Turning back is never easy, but sometimes the best decision

By Brett Haverstick

BrettMarty met us at the Bear Creek Trailhead at 9 a.m. We left my car in the lot, and she shuttled us over to Blodgett. Tim and I unloaded our packs, and went over our itinerary one last time. We expected to be back at Bear Creek in 5-6 days and then drive my car home.

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Guest — Nancy C Fleming
Thank you for the great work you do!
Friday, 22 October 2021 16:18
Guest — Jane Crownover
I am so glad you used your common sense and decided to return to stay safe. There will be many more outdoor adventures for you now... Read More
Friday, 22 October 2021 15:17
Guest — Kinsey Lamb
You both made the right decision and maybe saved your lives in the process.
Friday, 22 October 2021 11:34
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We Need Big Holistic Wilderness

by Howie Wolke

 

Howie Wolke

Back in the 1980’s, Dave Foreman and I compiled The Big Outside, A Descriptive Inventory of the Remaining Big Wilderness Areas of the United States (Harmony Books, 1989). The primary purpose was to accurately depict the true extent of each large roadless area in the contiguous 48 states, defining “large” as 100,000 acres or more in the West, with a 50,000 acre minimum for the East. We defined roadless areas as physical entities delineated by the location of roads and other intrusions that actually interrupt the flow of wildness.

So we mapped what was literally roadless and wild on the ground. We did not rely on agency inventories, because relying on federal agency inventories limits one to what the agencies have inventoried. Agency “roadless area” inventories are notoriously incomplete and often follow political demarcations such as state and county lines, national forest and BLM district boundaries, and isolated sections of state or private land. Moreover, agencies frequently gerrymandered “official” roadless area boundaries to exclude big chunks of wild country in order to facilitate plans for logging, mining, oil wells, off-road vehicle routes, water projects, livestock developments and so on. In other words, for a variety of reasons, many big contiguous chunks of roadless wilderness were and are divided into different administrative units, masking the true extent of the wildland.


Therefore, we hoped that by providing a comprehensive accurate inventory that clearly depicts the true extent of each big roadless area on the ground, regardless of political boundaries or considerations, conservationists would be more likely to develop and promote bigger, more holistic proposals for additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

 

Here’s an example of one inventoried big roadless area: we called it the “South Absaroka” wildland in northwest Wyoming. The Big Outside inventoried this area as the sixth largest unbroken wildland in the lower 48 states, at 2,190,000 acres. We also discovered and noted that deep within the South Absaroka was the most distant point from a road in the lower 48 states, 21 miles, just outside the southeast corner of Yellowstone. At the time of our inventory, the South Absaroka included the 704,000-acre Washakie Wilderness on the Shoshone National Forest, the 585,000-acre Teton Wilderness on the Bridger-Teton Forest, 483,000 acres of roadless backcountry in the southeastern quadrant of Yellowstone, 350,000 acres of unprotected roadless areas on both the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton National Forests, 60,000 roadless acres on the Wind River Indian Reservation, and about 10,000 acres of undeveloped state and private lands that abut national forest boundaries.


South Absaroka Washakie Wilderness
But because the South Absaroka is thus subdivided on paper into various named and un-named units, the true size and value of the area is obscured. To recognize the South Absaroka in the holistic sense is to recognize a 2,190,000-acre unbroken wildland, not just its various parts. Thus, the 350,000 acres of unprotected national forest roadless areas assume even greater importance than they would were they to stand alone. Same goes for the 483,000 acres of unprotected Yellowstone backcountry. That’s because the ecological value of wilderness increases with size. When it comes to wilderness, size matters. There are many reasons why.

 

For one thing, big chunks of wild country retain species and subspecies (biodiversity) better than small wildlands. Connectivity also increases the effective size of a wildland. Small isolated habitats lose species due to inbreeding depression and genetic drift in small isolated populations. Also, small isolated habitats and populations are vulnerable to demographic and environmental upheavals. The rate of species loss in small isolate (“island”) habitats can actually be calculated, as has been shown by E.O. Wilson and other ecologists. Many species simply won’t or can’t successfully cross roads, fences, reservoirs, off-road vehicle routes, power corridors, subdivisions, clear-cuts, oil fields, border walls and other developments that effectively create habitat islands of isolated populations. Habitat fragmentation is the enemy of biodiversity, and is rampant on our public lands. For example, the U.S. Forest Service has built a 400,000 mile-plus road network crisscrossing the public forests, not including state, county and other federal rights of way! You might say that the Forest Service and the BLM are primarily in the habitat fragmentation business, though they euphemistically call it “multiple use”.

Big protected Wilderness is a hedge against habitat fragmentation. Big wilderness also protects wilderness-dependent species such as grizzly, lynx and wolverine. It is well documented that large carnivores need big chunks of habitat because their populations are necessarily thinly spread over the landscape. Big carnivores are often “keystone species”, crucial to healthy ecosystem function.

For example, in the eastern U.S. the lack of large carnivores and the resulting explosion of whitetail deer in fragmented forests has damaged the eastern deciduous forest biome’s vegetation. Also, the recent resurgence of quaking aspen in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is partly a result of large carnivore recovery, mainly wolves, grizzlies and mountain lions – but the recovery is now jeopardized by various state plans to dramatically reduce wolf populations. Before wolf reintroduction, there were way too many elk browsing aspen seedlings and saplings (increased wildfire, beginning in 1988, has also stimulated quaking aspen growth). With the comeback of wolves and other big carnivores, elk numbers are down and aspens are coming back. So are willows, mostly for the same reasons. With more aspen and willow, beaver populations have increased, creating wetland habitats for various species of birds and other animals.

Big wilderness protects a greater variety of habitats than do small protected units, and greater habitat variety equals greater biodiversity. In addition, by protecting habitats along both elevational and latitudinal gradients, big wilds provide room for species to migrate in response to climate change. Big wilderness is a hedge against exotic weed infestations, which tend to explode in heavily managed roaded multiple use landscapes. Small isolated wildlands are often similarly infested, because of their proximity to roaded areas.

Big wilderness protects seasonal migratory routes better than small fragmented areas.


Big wilderness is also, obviously, our best opportunity for real solitude, an increasingly endangered value in this over-crowded world. Because deep backcountry is less crowded than areas easily accessible by road, resource damage is minimized. So there’s less need for agencies to regulate user numbers or to otherwise impose regulations. Fewer regulations means more freedom, another increasingly rare wilderness value.

Organ Pipe Wilderness
Size facilitates good wilderness stewardship in other ways, too. Big wilderness is self-protecting, its core protected from human malfeasance by its remoteness. The armies of logging, mining, poaching, littering, off-road vehicle abuse, livestock trespass, arson and even illegal agency construction projects all are facilitated by roads. The insatiable agency compulsion to manipulate vegetation – especially in the Forest Service and BLM -- is also facilitated by proximity to roads. In big wilderness, illegal attempts to manipulate, tame, poison, construct, modify, and bulldoze are countered by the simple impracticality of implementing such mischief many miles from the nearest road. In other words, bigness increases the core to edge ratio of a wildland, and the edges, along and near roads, are where most human-induced mischief occurs.

Of course, size is self-protecting only when Congress doesn’t legislate special provisions that allow for destructive activities otherwise prohibited in wilderness. The biggest designated wilderness in the lower 48 states, the Frank Church River of No Return in central Idaho, includes a hodgepodge of legislatively grandfathered airstrips, jetboats, and private structures. Not to mention severe abuses by river and horse outfitters, to which the Forest Service invariably turns a blind eye.

Wildland Edge Effect is not just an inherent problem with small areas, but the shape of a wildland also has ecological ramifications. Excluding corridors from wilderness proposals for off-road vehicle use – including mountain bikes -- and excluding big chunks of wild country in order to mollify special interests such as loggers, oil drillers or ranchers results in wilderness boundaries that are irregularly shaped, like an amoeba, with low core to edge ratios. “Cherry stem” exclusions that dead-end deep within surrounding wilderness lands likewise produce more edge. Again, when remoteness is lacking, ecosystem integrity declines.

