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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"

Jedediah Smith Wilderness on the west (Idaho side) of the Tetons looking toward Wyoming. Photo courtesy Franz Camenzind
Jedediah Smith Wilderness on the west (Idaho side) of the Tetons looking toward Wyoming. Photo courtesy Franz Camenzind
Our nation’s Wilderness Act and designated wilderness areas are under an unprecedented attack by special interest groups in Congress.

The Missoula, Montana-based watchdog group, Wilderness Watch, is now tracking nearly 30 anti-wilderness bills currently making their way through the Congressional morass: some would eviscerate the 1964 Wilderness Act itself, while others take aim at specific wilderness areas and areas being proposed for new wilderness.

Three bills target the Wilderness Act directly, thus threatening every one of the 765 designated wilderness areas already enjoyed by millions of Americans each year. 

One making its way through Congress would turn existing wilderness areas into playgrounds for mountain bikers as well as allowing other mechanized uses. 

Another bill would permit nearly any activity from road building to the construction of airstrips and cabins in wilderness areas—things currently forbidden— as long as it somehow “enhances” hunting and fishing opportunities.  
Another bill would permit nearly any activity from road building to the construction of airstrips and cabins in wilderness areas—things currently forbidden— as long as it somehow “enhances” hunting and fishing opportunities. 
The third bill could “temporarily” transform some wilderness areas into pastures for private cattle grazing.

Three more pieces of legislation are so-called “border protection bills” that would allow a myriad of non-wilderness activities, including construction of roads, airstrips and installations in any wilderness area within 100 miles of our northern and southern borders. (National Parks, Monuments and Wild and Scenic River corridors are included in two of the bills.)

To enable the Department of Homeland Security to carry out their activities, two of the three bills explicitly waive 36 federal laws including the Wilderness Act, the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, The Antiquities Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.  

Along our southern border with Mexico alone, nearly 60 wilderness areas containing over four million acres could be impacted. The impacts grow exponentially along the Canadian border, including the Alaskan portion, where over 70 wilderness areas with 30 million-plus acres of untrammeled, wild lands could be severely degraded by the passage of any of these bills. 

Under the guise of protecting America from “hostile invaders,” these pieces of legislation target approximately 130 designated wilderness areas, about 40 Park Service units, and roughly 25 Wild and Scenic River corridors.  Based on wilderness acres alone, passage of any one of these bills could transform nearly one-third of our most pristine wildlands into nothing more than quasi-militarized, police-action landscapes.  Protecting our borders should not mean sacrificing the natural and cultural heritage enshrined within so many of our long-protected landscapes. 

Is the threat of illegal entry so great as to waive 36 pieces of landmark environmental and cultural laws affecting 130 wilderness areas and millions of acres of our most treasured landscapes? There must be a better way.

But this, as I have written previously, is merely one front among many about which the general public is unaware.

Four more bills specifically target wilderness study areas in Montana and Wyoming. Last December, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana introduced legislation that would open five Forest Service wilderness study areas in Big Sky Country, totaling 449,500 acres, to all kinds of multiple use, including intensive resource extraction.

Then in March, newly-elected U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana (and the previous boss of Daines in a tech business Gianforte founded) introduced companion legislation in the House. 
A natural gas drilling site in the mountains.  Photo courtesy Plazak at en.wikipedia
A natural gas drilling site in the mountains. Photo courtesy Plazak at en.wikipedia
Apparently not satisfied with just joining ranks with Daines, Gainforte at the same time introduced still another bill that would release an additional 365,300 acres in 24 Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas in his home state. 

Together, these two legislators from Montana would throw roughly 1,273 square miles of currently protected wildlands, or an area well over three-quarters the size of the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the forces of multiple use in the forms of mineral extraction, fossil fuel drilling, road building, and motorized use, forever precluding it from ever becoming wilderness.
Together, two bills by Daines and Gianforte would  throw roughly 1,273 square miles of currently protected wildlands, or an area well over three-quarters the size of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, to the forces of multiple use in the forms of mineral extraction, fossil fuel drilling, road building, and motorized use, forever precluding it from ever becoming wilderness.
I should note that a wide range of public opinion polls, including one conducted by the University of Montana and another by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies report showed Montanans, including hunters, overwhelming favor protecting public lands and wilderness. 

During a House Natural Resources Committee hearing held on the summer solstice, Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director for Policy and Planning Brian Steed praised Gianforte’s bill, saying that “The lands proposed for release from WSA status would provide important opportunities for multiple uses and increased recreational access, including hunting and fishing, hiking, camping and horseback riding in Montana’s back country.”  

He went on to say that: The Department strongly supports congressional action to resolve issues of wilderness designation and release of wilderness study areas on public lands across the West."

