Degrading the Wave

BLM Plan Would Degrade the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness

By Gary Macfarlane


Gary

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently released a draft environmental assessment for public input on its proposal to increase visitor use in fragile areas of the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness in Arizona, most specifically the Wave and Coyote Buttes North. These areas are almost exclusively day use, being only a few miles hike roundtrip.

What is astounding about this proposal is that BLM tacitly admits the reason for increasing visitor use has nothing to do with protecting Wilderness. BLM states, “There has been a shift over the last 10-20 years in the type of user to the wilderness. Many visitors lack knowledge of basic backcountry ethics and skills, as well as an understanding of land navigation principles. They are focusing more on a singular attraction such as the Wave, and less on wilderness qualities such as solitude, and an undeveloped natural experience.” In other words, the goal of BLM’s proposal is to inappropriately accommodate excessive visitor use rather than protect the Wilderness it’s entrusted with.

It doesn’t stop there. In addition to the proposed 250 to 500 percent daily visitor increase in the Wilderness, BLM is considering drilling into rock to place trail markers, despite the Wilderness Act’s prohibition on installations. BLM is also vague about possibly installing a phone either at the trailhead or inside the Wilderness itself. The plan is a far cry from the mandate of the Wilderness Act for an enduring resource of wilderness.

The proposal also fails to take concrete steps to address other problems in the Wilderness that stem from day use via the Wire Pass Trailhead, which accesses the Wave. Specifically, there are too many impacts from horse use in the canyon bottom leading into Buckskin Gulch, which is the first part of the hike to the Wave. (Ironically, Buckskin Gulch and other canyons of the Paria River system are closed to overnight horse use, but not day use by horses.) Additionally, BLM is proposing to increase parking at other trailheads, which could lead to overuse in other fragile areas of the Wilderness that do not currently have the name recognition of the Wave, and which still offer a relatively primitive experience. Work at trailheads, such as to reduce resource damage, must not lead to increased use in the Wilderness. The plan could turn Wilderness into something like a city park, overrun with crowds, rather than a Wilderness that offers solitude and a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.

The Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness was first established as the Paria Canyon Primitive Area in 1969, and was one of the first areas BLM recognized for its wilderness values. (The Federal Lands Policy Management Act, the law that made BLM-administered lands subject to the Wilderness Act, would not be passed until 1976.) If BLM can degrade the long-recognized Paria Canyon area—a region of spectacular slot canyons, geological wonders, and rare species like desert bighorn sheep—what chance do other BLM-administered Wildernesses have to remain wild?

Read Wilderness Watch's comments on the plan

 

Gary is the Secretary of the Board of Directors of Wilderness Watch and Ecosystem Defense Director for Friends of the Clearwater, where he is responsible for tracking public land issues in the Clearwater Basin of Idaho. Gary has over 30 years of activist experience and has been recognized as one of the most effective activists in the northern Rockies.
 
 
 
 
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Hell No to Helicopters in Hellsgate

Cyndiby Cyndi Tuell

 

They say the idea of Wilderness needs no defense, but that Wilderness just needs defenders. For the past five years Wilderness Watch has worked to defend Wilderness areas in the Tonto National Forest from two agencies that should be protecting rather than degrading these wild places. Both the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) and the U.S. Forest Service have been fighting—under the guise of “management”—to unlawfully land intrusive, noisy, and dangerous helicopters in Wilderness areas to track, trap, and relocate iconic bighorn sheep.

What both agencies really want to do to these wild, far-roaming animals is treat them like livestock, ranching them to ensure a “huntable” population. The proposed plan is to repeatedly land helicopters in Wilderness, catch sheep, take their blood, put collars on them, and monitor sheep movements constantly. This is antithetical to the very idea of Wilderness. Wilderness is where motorized use is prohibited. It is supposed to remain free from human manipulation. These actions will harm the sheep and other wildlife.

In 2014, more than half of the 31 sheep the AZGFD captured in Yuma and moved to mountains near Tucson using helicopters died as a result of relocation efforts. Some died during capture, some died during the flight, and some died in their new and unfamiliar surroundings. This same year, the AZGFD pushed the Tonto National Forest to allow helicopters to land hundreds of times a year to harass and move more bighorn sheep. Wilderness Watch and our allies pushed back hard on this unlawful plan because wild sheep in Wilderness areas should be protected from the intrusions of machines and man’s hubris.

And we won.

The Forest Service agreed that AZGFD’s plan was excessive and would likely violate environmental laws—including the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

In 2019, the AZGFD was back at it. Wilderness Watch again had to defend Wilderness when the Arizona Game and Fish Department proposed up to 150 helicopter landings in the Four Peaks, Hellsgate, Mazatzal, Salt River Canyon, and Superstition Wildernesses to capture and collar bighorn sheep. The wildlife “managers” want to capture and monitor these wild sheep, day and night, landing their helicopters in our forests, under the guise of managing disease outbreaks. These same wildlife managers refuse to remove the main source of disease to wild sheep—domestic sheep. They refuse to protect wildlife corridors connecting Arizona’s mountains so bighorn sheep can move as they need to, ensuring healthy populations and biological diversity in wild populations.

We objected to this new plan last October because the project fails to advance the purposes of the Wilderness Act or Wilderness designations. We advocated for the agencies to consider managing only those bighorn herds that are outside of Wilderness, but the Forest Service approved the project anyway.

These intrusions into Wilderness areas are unnecessary, doing more harm than either agency will admit. Wild sheep should be allowed to move about the landscape on their own, finding habitat that suits them best. These agencies should do more to protect wildlife habitat and wildlife corridors. The best way to prevent the spread of disease to wild sheep is to limit the places domestic sheep can graze. The solutions are simple, but the agencies refuse to keep the wild in wildlife.

Learn more about this issue: bit.ly/35Fb7nK


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Cyndi Tuell is a member of Wilderness Watch's board of directors. She has worked as an attorney, consultant, and activist since 2007, focusing on public lands management issues related to roads and motorized recreation in national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. Recently, Cyndi focused her public lands work on protecting natural resources in the borderlands. A native of Tucson, Arizona, Cyndi is an avid hiker, backpacker, and defender of wild places. She received the Nancy Zierenberg Sky Island Alliance Advocate award in 2013 and was named the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter’s 2015 Conservationist of the Year.
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