Here’s another huge reason for big wilderness: it allows for natural landscape processes. Natural predator/prey relationships, especially those that entail large carnivores are an obvious example (see above). And similar to predation, natural disturbance regimes such as wildfire, flood, blowdown and native insect outbreaks fuel the fires of evolution by weeding out those that are unfit to survive. The Wilderness Act defines wilderness in part as “untrammeled”, meaning uncontrolled or unregulated. Wild, not tamed. Most of these processes require big wilderness. For example, large carnivores simply can’t survive in tiny wilds. And it is difficult to allow natural wildfire to thrive in small wildlands adjacent to homes, towns, commercial logging areas and other facets of civilization.

When we researched The Big Outside, Dave and I were excited to discover that many chunks of roadless wildernesses were actually much larger than advertised. We had hoped that by inventorying the actual wildland entity as it existed on the ground, our project would inspire conservation groups to propose wildernesses designations that reflected the full wildland entity – or to at least begin a campaign from a stronger, less compromised position. We also suggested in numerous situations areas where roads could be closed, reclaimed and included in designated wilderness in order to create more holistic boundaries with less edge. But apparently, few of our conservation colleagues paid attention.

And therein lies the crux of the matter. Three decades later, too many conservation groups still begin the political process with parred down compromised wilderness proposals that are destined to grow even smaller as the political system inevitably slices and dices away at ecological wholeness. And unfortunately, the “big greens” such as The Wilderness Society (TWS) and some of their regional satellites – the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Montana Wilderness Association, for example – are leading the charge toward small edge-dominated “wilderness”.

In a nutshell, the template is this: Collaborate with local wilderness opponents and eliminate from the “wilderness” proposal most or all of the controversial areas so that mountain bikers, snowmobilers, loggers, oil drillers, ranchers and other wilderness opponents are mollified. Then take your emaciated proposal to the appropriate agency and to Congress. I actually watched one employee of The Wilderness Society give a seminar in which he proudly described the exact process that I just outlined.

Earlier, I mentioned special provisions that mar the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Various special provisions are often added to these weak “wilderness” bills to further appease opponents. Special provisions undercut both the letter and the spirit of the Wilderness Act by allowing activities in wilderness that are otherwise prohibited.  In addition to airstrips and motorboats, special grazing privileges, water projects, ATV use for ranchers and other affronts to wilderness are often added to bills to make the so-called “wilderness” legislation even more palatable to otherwise anti-wilderness interests. Some wilderness bills even have special provisions to control natural wildfire, including fuel-breaks and logging in the name of “fuel reduction”. Special provisions for wildlife management include “guzzlers” to artificially inflate game numbers in arid landscapes, and provisions for implementing predator control. Remember, wilderness is supposed to be “untrammeled”, which means wild and unmanipulated by human whims.

With all of these enervated “wilderness” proposals, Marshall, Leopold, Murie, Zahniser, Brandborg and other wilderness visionaries spin in their graves. So does old Cactus Ed.

There are many examples of wilderness designations that facilitate habitat fragmentation, edge effect and mechanized recreation at the expense of ecosystem integrity. The former 545,000 acre (inventoried roadless acreage from The Big Outside) Boulder-White Clouds Roadless Area in south-central Idaho is one example. It was first whittled down and then sliced into two separate “wilderness” units by Congress, in order to create a non-wilderness mountain bike and motorcycle corridor. This dramatically decreased the core to edge ratio, slicing a big chunk of unbroken wild country in two.

In my home neck of the woods, the 575,000-acre Gallatin Range roadless area in northwest Wyoming and southern Montana includes 325,000 unbroken roadless acres in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park plus 250,000 acres of contiguous wilds to the north on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. The Gallatins are an unbroken roadless wildland extending from West Yellowstone nearly to Bozeman, encompassing some of the richest mountain wildlife habitats in North America.

Gallatin Range proposed wilderness Custer Gallatin NF
The so-called “Gallatin Forest Partnership” (GFP) was an ill-advised collaboration with wilderness opponents that intentionally excluded all of the less compromising conservation groups. The Wilderness Society, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Montana Wilderness Association (now called “Wild Montana” without the word “wilderness” in its name) were the three main “conservation groups” responsible for this debacle. After most of the popular snow-machine and mountain biking areas were cut, GFP proposed 100,000 acres of mostly high altitude “wilderness on the rocks” out of 250,000 roadless acres in the Gallatins north of Yellowstone. Sadly, the best wildlife habitats in the Gallatins – especially the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages – were excluded from wilderness consideration. Porcupine and Buffalo Horn, by the way, also form the crucial wildlife link between Yellowstone and the northern Gallatins and wildlands further to the north. Fortunately, Congress has not yet acted on the GFP plan.

Of course, these public lands are a legacy for all Americans, not just local “stakeholders”. That is another basic problem with all of the locally-based special interest “collaborations”. Most of the American public is excluded from the decision-making.

In my opinion, many of the larger conservation groups have lost their way, populated nowadays by careerists for whom wilderness is just one of many worthy causes on a varied career track. They view wilderness as one of many land use options rather than the fundamental basis for life on Earth, for 3.5 billion years of organic evolution. Political expediency prevails. The mentality is to pass truncated “wilderness” bills at all cost, nearly always through collaboration with traditional opponents. Avoid enmity and discord. And let’s face it. The big foundations, such as Pew, for example, expect collaboration and compromise. Follow the money and forget about biodiversity, wildlife and the value of big uncompromised holistic wilderness.

Nonetheless, I am aware that we live in a world where little gets done without some level of compromise. Yet wilderness and related natural landscape protections stand alone, different from other social and environmental issues in a couple of important ways. Wilderness represents the antitheses of civilization’s unrelenting quest to tame, dam, pave, graze, cultivate, control and mold the world into and unnatural quagmire for human convenience. And once wilderness is defaced, it is usually gone for good. In the contiguous United States, about 90% of the wilderness has already been compromised away. Can’t we save the remaining 10% of the landscape? To resist further compromise isn’t “radical”. It’s common sense. It should behoove the conservation movement to do everything within its power to resist further compromise of wildlands. And let’s also restore key wildlands that have been degraded. E.O. Wilson suggests that 50% of the Earth’s landscapes should be protected as nature reserves. Clearly, we have a long ways to go.

By contrast, the old fashioned way requires a long-term commitment to educating and organizing, so that the general public learns that wilderness is far more than a primitive recreation area, not just a pie to be chomped down and divvied up among user groups. It also requires the strength of character to avoid beginning a process by compromising with opponents, and by fighting for every possible acre thereafter as the process proceeds. This requires leadership that loves and values wilderness as the highest expression of human selflessness: as a biocentric entity with intrinsic value just because it exists as a wild place. That mentality is often lacking in today’s conservation movement.

I am aware of today’s considerable social and political barriers to enacting clean wilderness bills (those with no special provisions) that include most or all of the available wildland entity. They are formidable. I get that. I realize that todays’ public land debate is a complex beast in an increasingly complex world. For example, mountain bikes didn’t even exist prior to the 1980’s. But now, mountain bikers (mostly young, physically fit socially liberal outdoor enthusiasts) are a major anti-wilderness lobby. And because today’s snow-machines can tackle much tougher terrain compared with those of the past, snowmobiler opposition to wilderness designations has grown accordingly.

So, in today’s global social and environmental shitstorm of climate crisis, overpopulation and the biological meltdown (the ongoing human-caused extinction event) – not to mention wars, racism and the demise of democracies – it is not surprising that wilderness flies below the radar of many activists. And when you fail to recognize the importance of something, it is easy to compromise it away.

But still. Still thriving deep in my cranium’s long term memory synapsis I can recall a better way. I recall when folks like Bob Anderson and Randall Gloege and their Senate champion Lee Metcalf (D-MT) simply wouldn’t accept a divided Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness. Today, the greater  Absaroka-Beartooth wildland is a 1,249,000-acre unbroken expanse of wild country (acreage from The Big Outside), dominated by the officially protected 944,000-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

The battle to enact the 1964 Wilderness Act itself was before my time, but Howard Zahniser and crew didn’t get LBJ’s signature on the bill by being meek and making it palatable to every self interest group. Yes, there were unfortunate political compromises along the way – for example, to accommodate mining claims through 1984 and to grandfather in livestock grazing -- but our side fought to minimize these special provisions. I cannot help thinking that given today’s mindset, were the Wilderness Act on the 2021 political docket, the National Wilderness Preservation System would more resemble Disneyland than real wilderness.