Apparently, Steed has chosen to deliberately ignore the polls. His deceptive implication here is that somehow wilderness study areas hinder, if not disallow ”recreational access, including hunting and fishing, hiking, camping and horseback riding.” That is simply not the case, all these activities are welcome in wilderness areas. However, it is true that release of these lands certainly would “provide important opportunities for multiple uses.”
The multiple priceless value of wilderness stands in contrast to what most of the developed world is not.  Photo of a federal wilderness in Greater Yellowstone courtesy Franz Camenzind
The multiple priceless value of wilderness stands in contrast to what most of the developed world is not. Photo of a federal wilderness in Greater Yellowstone courtesy Franz Camenzind
Don’t be misled by the liberating sound of the word “release.” In this context, “release” means stripping away wilderness protection and exposing the land to as many multiple-uses the BLM and the Forest Service will fall for: clear cutting, oil and gas development, hard-rock mining, or building roads to remote hunting and fishing destinations and allowing off road vehicles access to pristine landscapes.  

As if not to be outdone by her northern colleagues, Wyoming’s lone U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Cheney introduced a bill in December aimed at amending Wyoming’s Wilderness Act, which, ironically, her father, then-Congressman Dick Cheney ushered into law in1984. 

The bill would open 130,000 acres within three Forest Service wilderness study areas in Wyoming’s portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to motorized and mechanized uses, including heli-skiing. Although not a hard release, Cheney’s bill would turn these wilderness study areas into motorized and mechanized playgrounds for the few and the elite, rendering their nearly pristine lands so trammeled as to no longer qualify for wilderness designation.

Together, these four anti-wilderness bills would disqualify 944,830 acres of critical wildlands from ever gaining the best conservation alternative—wilderness designation whose value to the public would only increase over time. 
Cheney’s bill would turn these wilderness study areas into motorized and mechanized playgrounds for the few and the elite, rendering their nearly pristine lands so trammeled as to no longer qualify for wilderness designation.
Lost in the thunder of helicopters and the roaring of exhaust-belching snow machines and dirt bikes would be the solace of quietude. Severely degraded would be prime wildlife habitats and movement corridors within Greater Yellowstone as well as crucial linkages to habitats farther to the north, south and west. 

Lost forever would be an area of wildlands considerably larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Why this new loathing of wilderness? Perhaps the wilderness foes sense an opportunity to achieve their goals by throwing in with the larger, anti-environment movement sweeping the country.  

Or maybe they recognize an opening due to the softening wilderness positions assumed by traditional wilderness advocates, too many of which open with a “lets compromise” attitude—a compromised position before discussions even begin. One thing is certain: today’s attacks on wilderness are unprecedented in the 64 years of the Wilderness Act’s existence.

A popular argument expressed by wilderness foes, particularly the mechanized and motorized contingent is that they are being locked out of their land, and wilderness designation is the master lock. 
Motorcycles, ATVs and mountain bikes are prohibited in federal wilderness and the few areas still pristine enough to remain candidates for wilderness. Photo courtesy BLM
Motorcycles, ATVs and mountain bikes are prohibited in federal wilderness and the few areas still pristine enough to remain candidates for wilderness. Photo courtesy BLM
In reality, wilderness designation is not a lockout designation. It is merely a means of filtering access, the same way access is filtered for all kinds of quality experiences we have in life. Many enjoy motor boating on Yellowstone Lake, but others seek the solitude and quiet of paddling on Shoshone Lake where motors are prohibited. We accept that jet boats are allowed on portions of the lower Snake River, but not on the upper. And we accept that everyone is welcomed at movie theatres, but not with our own popcorn and drinks. Society functions on filters, and functions best when adhered to. 
Wilderness designation is not a lockout designation. It is merely a means of filtering access, the same way access is filtered for all kinds of quality experiences we have in life.  We accept that jet boats are allowed on portions of the lower Snake River, but not on the upper.
This land belongs to all of us and we are all welcome to enter a wilderness area at any time by foot, skis, snowshoes, horseback, canoe, kayak or wheel chair. Any license-holder can enter to hunt and fish. Anyone can backpack and camp in a wilderness area. 

What the Wilderness Act “filter” excludes is entry by motorized and mechanized transport and the commercial extraction of resources (which already happens prolifically on other Forest Service and BLM lands), the building of dams and roads, the flying of drones and the landing of airplanes. It allows whipsaws, but not chain saws. It welcomes footsteps and sweat, but no motorized conveniences of any sort. 

Wilderness is not is a place to be raced through on mountain bikes. Instead, it’s a place to be experienced as it was before the invention of the wheel. It’s incredulous to think that any one capable of riding a mountain bike into a Wilderness Area would not be able to walk or ride a horse into that same landscape. Wilderness is not a lock–it’s a filter that asks nothing more of those seeking entry than to check mechanization at the trailhead.

