What’s Wrong with Monitoring Inactive Volcanoes in Wilderness?

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

 

Wilderness Watch recently objected to a Forest Service decision to allow permanent seismic monitoring stations in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington state. If this decision doesn’t change, the Forest Service would fail to protect and preserve Glacier Peak’s wilderness conditions consistent with the 1964 Wilderness Act. Beyond Glacier Peak, any Wilderness—including those surrounding seismically-active Yellowstone National Park or elsewhere—would be damaged by the installation and servicing of any kind of permanent monitoring stations.


Wilderness is a uniquely American idea and ideal. We are incredibly lucky we still have some of it left. The framers of the Wilderness Act constantly reminded us that we would have to practice humility and restraint to keep it around. That means that all of us, visitors, managers, and other users, have to be willing to do things differently in order to preserve Wilderness for present and future generations. It’s not always easy, but it’s necessary. That’s why the recent proposal for permanent instrument installations raises concerns.

The 1964 Wilderness Act includes safeguards against permanent installations and structures in designated Wilderness, even if done for scientific purposes. Section 4(c) of this landmark law states, “…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” (Emphases added.) The law therefore prevents the installation of permanent seismic monitoring stations in Wilderness as well as the landing of helicopters or use of any other motorized equipment to service the stations.

The Wilderness Act does provide a very narrow exception to allow otherwise-prohibited activities, but only where such activities are necessary to preserve the area’s wilderness character. To date, the Forest Service has utterly failed to prove that degrading the Glacier Peak Wilderness with permanent structures and installations, the landing of helicopters, and the use of any other motorized equipment is the minimum necessary for preserving the area’s wilderness character.

Wilderness Watch supports scientific research in Wilderness. It is one of the primary reasons for wilderness designation and one of its greatest values. Like other activities in Wilderness, however, scientific research has to be done in a way that protects the other values of Wilderness and doesn’t include those things that the law prohibits, such as the use of helicopters for access and the installation of permanent structures. In other words, like all other wilderness visitors, including Forest Service or other wilderness managers, researchers should walk or use packstock to access Wilderness and carry in their supplies.

Our organization also supports public safety and a better understanding of seismic activity. Warning signs of an eruption, which are usually detectable outside of Wilderness, tend to be normal for Cascade Range volcanoes. Such warning signs generally precede any eruption by a significant length of time. Increasingly, researchers are also able to monitor seismic activity remotely, even from satellites. But if monitoring must be done inside designated Wilderness, it must comply with the Wilderness Act and not degrade that specific Wilderness.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service typically does not analyze any alternatives beyond the proposals submitted by the U.S. Geological Survey or other researchers. First and foremost would be the question of whether monitoring stations near or just outside the Wilderness could provide any useful monitoring data. These data may not be quite as detailed or complete as data collected from inside the Wilderness, but would likely be adequate. Unfortunately for the Glacier Peak Wilderness, the Forest Service hasn’t even looked at this sort of analysis. The Forest Service has simply failed to uphold its obligations under the Wilderness Act to protect Wilderness and merely rubber-stamped the proposal to degrade this spectacular Wilderness.

Wilderness Watch believes the federal wilderness agencies can do better and should devise plans that uphold the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act, and not simply cast aside this important national inheritance because it causes some inconvenience and challenge for researchers. We needn’t so easily sacrifice our shared wilderness heritage just for a few additional data points as is often proposed.

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kevin proescholdt

Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula and focused on the protection of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

 

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Seeing What All the Dam Fuss Is About

By Jerome Walker and Marcia Williams

After reading "A Dam Dilemma" in the Missoula Independent in mid-July, we decided to hike up to the Fred Burr Dam in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Montana to see what all the fuss was about. One of us is 74 years old and the other is from New York, had only camped once and had never backpacked, but we were powerfully curious.