 

Political victories don’t emerge from the woodwork; nor from wishful thinking. They require a full-time commitment to public education and grassroots organizing. As long-time activist Brock Evans put it, they require “endless pressure endlessly applied”. Congressional wilderness champions such as Lee Metcalf were possible only because Congress perceived that voters wanted big wilderness. I am not naive enough to believe that there is any kind of quick fix for the conservation movement in these complex and frightening times. I fully realize that it may be too late in the climate game to save much of anything. Yet the Thirty by Thirty and Half Earth movements provide a ray of hope. Birth rates in many parts of the world are declining (though not enough). And if we don’t try, we guarantee failure. Designating big holistic wilderness and keeping it wild needs to be a priority if we are to slow the biological meltdown and maintain some level of long term wildness and naturalness on this beleaguered planet.

Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness
To summarize, wilderness is primarily about habitat, wildlife, biodiversity and the intrinsic value of  wild landscapes. Big wilderness defines our healthiest landscapes, be they forest, desert, prairie, tundra or combinations of diverse habitats. Wilderness is also about non-mechanized recreation, yes, and related spiritual values including solitude. But recreation and solitude are not its primary purpose, and our remaining wildlands are far more than an outdoor gymnasium.

Real wilderness is the primary control area in the vast experiment called human civilization. For how else can we measure the health of civilization except to compare it with unspoiled nature? All wilderness and semi-wilderness lands have conservation value. But protected wilderness ought to be as large as possible. It should be kept wild, without human manipulation and without livestock grazing. It should be managed under the Wilderness Act without special provisions that weaken protections.

Wilderness boundaries should also reflect the actual wildland entity on the ground, rather than the artificial borders of BLM or ranger districts, county lines, state lines, and old incomplete agency roadless area inventory borders.

Where feasible, wildland units should be interconnected or proximate, without barriers to wildlife movement. And wilderness areas should have holistic boundaries that minimize edge and maximize interior remoteness. Big, wild remote holistic wilderness is the cradle of all life on Earth and needs to be treated as such. Small fragmented edge-dominated oddly-shaped wildlands are better than nothing, sure, but they don’t fully maintain the core values of wilderness that are so important on this otherwise human-dominated planet.

In a sane world, overpopulation, the climate crisis, and the ongoing biological meltdown would top most any thinking person’s political agenda. Big holistic wilderness is intricately linked to all three. If the so-called “big greens” won’t lead the charge, unapologetic and with passion, based upon good science and biophilia, then they need to get out of the way of those who will.

 

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Howie Wolke recently retired from 41 years of outfitting and guiding wilderness backpack treks from Alaska to Mexico. He is on the Wilderness Watch board of directors and has been a wilderness advocate in the northern Rockies since 1975. He lives with his wife Marilyn Olsen and their dog Rio in southern Montana near Yellowstone National Park.

 

All photos © Howie Wolke. From top to bottom: Washakie Wilderness, South Absaroka Complex, WY; Escalante Canyons Proposed Wilderness, UT; Buffalo Horn Drainage, Gallatin Range Proposed Wilderness, MT; Grizzly Bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness, AK.

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Guest — Linda Pizzolla
Please join the save the wolves rally in DC Oct. 23 9:30 am! Let’s fight to put the wolves back on the Endangered Species List ASA... Read More
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Please let's save wilderness areas for all the children who will grow up and thank us for thinking of them, instead of corporate p... Read More
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Guest — Rayline Dean
All the Natures need to be protected for the purposes of wildlife animals' needs of their survival. I love to see the wildlife ani... Read More
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Wilderness for its own sake

Roy (Monte) Highby Roy (Monte) High

 

Over the years I’ve heard numerous people disparage the designation of wilderness areas by speaking on behalf of people with disabilities. They say that wilderness areas are unfair to the disabled because there are no roads allowed to take them there. I’ve heard it said that the designation of wilderness areas is like a slap to the face of the disabled population. As a person with a disability, I wholeheartedly disagree.

 

In 1983, as a 20-year-old boy, I was driving along a small winding highway between Dolores and Cortez, Colorado when five horses ran out in front of me. The ensuing collision caused a spinal cord injury that left me paralyzed, a quadriplegic with limited movement below the neck. I have now lived most of my life navigating the Earth in a wheelchair.

Before the crash I was very physically active, and spent much of my time in the great outdoors—hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, being. Some of my best memories are of traversing the tree line—hiking along rushing streams, through mountain meadows, aspen and pine, to come face to face with rocky outcroppings. Walking through the wild wonder. Otherworldly surroundings. The silence—there is sound, but no noise. Just the soothing sound of nature. I’d sit still and listen, and move on with a renewed sense of belonging. I am reminded of the connectedness of all things, that everything is one in God. I am awakened to reality, aware of my place on the sacred path I follow as a human being. O the beauty! O the peace, the exaltation of my soul! Even now, as I write these words the beauty brings me to my knees in reverence, tears roll from my eyes. The tears come not because I can no longer visit these pristine places, but because these places exist—just knowing that such beauty exists within our world brings me joy.

I still love getting out into nature. There are many beautiful natural areas that I can access in my wheelchair, places I can sit where it seems as if I am out in the middle of the wilderness, where I can recharge my connection to nature, experience a sense of immediacy and enter wholly into the moment. I live in Grand Junction, Colorado. I love spending time on trails along the Colorado River and the local state parks. Wheelchair accessibility has come a long way in recent years. I am grateful. Yet, I am aware of the need for designated wilderness areas and I am grateful for the wild places where wildlife can thrive.

As a wheelchair user I have learned to adapt. There are many places that are not accessible to me, including many of my friend’s homes. I do not take this as a sign that I am not welcome. I do not expect my friends to spend thousands of dollars to remodel their houses just so that I can enter. There are many other places where we can meet, where my friends can welcome me into their hearts. Likewise, I do not expect anyone to build roads and trails over every square inch of wilderness so that I can visit in my wheelchair. Especially when I realize that my selfishness could lead to the demise of the very land I love. I love knowing that there are wild places where animals can room free without human disruption. Many species are going extinct. Some animals, such as elk, require large wildlife corridors for migration, and many species cannot survive around the noise and pollution of machines. These lands mean much more than how much money we can pump out of them—for much of God’s creation these wilderness lands are crucial for their survival.

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Roy (Monte) High

Roy (Monte) High lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. He enjoys getting out into the natural areas nearby with his wife Elizabeth.

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Guest — Susan D. Robertson
Thank you for undertaking this survey. I agree with the concept offered by E.O. Wilson that we need to put aside 50% of the plane... Read More
Thursday, 07 October 2021 05:56
Guest — Amanda
It causes me such comfort and joy to know that there are people like you out there, Roy (Monte), and those who have left comments ... Read More
Wednesday, 06 October 2021 01:28
Guest — Diana Stransky
thank you sir for understanding the big picture and not putting yourself above the needs of wild things in wild places. Bless you... Read More
Monday, 20 September 2021 22:31
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Solitude in the River of No Return Wilderness…until all the motorboats

By Brett Haverstick

BrettI arrived at the Corn Creek trailhead about 4 p.m. in the afternoon. The sun was still hot, and the river canyon felt like an oven, particularly for May. After a few hours of hiking along the trail, I reached Horse Creek, a small tributary of the Salmon River. The creek was loud and brimming bank-to-bank with spring runoff. I decided to cross the creek using the foot-bridge—it was the wrong time of the year to wade into the water and attempt a stream crossing!

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Guest — Dena maguire young
Please do not allow bikes and motorized anything in this area. They tear up the woods and can scare wildlife and destroy the peac... Read More
Saturday, 18 September 2021 10:37
Guest — Connie Kirkham
I sign so many petitions that fight to keep our wild lands and wildlife, yet I don’t mind because I really want to keep nature and... Read More
Thursday, 02 September 2021 23:21
Guest — Tracey Bonner
Motor boats, motorcycles and flying airplanes for sight seeing tours is an assault on our eyes, ears and sanity. Most rational pe... Read More
Thursday, 02 September 2021 18:29
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Lost in the Winds

by Harriet Greene

 

Howie WolkeWind River Range, Bridger Wilderness, Pinedale, Wyoming: 
The West was drier than it had been in years. Two nearby fires were almost under control. Elkhart Park was closed as well as the south entrance to Yellowstone, nowhere near our direction. After thirteen hours on the road we arrived at our friend’s home in Jackson Hole where we would spend the night. Our gear was unloaded, our food figured out, our backpacks packed and our age-old list, checked off, making sure everything was in order for an early departure in the morning.
 