Without a doubt, wilderness can hold many challenges, but for some, it seems the greatest challenge is not the mental adjustments or the physical effort expended to enter and enjoy, but the challenge to contain one’s hubris–to become humble, to become a respectful part of the wild–to enter and experience wilderness on nature’s terms.

Here, some much-needed context is in order for those who enjoy plying misleading rhetoric. One argument often put forth by anti-wilderness proponents (who often represent commercial interests) is that our public lands should be managed for a “balance of uses,” a concept with a great deal of visceral appeal. But what might a “balance” of land management actions look like? 

According to the Congressional Research Service, less than three percent of all the US landmass outside of Alaska and Hawaii is protected with wilderness designation.  
According to the Congressional Research Service, less than three percent of all the US landmass outside of Alaska and Hawaii is protected with wilderness designation.
Of the federal public lands administered by the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service in the contiguous 48 states, less than 14 percent has wilderness area protection.

Closer to home, 13 percent of Montana’s public land is designated wilderness, which represents just 3.4 percent of the entire state.  In Wyoming, 4.9 percent of the state is designated wilderness, which equates to 10.2 percent of its federal lands. And in Idaho, 9.1 percent of the state is designated wilderness, which represents 14.7 percent of the federal lands within the Gem State.  (These calculations omit Departments of Defense and Energy lands and state-owned public lands.)
Federal wilderness areas have been spared remote airstrips like this one in Hells Canyon along the Lower Snake River in Oregon. Legislation moving through Congress would allow some wildlands to become landing strips, shattering the sense of mechanized-free isolation so rare in an ever-crowded world. Photo courtesy Sam Beebe/Ecotrust
Federal wilderness areas have been spared remote airstrips like this one in Hells Canyon along the Lower Snake River in Oregon. Legislation moving through Congress would allow some wildlands to become landing strips, shattering the sense of mechanized-free isolation so rare in an ever-crowded world. Photo courtesy Sam Beebe/Ecotrust
It seems that if “balance” is truly the desired outcome, then we should bring our nation’s public land allocation of 14 percent wilderness and 86 non-wilderness closer to 50:50. Clearly, this won’t happen, if for no other reason than sadly, not that much wilderness-quality land still exists. 

So, lets settle for second-best—a reasonable compromise position. Lets pass all wilderness qualified roadless areas and existing wilderness study areas into full wilderness designation. That will still fall far short of a 50:50 balance, but it is an outcome that undoubtedly most wilderness advocates would enthusiastically embrace–a compromised, more balanced use of our public lands. Isn’t this what the anti-wilderness folks are hell-bent on achieving? Balance: the proverbial win-win! 

Wilderness is more than a concept. It is a place.  It is a landscape unmarred by humankind’s deeply imposed footprints–a place of peace and wonder, living jewels of what remains of our wild, public places.  And in the Northern Rockies, wilderness areas, our national parks and refuges along with other wilderness quality lands play an integral role in maintaining the functions of the entire ecosystem. How we treat them influences the surrounding lands and particularly the wildlife that depend upon large, intact and interconnected landscapes to provide their needs throughout the years.

It’s at times like this that we have to question if we, as a nation of free people, truly understand what is at stake in these wilderness debates. Do we understand and appreciate the value of wilderness­—the need to preserve these last, ecologically and culturally important vestiges of our nation’s heritage for what they are and not for what can be extracted from them? Do we not understand that protecting these wild lands as wilderness is one of the greatest long-term investments we can make as a country? An investment that pays dividends every day in the form of clean water, clean air–expansive landscapes for free-to-roam wildlife populations and a buffer to climate change. Our wildlands add quality to all our lives.
It’s at times like this that we have to question if we, as a nation of free people, truly understand what is at stake in these wilderness debates. Do we understand and appreciate the value of wilderness­—the need to preserve these last, ecologically and culturally important vestiges of our nation’s heritage for what they are and not for what can be extracted from them?
If we approach protecting these lands with complacency and compromise, we clear the way for the forces of manifest destiny to tear apart these last remnants of our native landscapes and throw the pieces into the gaping maws of the highest bidders. Then we will have lost Wilderness as we know it- and much more. 

Mardy Murie, the oft-proclaimed “Mother of the Wilderness Act,” once said: “Wilderness itself is the basis of all our civilization. I wonder if we have enough reverence for life to concede to wilderness the right to live on?” 

Indeed, wilderness is the landscape of our origins and the basis of our civilization.  Now is the time for wilderness advocates and conservationists of all persuasions to bring the full force of their voices to the fight to save the Wilderness Act and our remaining wilderness-quality lands. 

How will history record these times? Will our children and grandchildren inherit only picture books and videos of what once was, or will they be able to enjoy intact, living landscapes functioning unimpeded by humankind’s interference? Our Wilderness resolve is being tested like never before.
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.
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