Conservation groups recently learned that the Forest Supervisor of the Willamette National Forest has withdrawn the draft decision on a proposal to conduct a “prescribed fire” in a portion the Mount Washington Wilderness. Three conservation organizations--Wilderness Watch, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and BARK—filed a formal administrative objection to the Scott Mountain Prescribed fire in Wilderness Environmental Assessment. The Forest Supervisor’s decision ended the objection process. While no reasons were given as to why the draft decision was withdrawn, points raised by the organizations certainly played a role in that decision. For the time being, the Forest Service will not subject this portion of the Mount Washington Wilderness to intensive ecological manipulation. Wilderness, by law, is to be untrammeled, which means that areas designated as Wilderness are to free from direct human control. In addition to the manipulation, the Wilderness would have been marred by numerous helicopter flights to light fires in the Wilderness.
Mount Washington is one of the original Wildernesses set aside by the 1964 Wilderness Act. It lies in the central Cascade Range in of Oregon and lies between the Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters Wildernesses. Mount Washington itself is a 7,800 foot Cascade mountain that dominates the northern part of the Wilderness. The extensive lava fields in the south, lakes, old forests, and recently burned areas create a great diversity of habitat for many species of mammals and birds.
The organizations noted in their objection several key points including:
Human-ignited fires are inconsistent with the Wilderness Act. Wilderness is supposed to be “in contrast” to areas where humans dominate the landscape. Further, natural lightning-caused fires tend to burn differently than agency-prescribed fires because the agencies usually choose times to light fires than when they burn naturally.
Trammeling Wilderness is not consistent with the best available science. The forests in this part of the Cascades are well within their natural range. These forests burn infrequently and intensely. This part of the Wilderness is one of the few areas in the nearby region that has not been recently burned by natural fire or been dedicated to logging. It is already very diverse because this older forest remains intact within a larger landscape that has largely burned in the recent past or has been logged.
The Forest Service did not show that this project was necessary for preservation of the area as Wilderness. Indeed, the objectors noted it would detract from the Wilderness because of the intentional human manipulation of the landscape and the extensive use of helicopters.
The Scott Mountain project is emblematic of the lack of support among many wilderness managers to let nature be. Efforts to reshape these areas in the vision of managers is a growing phenomenon resulting from agency policies that downplay the central tenet of the Wilderness Act—that Wildernesses are to be left wild and untrammeled. Let’s hope the project’s initial demise is a signal of things to come.
Gary is the ecosystem defense director for the Friends of the Clearwater, an advocacy group in central Idaho's Wild Clearwater Country. For nearly 30 years, Gary has been one of the country's most dedicated public lands' activists working throughout the Intermountain West and Northern Rockies. He serves on the WW board of directors.