In Hoback Canyon, ten miles south of Jackson, fire-fighting camps lined the highway  and heavy smoke obscured the landscape. As the haze cleared, two sandhill cranes materialized in a meadow and watched us drive by, unconcerned at all the activity around them. 
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Guest — Theresa DeLuca
Keep nature clean, quiet, and unspoiled! The way it should be!
Friday, 27 August 2021 18:00
Guest — Theresa DeLuca
Nature must be left alone. It has worked for centuries until motorized vehicles and uncaring humans started interfering with it!... Read More
Thursday, 26 August 2021 12:29
Guest — Theresa DeLuca
Correction: on this Planet!
Friday, 27 August 2021 17:55
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Ending La Luz run safeguards wilderness

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

 

The recent decision by Forest Service District Ranger Crystal Powell to deny the permit to run the La Luz Trail Run race through the Sandia Mountain Wilderness may be understandably unpopular with some runners and race organizers (“La Luz race hits end of trail as Forest Service denies permit,” Albuquerque Journal, May 15). But this decision is the proper one to protect the wilderness character of this iconic area.

Wilderness is the most protective land designation in the United States. My organization, Wilderness Watch, works to safeguard Wildernesses around the country. We often challenge Forest Service decisions and occasionally take the agency to court when it violates the 1964 Wilderness Act. But in the case of the La Luz race permit, the Forest Service has made the right decision in accordance with the Wilderness Act and agency policies, and there are good reasons for runners and others to support this decision.

Wildernesses contain a huge array of values, many of them intangible like protecting opportunities for solitude, and some of them more tangible like protecting wildlife and increasingly scarce habitat. These values go far deeper than physical impacts to trails or whether litter is left behind. Wildernesses are emblematic of our human recognition of their inherent wildness, and symbolic of our society’s need for restraint and humility in dealing with them. By designating an area as wilderness, we recognize that area’s right to function on its own, without the active management and manipulation used on other federal lands and without the types of intensive intrusions prominent there.

Commercial activities and competitive races degrade a wilderness’s wild character. They detract from an area’s wildness and make an area more like the lands overrun by civilization, rather than “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape,” as the Wilderness Act states. That’s why the framers of the Wilderness Act and Congress included a prohibition on commercial activities in designated wildernesses, with only a very narrow exception for some outfitting and guiding activities. The Forest Service’s wilderness regulations also contain prohibitions on commercial activities and competitive events.

I sympathize with organizers of the trail run, particularly when the race has occurred since before Congress designated the Sandia Mountain Wilderness. But all across the country are examples of activities once allowed in areas that have needed to end after an area was designated as wilderness, all to better protect the wild character of these special lands for future generations and for wildlife, which are continually squeezed into smaller and smaller pockets of secure habitat. In Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), for example, the 1978 BWCAW Act ended many activities, including a competitive international canoe race, to better protect the area.

Other options likely exist for the race. A few years back, the organizers of a winter sled dog race wanted to route its race through a portion of the BWCAW. The Forest Service appropriately rejected that proposed route, and the race organizers eventually selected a different route. That outcome­—finding another venue or route outside of designated wilderness—may also well work for La Luz Trail Run, a far better outcome than weakening protections for the Sandia Mountain Wilderness.

 

Editor's note: Kevin's piece ran in the Albuquerque Journal on 5/31: https://www.abqjournal.com/2395565/ending-la-lu-zrun-safeguards-wilderness-2.html
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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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Guest — L.D.Zafar
I’m glad someone is standing up to protect the character of our beautiful wild places! Don’t care if the runners get pissed, how w... Read More
Wednesday, 28 July 2021 19:54
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some WILD places need to remain UNTOUCHED by humans!!!!
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Wildernesses contain a huge array of values, many of them intangible like protecting opportunities for solitude, and some of them ... Read More
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The Boundary Waters

by Suez Jacobson


Howie WolkeA long wait – almost 50 years – to learn

How deeply and completely

The wild magic of the Boundary Waters

Could burrow.

A self-identified mountain girl

Lost to still, flat black water

Contained by granite outcroppings

Layered in midnight green pines

Topped with iridescent spring birches.

 

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Guest — Ken Martin
Great News!!!
Tuesday, 29 June 2021 16:32
Guest — William Hilliker
I wish there were some pictures to accompany the Boundary Waters post. I've wanted to go there for about 50 years.
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Guest — Mary Townsend
I could feel the silence as I read this. It reminds me of a trip my family took to a national forest several years ago. We stopp... Read More
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Wilderness and the Value of Doing Nothing

Dana blog

by Dana Johnson

 

Along the high-elevation, wind-swept ridges of the West, a long-lived, gnarly-branched pine is in trouble.  A species of stone pine known for its high stress tolerance and adaptability, whitebark pine is slow-growing and can live between 500 – 1,000 years.  Lacking wings for wind-dispersal, its calorie-dense seeds are spread primarily by Clark’s Nutcracker, a member of the crow family with a specialized bill for extracting large seeds from pinecones and a pouch under its tongue for stashing and carrying seeds long distance.  Those seeds are a prized food source for a range of species, including the imperiled grizzly bear. 

As tough as the species is, whitebark pine is facing mounting pressures from climate change, decades of fire suppression, blister rust, mountain pine beetles, and competing conifers migrating to higher elevations in response to warming temperatures.  Already found at high elevations, many worry that whitebark pine will have nowhere to run. 

This cocktail of stressors has landed whitebark pine on the short-list for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act.  Unfortunately, the proposed listing rule allows logging and other “forest management” activities in whitebark pine habitat, and is, per usual, loudly silent on actions that might address the underlying causes of global warming.  Instead, it focuses heavily on intervention and manipulation strategies—like selectively breeding and planting blister rust resistant trees, pruning and thinning stands, fighting back other migrating conifers with logging, applying insecticides and pheromones, and even wrapping pinecones in wire mesh to keep red squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers from getting at the seeds.

This is a familiar story.  Humans are exceedingly bad at exercising restraint and simply not doing things.  Rather than drastically reducing consumption, travel, recreation, and development—things that take real personal and political sacrifice but create space for other species to exist—we put an enormous amount of effort into developing technologies that enable us to continue with business as usual or at least provide a veil of plausible deniability regarding our impact on the world.  Slap enough windmills on the hilltops, and we’ll never have to slow down.  Gather enough data on wildlife, and we can invade their space with abandon.  Or, worst case, fire up the helicopters, pluck the critters from their homes, slap tracking collars on their necks, and drop them elsewhere.  There is a deep tendency to treat everything as if it is merely an engineering challenge that is solvable with enough data and ingenuity (and money). 

This is not to say we shouldn’t pursue things less harmful than our current things—we’ve dug quite an overwhelming hole with climate change, and we need to be creative in how we deal with it.  But too often our efforts are tunnel-visioned on maintaining the status quo, and the tougher conversations about how we exist on this planet are altogether muted. 

Take for instance grizzly bears.  A widely cited research paper states that “[h]umans are the primary agent of death” for grizzlies.  We know this.  When humans and bears mix, bears end up dead.  So, areas with less human access and activity (e.g. recreation, logging, fast-moving cars and trains, etc.) are areas with fewer dead bears.  And in areas with greater human activity, we sorely need greater tolerance (and compassion) for bears.  As with so many other species reacting to rapidly changing conditions, we need to provide grizzlies with the space to move and adapt, and we need to keep open minds about what that might look like.  Yet, in the whitebark pine listing rule, the Fish and Wildlife Service downplays the importance of whitebark pine as a food for grizzlies calling them “opportunistic feeders.”  But whitebark pine is often found in remote, high elevation sites away from humans.  When whitebark pine seeds are scarce, bears search out other food, which often brings them into lower elevations and in closer contact with humans.  We don’t much care for the idea of sharing our favorite creek-side trail with a berry-munching grizzly or dealing with potholes in our golf courses from a bear digging up earthworms, so when an “opportunistic” bear ends up in our space, we trap the bear and move him back to his allotted “recovery zone.”  And if the bear crosses our line in the sand again—looking for food, or a mate, or a new home—we kill him, and we go to great pains gathering more data and rationalizing all the reasons why this is the way of things, why we don’t need to change our own behavior or ask, “What gives us the right?”

