided the public the opportunity to enjoy the adventure and satisfaction of exploring remote wilderness landscapes on nature’s terms. Wilderness has been good for the nation, the land and its wildlife. It truly is a gift that if left alone, will keep on giving for generations.

The SHARE Act and its gang of anti-wilderness bills now working their way through Congress would put an end to this—to Wilderness as we know it. They would throw open these last remaining untrammeled wildlands to Manifest Destiny’s final assault, leaving us nothing more than a lot of land with very little wild.

The 1964 Wilderness Act was intended to be, and was written as a conservation act, not a recreation act. It is time wilderness defenders stand up, shout out, draw a line in the wild—and then repeat. It’s time for The Wilderness Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other “pale green” groups to lead, follow or get out of the way with wilderness protection and to hold the line on protecting existing wilderness study areas. If they refuse to lead, then citizens and others ought to support groups that will. This includes supporting journalism like Mountain Journal that is devoted to highlighting the value of wild places and environmental protection.

We aren't making any more wild country and we ought not to negotiate away the lands that have been spared thanks to the foresight and perseverance of previous generations.
The 1964 Wilderness Act was intended to be, and was written as a conservation act, not a recreation act. It is time wilderness defenders stand up, shout out, draw a line in the wild—and then repeat. It’s time for The Wilderness Society, GYC and other “pale green” groups to lead, follow or get out of the way with wilderness protection.
Even if these bad bills in Congress fail to become the law of the land, make no mistake, the special interests with their agendas will not fade away. They will remain and efforts to resurrect will reappear—whether as stand-alone laws or furtively attached to some must-pass legislation, they will reappear. Defenders of the wild must remain vigilant—always vigilant. As Edward Abby declared: “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.”

To paraphrase the late Mardy Murie of Moose, “grandmother of The Wilderness Act,” Presidential Medal of Freedom winner and person always willing to engage the battle: “I hope we as a nation are not so rich that we can afford to squander our last wild places, or so poor that we cannot afford to keep them.”

Imagine Wilderness lost. If you do nothing, it could happen.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This was the second-part in a three-part series by Camenzind that examines the myriad aspects of the SHARE Act. The first part in the series examined a provision that would allow hunters to use silencers while stalking big game.

CORRECTION: In the editing, not the writing, of this piece, reference was made to helicopter skiing in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area of Wyoming. Heli-skiing, as well noted by Camenzind in his original story, is legally allowed in the WSA, not prohibited. The bill introduced by Rep. Cheney would allow such use to expand in numbers of skiers allowed. MoJo regrets that editing error.

MoJo is committed to giving you great reads that take a lot of time to produce. In turn, we rely on your generosity. We are a non-profit public-interest journalism site and, like public radio and television, we depend on you to keep us going and expand our coverage. Please click here to vote your values by supporting Mountain Journal.
Franz Camenzind
About Franz Camenzind

Wild Ideas columnist Franz Camenzind, a longtime resident of Jackson, Wyoming, has a diverse background. A field researcher by training, he helped pioneer new appreciation for the social structure of canids, namely coyotes; he was an award-winning wildlife cinematographer working for companies ranging from BBC to National Geographic, including a project in which he was the first to film pandas in the wild; he served as executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and he was a founding member of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.

Related Stories

July 2, 2018

Why Do Some Politicians Seem To Loathe And Fear The Wild?
Conservationist Dr. Franz Camenzind says "there's a push to end American wilderness as we know it"

August 28, 2017

Macon & Washakie Lakes, Wind River Range, Popo Agie Wilderness on the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Photo by Jim Peaco, courtesy National Park Service
Wilderness, America's Second-Best Conservation Idea, Is Under Attack
In the first part of an ongoing MoJo series, "Modern Wilderness," explored through a variety of perspectives and voices, columnist Franz Camenzind...

October 17, 2017

America's National Elk Refuge: A ‘Miasmic Zone Of Life-Threatening Diseases'
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is known internationally for its wildlife. With the arrival of Chronic Wasting Disease looming, the epicenter of...