The first night we packed in to a campsite 7.5 miles up Fred Burr Creek. That day we saw two other backpackers, but the next two days we saw no human being and enjoyed the quiet found only in Wilderness. By lunchtime of the second day we were at the dam.

photo 5 08 16 13The catwalk was constructed from nearby trees and not from sawmill boards.We noticed straight off that the partly collapsed catwalk that the private company, Fred Burr High Lake Inc., wants to repair by using a helicopter to bring in 682 pounds of boards, etc., was constructed from on-site trees, not from sawn lumber. The dam itself, which doesn't need repairs, was also constructed from on-site material. We wondered why the catwalk couldn't just be repaired using local materials again, as there were plenty of trees and deadfall around. There was a spillway to take care of any overflow, so a federal judge’s recent assertion that "leaving Fred Burr Dam unrepaired could do more damage to the Wilderness than a single helicopter" didn't make much sense either. (Federal Judge Donald Molloy recently ruled the Forest Service could authorize the private company to use a helicopter to transport materials for this minor repair to the dam.)

Hiking up to the dam we crawled over or ducked under some deadfall, but these need only to be cut with crosscut saws as a matter of routine trail maintenance for both horses and people to pass easily. At no point did we see switchbacks that would have been impossible for horses to negotiate, as the Forest Service maintains, and for sure there seemed no need for dynamite to "widen the trail", as they also claim. We also observed manure (view a video of the where the manure was seen by clicking here) all along the trail up very close to the dam itself, so clearly some horses were able to make it up there fairly recently, as we figured nobody would helicopter in manure.

photo 9 08 16 13 2This is the sharpest switchback we saw, which could be easily negotiated by a horse without any blasting with dynamite, as the Forest Service alleges would be necessary. In fact, very near this spot we found horse manure on the trail.Later we read Renee Morley's letter to the Independent in which Morley agreed, as just about everybody does, that "unnecessary helicopter flights are detrimental to Wilderness and degrade the law". Then Morley reversed course and let the Forest Service off the hook due to their lack of funds to maintain trails so that horses can pass.

Still later we learned that the Forest Service had spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on an Environmental Assessment required by Fred Burr High Lake, Inc's 2010 request for use of a helicopter in Wilderness.  This expenditure wouldn't have been necessary had the Forest Service simply insisted in the first place that the corporation, which owns the dam and water rights, obey the Wilderness Act. This would require either packing in repair materials or using on-site materials, as had been done in the past. More importantly, it raises the serious question of why the agency is spending taxpayers' money to analyze a private company's project on its private dam?

Now the Forest Service has to spend more of our taxpayer money to defend against litigation brought against them for failing to uphold the law. Since these funds, which Congress appropriates to the agency to manage Wilderness, are being wasted, maybe that's why there's not enough money left to hire crews to maintain the hiking trails in Wilderness or to build new trails, which was not the case in the past.

ImageThe Wilderness Act of 1964 (we will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year) is very clear about prohibiting ANY motorized equipment such as helicopters in Wilderness whatsoever except for rare life and death rescue situations and in rare cases where such use is necessary as the minimum requirement for proper protection and administration of the area as Wilderness. This principle is fundamental to the very concept of Wilderness. Maybe the Forest Service needs to take another look at the law and spend our taxpayer money more wisely. That could go a long way towards untangling the so-called "dam dilemmas" throughout Wilderness.

Jerome Walker, M.D.
National Board, Wilderness Watch
Missoula

and

Marcia Williams
Missoula

Jerome Walker's introduction to Wilderness Watch and Wilderness began when his late wife, Melissa served 10 years on WW's board, including a term as vice president. A retired neurologist, Jerome has concentrated on wilderness photography for the last two decades. His images can be seen on his website (jeromewalkerphotography.com). 

Marcia Williams, who is new to Wilderness but learning fast, is from New York and currently lives in Franklin, TN, where she founded and heads up Independent Trust Company.  Because of her background in finance and investment she currently is serving on Wilderness Watch’s finance committee. 

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