These tendencies toward control and entitlement make our collective agreement on Wilderness pretty remarkable.  Wilderness is a conscious reflection of human restraint—a place where we decided there is value in Nature’s own wild order, in the autonomy and freedom of the wild, and in allowing the land to play whatever hand it is dealt without our intentional interference.  It is a recognition that we don’t and can’t know everything and that we might learn something if we step back and observe what happens when we don’t impose our will.  Because of this, unsurprisingly, Wilderness is some of the best habitat left for species trying to eke out an existence alongside humans.  

The idea of Wilderness as a self-willed landscape has been a difficult one for land management agencies.  They have an ingrained history of modifying public lands to achieve “desired conditions,” an idea laden with value bias even in the best of times.  Throw climate change and all of its uncertainties into the mix, and the increasing urge to actively maintain static conditions becomes all the more problematic. 

Even though the agencies often resist it on the ground, their policy guidance reflects the value in Wilderness.  Agency guidance states, “Wilderness areas are living ecosystems in a constant state of evolution[,]” and “[i]t is not the intent of wilderness stewardship to arrest this evolution in an attempt to preserve character existing” at some prior time.  And, “A key descriptor of wilderness in the Wilderness Act, untrammeled refers to the freedom of a landscape from the human intent to permanently intervene, alter, control, or manipulate natural conditions or processes.”  And, “Maintaining wilderness character requires an attitude of humility and restraint. We preserve wilderness character by … imposing limits on ourselves.”  In Wilderness, we “[p]rovide an environment where the forces of natural selection and survival rather than human actions determine which and what numbers of wildlife species will exist.” 

Agency policy is taking a notable turn.  One agency stated its “policy prior to climate change was to take a ‘hands-off’ approach where overt human influences were not the primary reasons for population fluctuations.”  It now believes its role is shifting to  adaptive management to maintain “natural conditions,” and this conversation is growing across the agencies.  This—at its core—is a conversation about whether we will allow Wilderness to persist into the future. 

This shift is reflected in the proposed whitebark pine rule.  It lists Wilderness under “Challenges to Restoration,” setting the stage for conflict between an imperiled species and an imperiled landscape.  But this is likely a false conflict.  Roughly 29 percent of whitebark pine habitat is in Wilderness.  Given the variables and unintended consequences inherent in manipulations, that 29 percent should be set aside as an important baseline for comparison to our tinkerings elsewhere.  The listing rule acknowledges “a high degree of uncertainty inherent in any predictions of species responses to a variety of climate change scenarios. This is particularly true for whitebark pine given it is very long lived, has a widespread distribution, has complex interactions with other competitor tree species, relies on Clark’s nutcracker for both distribution and regeneration, and has significant threats present from disease, predation, and fire.”

It also acknowledges “[t]here is no known way to control, reduce, or eliminate either mountain pine beetle or white pine blister rust…particularly at the landscape scale needed to effectively conserve this species.”  In fact, “the vast scale at which planting rust-resistant trees would need to occur, long timeframes in which restoration efficacy could be assessed, and limited funding and resources, will make it challenging to restore whitebark pine throughout its range. One estimate indicates that if planting continues at its current pace, it would take over 5000 years to cover just 5 percent of the range of whitebark pine[.]”

This does not appear to be a scenario where we have to grapple with fine lines.  There is no discrete, human-caused disruption in Wilderness that can be corrected with a discrete, short-lived intervention.  This is not an errant patch of spotted knapweed along a stock trail that can be pulled.  But it is illustrative of the moral and ethical questions coming our way.  Climate change will continue to cause vast changes in the world as we know it, and we will see more attempts to mitigate the effects through ongoing, counterbalancing manipulations.  The question will be whether we lose Wilderness in the process. 

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Dana Johnson is the staff attorney for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.

 

Big Whitebark Keith Hammer


Photo: Keith Hammer

Recent Comments
Guest — Claude Funnston
The otherwise good article omits the elephant in the closet which is that humans cannot curtail their propensity to breed. Unless... Read More
Thursday, 01 July 2021 21:34
Guest — Cathy Brandt
All so true, Dana Johnson! Wilderness Watch, you are my favorite group these days because your philosophies are spot on. We must p... Read More
Tuesday, 18 May 2021 13:20
Guest — james peek
I don’t have any problem with most of Rob’s comments and agree the IR wolf inbreeding was primarily responsible for their decline.... Read More
Monday, 10 May 2021 13:44
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Floating the Grand Canyon

by Howie Wolke

 

Howie WolkeIn late October, Marilyn and I headed south for a 226 mile 21-day float trip down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. There were four of us, in two rafts. For most of the 20,000 or so folks who annually float the Colorado, the scenery and numerous challenging rapids are big attractions. But for Marilyn and me, the big draw was the vast desert wilderness that the river punctuates. Although I hadn’t rowed challenging whitewater in nearly two decades, we all made it through the rapids upright, though I had a few close calls.

Wilderness. The Big Outside (Foreman and Wolke, Revised Edition 1992) inventoried the Grand Canyon wildland complex at 2,700,000 acres of roadless country in one unbroken block, the fourth largest such area in the lower 48 states. The 2.7 million acre wildland includes over a million roadless acres within Grand Canyon National Park, but also a number of contiguous national forest and BLM roadless areas and designated wildernesses. 

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Recent Comments
Guest — Thomas H Small
I believe the Grand Canyon Dam should be protected for all current and future generations of people who live near the beautiful ar... Read More
Friday, 23 April 2021 06:35
Guest — Richard Baker
I took a class in my Geology of National Parks course on the long float trip over 40 years ago. It was the most memorable trip of ... Read More
Wednesday, 21 April 2021 10:38
Guest — Constance Stepanek
What a better person I am for having read your essay. Truly your protection of the wilderness will already be remembered. No dou... Read More
Tuesday, 20 April 2021 13:47
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Wilderness: Is it all about us?

george nickas 200x150

by George Nickas

 

A while back I received an email from the founders of a recently established organization that was created out of a concern for the “wilderness visitor.” They wrote to challenge Wilderness Watch’s long-time insistence that the fundamental mandate in the Wilderness Act requires managers to—first and foremost—protect each area’s wilderness character. They claim WW’s position misinterprets the law, has incorrectly shaped the views of much of the conservation community and, to the degree we influence the federal agencies, caused them to protect Wilderness from the people.

 

The gist of their argument is that Wilderness was established to provide recreation opportunities, and that the emphasis many put on protection is diminishing the recreational opportunities that Wilderness affords. To bolster their view they point to language in the law, repeated three or four times, that says wilderness areas “shall be administered for the use and enjoyment” of the American people. The law’s protection requirements, according to their point of view, are operative to the degree they don’t unduly interfere with the overarching purpose of providing recreational opportunities.


I’ve heard variations of this argument before. A long-time wilderness advocate once tried to convince me that recreation was the chief purpose of the Wilderness Act, and as proof offered that the Act uses the words “use and enjoyment” or “recreation” a combined seven times, while “protect” or its derivatives are used only five. I replied that since the Wilderness Act uses the word “mining” 11 times, maybe it was mining, not recreation or protection that the Act sought to achieve! It ended that discussion, but obviously hasn’t ended the debate.

 

The purpose of the Wilderness Act was never lost on the Act’s architect and supporters. Testifying to Congress in 1962, the law’s chief author and lobbyist Howard Zahniser, explained, “The purpose of the Wilderness Act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular use.” This directive was codified in the statute with the clear mandate that “[e]ach agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area and shall so administer such area for such other purposes for which it may have been established as also to preserve its wilderness character.”

 

The benefits of “use and enjoyment” of Wilderness were also high on Zahniser’s list, but the concept wasn’t merely synonymous with recreation. He understood the phrase in a much more expansive and meaningful way. Responding to a critic who claimed it was rather selfish to set aside large areas for the limited few who would use them, Zahniser insisted that those who sought out wilderness deserved the opportunity to experience it, but he also explained that the use and enjoyment extended to

 

“many people who never even hope to explore it…they find relief and inspiration in the wilderness vicariously, and a consciousness of its existence is essential to them. This may be hard to explain, but the people I know who want the wilderness saved for these reasons greatly outnumber those I know who want the wilderness saved for their own excursions.”*


None of this suggests recreation isn’t an important public purpose of Wilderness. To many of us our time spent in Wilderness is essential to our being. But Wilderness is valuable for many reasons, including for its own sake; it doesn’t derive its value from us. Wilderness can exist and thrive without recreation, and indeed some areas do, but for us to have an authentic wilderness experience there has to be a real Wilderness to enjoy.

 

*Quoted from “The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zahniser,” by Mark Harvey. A must read for wilderness advocates who want to understand more about the person, the ideas and the language underpinning the Wilderness Act.
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George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch.

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Recent Comments
Guest — Johanna Schwarzer
There is nothing better than being in the great outdoors, listening to the birds, observing the wild animals, observing bushes and... Read More
Tuesday, 06 April 2021 11:31
Guest — Janet Muir
I read with appreciation George Nickas’ comments in “Wilderness: Is it all about us? Over the years, I have enjoyed several week... Read More
Wednesday, 31 March 2021 13:31
Guest — Maggie Frazier
I absolutely agree! As someone who very likely will never be able to physically "engage" in any Wilderness Area, the knowledge th... Read More
Wednesday, 31 March 2021 08:53
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An Art of Conducting Oneself

By Paul Willis

Paul WillisThere is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up.  —René Daumal, Mount Analogue

 

Sitting here, high on the shoulder of a peak in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, I am looking down at a grassy swale where I startled a herd of eleven mule deer. From this height they are now too small to be seen, but they kept their ground as I detoured around them on scree and talus, not wanting to disturb their pasture. And looking down in the other direction, a blood-red canyon drops away to the round expanse of an alkali lake, from this vantage point its two or three islands an obvious continuation of a series of craters to the south. And, looking up, the summit of the mountain I'm on rises gently, inviting me to visit before thunderheads build and explode, just as they did yesterday on my way down another summit. Such a relief to be lost in sky, no other purpose beyond placing the next boot, the next hoof.     

 

Recent Comments
Guest — Dave Potter
Truly a wonderful word painting. Then I see the author is an English prof; good for you.
Sunday, 28 March 2021 15:56
Guest — Mark D. Blitzer
Very touching story. I was particularly interested in that the author had a "small part" in gaining wilderness protection for the... Read More
Wednesday, 24 March 2021 17:16
Guest — Paul Willis
Mark, I was chair of the wilderness committee for the Spokane Group of the Sierra Club in the early 80s. We tried to get the Kett... Read More
Wednesday, 24 March 2021 18:57
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Arctic Dreams

By Ned Vasquez

 

Ned VFor many years, dating back even to my childhood, I have dreamed of spending time in the Alaskan wilderness. In August, 2019 this dream became a reality when my middle daughter and I spent 9 days rafting the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Our trip was organized through a guiding company based in Fairbanks. Our group consisted of 6 clients and 2 guides and we were fortunate to have a highly compatible group. The guiding company did an excellent job of orienting us to the nature of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and ensured that we were as minimally impactful as possible.

 

Recent Comments
Guest — Deb Merchant
Thank you, Ned, for highlighting the critical nature of protecting the Arctic from drilling. I'm speaking to my choir when I say t... Read More
Saturday, 20 March 2021 21:49
Guest — Julie Stinchcomb
Sounds very nice. Very descriptive. Definitely want to visit. Thank you. Warm Regards Julie Stinchcomb
Thursday, 18 March 2021 17:40
Guest — Cathy
What a adventure, Ned! I've only been to AK once (Denali, Katmai - bears, etc.) and I am definitely going back! On my bucket lis... Read More
Friday, 05 March 2021 15:36
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Arctic Time

By Frank Keim

Cathy

Old days drift slowly into new days

and the white eye of the Arctic sun rolls

bright across the night,

as we trek

south

up the Hulahula River,

named more than a century ago

by Hawaiian whalers stranded

on an ocean cold and frozen

before its time.

Recent Comments
Guest — Reba Reiser
Great poem, thank you for continuing to care the way you seen to have always done.
Friday, 12 February 2021 14:29
Guest — John Lyle
Frank, thank you for sharing this poem. As I sit here reading it, looking out the window at Mauna Loa covered with new snow, I can... Read More
Thursday, 11 February 2021 10:37
Guest — Catherine Johnson
How beautiful!
Monday, 08 February 2021 15:28
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Thirty by Thirty and Half Earth: Promises and Pitfalls

Dana blog


by Howie Wolke

 

INTRODUCTION

In 2016, legendary ecologist Edward O. Wilson published Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. In this remarkable book, Wilson documents the ongoing anthropogenic planet-wide biological meltdown, the greatest extinction event since a meteor crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, about 60 million years ago. As a remedy, Wilson argues for protecting half of the Earth’s terrestrial acreage as inviolate nature reserves.

Flash back to the early 1980s. The original wilderness-focused Earth First! suggested that a fair balance for wilderness and civilization might be 50% for each. It was called “crazy”, “radical”, “unrealistic” and other terms of endearment not fit for print. And in my 1991 book Wilderness on the Rocks, I suggested that 30% of the U.S. be designated wilderness as a short term goal. That was also ridiculed as “unrealistic”.

Today, the “Nature Needs Half” coalition is promoting Wilson’s vision, and the “Thirty by Thirty” movement is gaining traction in the mainstream political discourse. Its goal is to protect 30% of the Earth’s landscape in nature reserves by the year 2030. The 30/30 goal is now considered by many to be attainable. And it is gratifying to see land protection efforts of this magnitude inch their way into the public discourse. The 30/30 goal does not mean that 30% of the land would be designated wilderness in the United States. Wilderness is our highest level of protection and it will be an important part of the equation. But other protective strategies, which also protect natural habitats for wildlife, biodiversity and other ecosystem values, will also be essential, especially for lands that lack wilderness characteristics. The purpose of this essay is to advance the discussion on how to effectively protect nearly a third of the U.S. landscape, including but not limited to designated wilderness.

DISCUSSION

30/30 would be a great start toward Wilson’s more thorough vision of Half Earth. But in my view, it is just that: a great start. Increasing numbers of scientists have concluded that 30/30 is the minimum starting point for conserving native biodiversity. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has endorsed 30/30, along with a growing list of American and international conservation groups.

President Joe Biden has endorsed 30/30, as has California Governor Gavin Newsom. There is also plenty of public support for protecting wildlands. According to a poll by the Center for American Progress, about 86% of Americans support the 30/30 concept, including 76% of polled Republicans. Clearly, when it comes to land protection, there is a huge disconnect between Republican politicians and the rank and file.

The extinction crisis is driven by habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, poaching, the proliferation of exotic weed species plus climate change. The meltdown is fueled by a growing human population that continues to expand unabated like a spreading cancer into remaining natural habitats around the globe, displacing native life and ecosystems. Some ecologists estimate that half of the estimated 10 million species that we share the planet with could be extinct or plummeting toward the eternal abyss by late this century. Thus, the need to protect land and water becomes more acute. Conservation biologists assert that we need to protect big interconnected landscapes as nature reserves.

Of course, protecting wild nature isn’t just about countering the biological meltdown. Wilderness is the primary repository of 3.5 billion years of organic evolution on this blue green spinning ball of life that we call Earth. Wilderness is the fundamental environment that shaped all known life, including humans, though many deny this primal connection. That’s why new wilderness designations and good wilderness stewardship should top the 30/30 agenda, while recognizing that other kinds of land protections will also be essential.

I also believe that wild nature has intrinsic value, something that’s worthwhile for its own sake, independent of the multitude of benefits it provides humans. That’s my primary motive as a conservationist. Many of us simply love all that is wild—and we know deep in our primate bones that Aldo Leopold said it best: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

“Untrammeled”, “primeval”, “natural”, and “where the imprint of man’s (sic) work is substantially unnoticeable” are phrases used in the 1964 Wilderness Act to define designated wilderness (I believe the authors of the Wilderness Act used the term “natural” to describe a landscape dominated by native plants and animals. Thus I do not consider croplands, livestock pastures and monocultures of exotic weeds to be “natural”). Today's National Wilderness Preservation System encompasses about 111 million acres, or about 4% of the U.S. landscape. Yet about half of that acreage is in Arctic and Subarctic Alaska, whereas only about 2.7% of the lower 48 states is designated Wilderness.

Because of this geographic disparity, for the 30/30 campaign, let’s view these two geographies through distinct lenses, so that at least 30% of the lower 48 is protected. And, let’s set the 2030 goal for Alaska at 50%. In that vast realm that’s still mostly wild, achieving Wilson’s goal would be easy, at least from a landscape viewpoint. For starters in Alaska, the Naval Petroleum Reserve (keep that oil in the ground, where it won’t harm the atmosphere!), the entire Alaska Range east of Denali, and most of the Chugach and Tongass national forests should all be protected as designated wilderness.

Where do we find 30%—or 50%—of our landscape to protect? Start with the existing National Wilderness Preservation System (2.7% of the lower 48 states). Then, add protections for all roadless areas, wilderness study areas, and backcountry areas administered by our four federal land management agencies. Based upon research I did back in the 1980s, I estimate that roughly 12-15% of the land area of the lower 48 states is in a wilderness or near-wilderness condition. This includes over a hundred million additional acres—according to agency inventories—of wilderness or semi-wilderness quality lands in the lower 48 states, in national forest and BLM-administered roadless areas and Wilderness Study Areas alone! We can also designate many new national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges.

States can also add to the protected acreage by adding parks and wildlife preserves. A few states already maintain significant protected wildland acreages: New York’s Adirondack Forest Preserve, for example. In the private domain, large holdings with conservation easements and protected holdings of land trusts and conservancies might also qualify as “protected” lands under 30/30. We can also use additional tax incentives for conservation easements plus the Land and Water Conservation fund to acquire additional conservation lands.

In addition, we can restore the wilds! There is vast potential for wildland restoration (“re-wilding”) across tens of millions of acres of the public domain. We can even restore wilderness. The Wilderness Act’s authors never intended for the definition of wilderness to preclude lands that were less than pristine. Note that according to the Wilderness Act, the imprint of humanity’s work must simply be “substantially unnoticeable”. In fact, Congress can and has designated wilderness for lands that had been previously roaded, clearcut and otherwise developed. Once designated, under the Wilderness Act, agencies must manage such lands as wilderness, letting nature re-wild the landscape. In fact, most wilderness areas in the eastern U.S. have been re-wilding themselves, for the most part just by being left alone.

Yet agency bureaucrats routinely violate the Wilderness Act by allowing illegal developments in designated wilderness. And Congress too often enacts wilderness bills with special provisions (for example allowing for off-road vehicular use in wilderness for ranchers) which weaken wilderness protections. Nonetheless, in this imperfect world, designated wilderness remains our highest level of land protection in the U.S., and should be a big component of the 30/30 movement. Thus, as we move toward 30/30, keeping designated wilderness areas truly wild (the primary mission of Wilderness Watch) will assume even more importance!

I mentioned entrenched bureaucrats. Here’s an example: According to Custer-Gallatin National Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson, “I view all public lands as being protected.” It is hard to believe, I know, but yes, I heard her say that. Thus, in her worldview, giant eroding weed-infested clearcuts, roads gouged across 45-degree slopes (including a 400,000+ mile road network on national forest lands alone!), open- pit mines, oil fields, ORV sacrifice areas, heavily fenced livestock pastures with devastated riparian zones, exotic weed monocultures, dams, pipelines, power corridors, ski areas, summer homes and more constitute the fabric of “protected” public lands. We must guard against bureaucrats who would water down the meaning of “protected” land. Otherwise, 30/30 will be used to simply rubber stamp existing agency mismanagement.

SPECIFICS

Which brings us to the central question of both the Nature Needs Half and the 30/30 movements: “What constitutes ‘protected’ land?” We need definitive standards in addition to those in the Wilderness Act, which will assure that all of the 30% is really protected. 

For example, the U.S. Geological Survey defines 4 levels of land protection called “Gap Status”. Status level 1 represents the strictest level of protection and Status 4 the least. Without detailing each of these levels, I would argue that even Gap Status 1 is weak, and that Status levels 2 through 4 represent little more than business as usual for public lands under typical agency multiple (ab)use management. For the record, Gap Status 1 is defined as

     An area having permanent protection from conversion of natural land cover and a mandated management plan in operation to maintain a natural state within which disturbance events ( of a natural type, frequency, intensity and legacy) are allowed to proceed without interference or are mimicked through management.

Here's another, slightly better definition of protected land utilized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP):

     A protected area is a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.

I propose that we combine the best aspects of the above two definitions, and then further strengthen the definition with a few caveats. My proposed definition of protected land:

     A clearly defined geographical area having permanent protection through legal or legislated or other effective means, to achieve long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values. Natural conditions are maintained and the conversion of natural native land cover is precluded. Natural disturbance events and processes such as wildfire, flood and predation, are allowed and encouraged.

I believe this to be a workable definition, with the following caveats:

  • Mechanized Travel must be restricted to designated roads within reserves.
  • New road construction is prohibited.
  • Resource extraction such as mining, oil drilling and commercial logging are prohibited.
  • Lands that have been impacted in the past, including logged over lands and lands with limited or primitive road networks, can be included if a management plan is in place to restore and maintain wild and natural conditions (re-wilding).
  • In some regions of the world, existing subsistence hunting/gathering/fishing rights—preferably via traditional primitive means—might continue, depending upon the circumstance. However, this question probably merits more of a discussion than is practical in this brief overview.

Here are some examples of lands that could constitute our protected 30%:

  • The National Wilderness Preservation System
  • National forest and BLM Roadless areas and Wilderness Study Areas
  • Protected state wildlands such as those in New York’s Adirondack Forest Preserve
  • National Parks
  • National Monuments
  • National Wildlife Refuges
  • Forest Service and BLM-administered multiple use lands in which a plan is in place to restore wild and natural conditions (re-wilding).
  • Private conservation lands in which natural conditions are maintained via conservation easement or other legal protection(s)
  • About 24 million acres of lands included in the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which designates new wilderness areas, biological corridors, and wildland recovery areas in the U.S. Northern Rockies.
  • Protected public and private lands in Montana’s growing American Prairie Reserve
  • Existing and potential biological corridors

Here are a few examples of lands that should NOT be included in the “protection” category:

  • Lands that are intensively grazed and managed primarily for livestock production
  • Croplands or manicured urban parks not characterized by native vegetation, even if they are maintained as “open space” by conservation easements
  • Typical Forest Service- and BLM-administered “multiple use lands” that are managed for timber production, livestock, minerals, and mechanized transportation. As noted above, such lands can be moved into “protected” status if a re-wilding plan replaces “multiple abuse”.


And finally, the first step to 30/30 should be a National Wildlands Inventory conducted by an independent panel of scientists to identify both public and privately-owned wildlands that could qualify for some level of protected status under a 30/30 plan. Part of the inventory—and ultimately part of the 30/30 plan—should specifically identify the country’s major eco-regions, to assure that each ecoregion  has at least one protected area that is large enough (and/or functionally interconnected with other nearby wild areas) to support most of the native keystone species—large carnivores, for example —for that ecosystem.

SUMMARY

Wildland conservation has an opportunity to move forward with a bold plan to protect wilderness and other wild habitats on nearly one third of our landscape. Conservation groups can support the 30/30 movement as a minimum starting point, looking ahead to E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth vision as the long term goal.

Achieving 30/30 will not be easy. It faces a hostile gauntlet of the usual bad actors: entrenched bureaucrats, myopic and corrupt elected officials plus the industry lobbies that work to thwart most conservation initiatives. Not to mention the rapidly expanding army of mechanized recreationists, including mountain bike organizations. Yet the history of conservation proves that commitment and determination can overcome enormous political obstacles. Today’s global ecological crisis demands that we dramatically increase land and water protections. This includes pushing for maximum protected acreage for wilderness quality lands and other areas that remain relatively natural and wild.

Like cockroaches, humans can adapt to and even thrive in nearly every artificial environment imaginable. Like Mumbai, for example. Or Houston. Or the expansive monocultural wastelands of Kansas. But is cockroach habitat and vast impoverished human-scapes the world that we wish to pass on? The least we can do for future generations of both human and non-human life is to approach wildland conservation as though the survival of life as we know it on Earth depends upon it—which in fact, it does. Enacting a strong 30/30 plan would be a great start.

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Howie Wolke is a long-time wilderness proponent. He has been a board member for Wilderness Watch on and off for over two decades, including two terms as President. He is a retired wilderness backpacking and canoeing guide/outfitter who now enjoys wilderness adventure without having to be responsible for others. He and his wife, Marilyn Olsen, and their dog Rio live in the foothills of the Gallatin Range, just north of Yellowstone National Park in southern Montana.

Author’s note: Thanks go to Marilyn Olsen and Wilderness Watch board member René Voss for their suggested edits, many of which have been incorporated into the final version. However, any errors and anything the reader might deem to be offensive are entirely my responsibility.

Recent Comments
Guest — gregory battaglia
I think it's absurdly naive to expect any meaningful wilderness (yes "wilderness") protection to happen as long as humanity acts i... Read More
Saturday, 08 May 2021 14:32
Guest — Wilderness Watch
Gregory, thanks for your comment. Please see our blog post: https://wildernesswatch.org/keeping-wilderness-wild-blog-post/wilderne... Read More
Monday, 10 May 2021 12:09
Guest — Barrett Walker
Thank you for your thoughtful approach to achieving the 30/30 conservation goal.
Wednesday, 27 January 2021 14:25
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NOT Alone in the Wilderness...

By Cathy Brandt

Cathy

Due to life-long arthritis and now a bit of the "A" word (age), I can't hike very deep into wilderness areas. However, when I do I'm looking to experience solitude—to get away from masses of people and their litter, cell phones, dogs barking, and aircraft noise. It's very sad that some people have never been away from these distractions and never know what they're missing.

We all deserve wild solitude and I feel human beings actually need it. In the wild all of our senses experience fresh cues, and our lungs take in more clean air and oxygen. For some of us, it can also be a very emotional experience. A few tears may be shed at the sight of a wondrous peak, or a gurgling moss-lined creek. Wild places are my church, and many would agree with me on that!

Recent Comments
Guest — Cathy Brandt
Thanks Dick Johnson for the info. Thanks everyone for reading my story and I hope many of you will get more involved to make a di... Read More
Monday, 09 November 2020 20:46
Guest — ernie
thanks for the story...in Canada we are not burdened by these noise infractions as much, I hope we won't be in the future.
Sunday, 01 November 2020 14:52
Guest — Elizabeth Mooney
It is totally outrageous that a portion of this world doesn't care about mother natures land and the marine and wildlife animals. ... Read More
Sunday, 01 November 2020 14:46
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Toads in the sand: How the Juniper Dunes Wilderness protects wildlife from motorized wreckreation

By Scott Crain

Scott

The Juniper Dunes Wilderness area is a 7000-acre part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, located in southeastern Washington State. It lies just a few miles north of what used to be a quiet part of the state, now exploding with population and development. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation lies a few miles to the southwest, one of the most polluted nuclear waste sites in the country. Just outside the barbed wire fence that surrounds Juniper Dunes lies an off-road vehicle area promoted by the Bureau of Land Management for ORVs and other motorized activities. 

 

I was born and raised a few miles south in Pasco. When I was a kid, the Dunes, as we called them, were a place to go target shooting, driving four wheelers, and doing all sorts of other things that our parents didn't want to know about. I've moved on, but those activities continue unabated right up to the wilderness boundary.

Recent Comments
Guest — cynthia lewis
Thanks you for trying to protect this special ecosystem. It is people like you who put in the time/effort who will make our planet... Read More
Sunday, 25 October 2020 17:51
Guest — C Logs
Great article Scott, shows both perspectives which is good. No child should be deigned the out door experience. It's important ... Read More
Wednesday, 21 October 2020 14:36
Guest — Bonnie
Thank you Scott for calling our attention to and helping us reconnect to the Natural World! I advocate for programs that take chil... Read More
Sunday, 18 October 2020 10:10
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The Boundary Waters and an Over-Reliance on Technology

By Kevin Proescholdt

Kevin

In August, my family and I enjoyed our second canoe trip of the summer in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) of northeastern Minnesota.  The 1.1 million-acre BWCAW is a lakeland wilderness with over 1,000 lakes connected by rivers, streams and portage trails. It is part of Superior National Forest and is one of the most visited (if not the most visited) Wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

 

We enjoyed five days of paddling, portaging, camping, swimming, fishing, and laughing.  But we did have to contend with strong winds almost the entire trip, including becoming windbound overnight at a point of land where the strong west winds howled unimpeded along many miles of open lake.

Recent Comments
Guest — Chris
Been on numerous trips decades ago. I do hope while on your trip you pondered the fact BWCAW was one of the first and still one ... Read More
Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:14
Guest — Mike Shepley
My grandfather built a retirement house on Fall Lake near Ely (but the reality of winter soon had them renting for 6 months a year... Read More
Monday, 05 October 2020 09:04
Guest — Valere Friedman
It would be appropriate that people be able to get some education on an area before they go, or at the very least, at the entrance... Read More
Saturday, 03 October 2020 22:26
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Cumberland Island

By Jessica Howell-Edwards

JessicaCumberland Island Wilderness is part of the Cumberland Island National Seashore in southern Georgia, administered by the National Park Service (NPS). It was previously sanctioned as a UN Biosphere Reserve, and is located just miles from Kings Bay Naval Base and also nuclear warhead storage.

 

I firmly believe that all Wilderness experiences have the potential to be transformative in our lives, but Cumberland Island Wilderness offers a complex variation of ecosystems that only a southeastern barrier island can: towering sand dunes, freshwater lakes, maritime forest, salt marshes, and deserted beaches.

Recent Comments
Guest — Janet Duran
I have always wanted to visit this beautiful Island. We must protect it. Thank you all for your wonderful comments.
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 15:45
Guest — Jessica
Yes! Please join us at http://change.org/norocketsoverwilderness!... Read More
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 16:38
Guest — Kevin Kriescher
Wilderness for wilderness sake! From it we come and to it we return; there is still nothing more beautiful. We might be better at ... Read More
Monday, 28 September 2020 11:00
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The Wild Emigrant: Cows, Dams, and Damn Mosquitoes

By René Voss

RenéSo now I know why people came up with the idea of aerial spraying DDT to kill pesky bugs ... like the thousands of mosquitoes that attacked me over the summer solstice in the Emigrant Wilderness.  Relentless beasts!

 

As I was walking out of the Wilderness I struck an interesting conversation with a fellow hiker who was local and had been visiting the Emigrant Wilderness for over 50 years.  He said he had seen many changes since he first started hiking there as a kid.  His name was Larry.  I know this because he was wearing a "Larry" belt buckle ... local for sure.

Recent Comments
Guest — Dave Potter
As I briefly mentioned in my first comment, I implore all of us that talk about saving nature and protecting its critters: use... Read More
Tuesday, 08 September 2020 11:58
Guest — James Morrison
Glad to see that some parts of the Wilderness is doing well. Just keep man and development out of the Nature Preserves.
Sunday, 06 September 2020 14:51
Guest — Dave Potter
Cattle in wilderness areas = cow pies in the meadows where you need to pitch your tent. Flies all around and trampled, broken dow... Read More
Saturday, 05 September 2020 16:53
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Wolf Sightings, Bear-Baiting, and Landing Strips: A Week in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

By Brett Haverstick

BrettI just returned from a recent backpacking trip into one of our nation’s first Wilderness areas, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of north central Idaho and western Montana. It was a typical June trip in the Northern Rockies with thunder, lightning, rain, hail, clouds, and sun. The forests were greening up, the rivers and creeks flowing at a strong clip, and the birds were both active in flight and song. My personal trip diary reflected that I observed bald eagles, osprey, red-tailed hawks, ravens, pileated woodpeckers, hummingbirds, western tanagers, Canada geese, common mergansers, and more.

Recent Comments
Guest — Brett Haverstick
Hi Dave this is Brett - thanks for reading the trip report and offering some of your experiences and insight. I've backpacked the ... Read More
Tuesday, 08 September 2020 11:58
Guest — Dave Potter
Thu, Aug 13 at 8:17 PM I saw this dumping of surplus food years ago in the wilderness beaches of the Olympic National Park. We s... Read More
Saturday, 05 September 2020 16:45
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