Utah Wilderness: Keep it Wild!

by Howie Wolke

 

Howie Wolke

The Colorado Plateau of eastern and southern Utah is a unique landscape of colorful sedimentary rocks and mesas dissected by spectacular canyons of the Green and Colorado River systems. And, despite a long history of ranching, mining and the associated dirt road network fragmenting the outback, much of this spectacular realm remains roadless and wild.

 

In 2019, the John D. Dingel Conservation Act designated 17 new Wilderness areas in Utah’s canyon country, totaling 663,000 acres— a formidable accomplishment given Utah’s political culture. The bill also protected 3 segments of the Green River under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Fourteen of the new Wildernesses are within the rugged San Rafael Swell, which many consider to be a potential new national park. Two new Wildernesses are in the Desolation Canyon-Book Cliffs area, and the act also protected wildlands on the east side of the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon.

 

The 143,000-acre Desolation Canyon Wilderness is the largest new Wilderness. The Desolation Canyon country (“Deso”) is remarkable even by Utah standards. The Green River slices a 5,000-foot deep gorge through colorful layered sediments. But wilderness isn’t just about scenery. Deso harbors unusual habitat diversity, ranging from wetlands and riparian cottonwood forests to Colorado Plateau Desert of sagebrush and saltbush, to pinyonjuniper woodlands and even stands of Douglas-fir, true fir, spruce and aspen at the highest elevations. This habitat diversity, along with the area’s large size, supports unusually high biodiversity, especially for wildlife. The obvious critters are mule deer, elk, bison, black bear, bighorn sheep, coyote and mountain lion, but there are also midget faded rattlesnakes, tarantulas, ferruginous hawks, both eagle species, peregrine falcon, long-billed curlew, white-faced ibis plus wild turkey, lots of waterfowl, beaver and much more. There are 3 endangered fish species, in addition to the Green’s tasty catfish.

 

For us two-legged primates, Deso is known as one of the premiere wilderness float trips in North America, with over 100 miles of floatable wild river. In fact, a September 1982 80-mile Deso journey was my first of many ensuing wilderness river adventures.

 

The recently designated Wildernesses in Utah represent progress, yes, but it’s just a start. Take Deso, for instance. Its 143,000 acres of Wilderness along and adjacent to the west shore of the Green River represent much less than half of the roadless wildland. There are roughly 500,000 acres of contiguous BLM-administered lands that could be included in the Wilderness, including a gentle 30-mile section of the Green River upstream from the canyon, a rich habitat of riparian wetlands and high desert benches, known for its diverse avifauna including herons, ibises and waterfowl. The ecological values of this river section are particularly outstanding. Downstream, while the official Wilderness protects lands only in the southern end of the canyon on the west side of the river, 165,000 acres of Desolation Canyon’s east side are managed as wilderness by the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. In fact, a holistic view of the Desolation Canyon country recognizes a roadless wildland of about 860,000 acres. Close a handful of “cherry-stemmed” dirt roads plus the four-wheel drive dirt road that separates Deso from the adjacent Turtle Canyon Wilderness, and the Desolation wildland grows to nearly a million unbroken acres!

 

Desolation Canyon and the Green River. Bob Wick/BLM

 

In addition to incomplete designations, threats to the new Wilderness units and contiguous wildlands abound. In a region that did not evolve with large herds of hoofed mammals such as bison, cattle chomp the uplands, destroying fragile biotic crusts, and they pollute and physically demolish riparian habitats. Mining and oil/gas development threaten roadless lands adjacent to the Wilderness, and illegal off-road vehicle abusers—including mountain bikers—scar both the Wilderness and adjacent roadless areas. In addition, the BLM currently allows motors in both Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons. Backcountry airstrips are another insult.

 

Of course, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is often called the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining”, catering shamelessly to those two industries plus mechanized off-roaders. Recently, the agency initiated a planning process that lumps the Dingel Act’s new Wilderness areas together with developed BLM-administered multiple (ab) use lands. Instead, each Wilderness area or Wilderness cluster should merit its own wilderness stewardship plan. In the United States, Wilderness is the highest level of land protection, surpassing even that of national parks, unless the park includes designated Wilderness. Wilderness is the antithesis of civilization’s unrelenting quest to dam, pave, bulldoze, fence, graze, log, dig, drill, subdivide, mechanize, urbanize and otherwise fragment nature’s original landscape. Wilderness is nature’s original landscape, and as the growing human population continues to obliterate wild nature, wild nature will continue to become both harder to protect and more fundamentally important.

 

The preliminary scoping period for public comments on the BLM planning process ended in January. Remember, though, that we taxpayers employ federal agency personnel, including BLM employees. They work for us, not just for ranchers and miners! And by law, they must consider public comments, even outside of timelines delineated by a particular planning process. Here is a sample of what the BLM needs to hear:

 

As mentioned, the BLM should create area specific wilderness stewardship plans for each designated Wilderness or Wilderness cluster. For example, there should be one stewardship plan for Deso and the Turtle Canyon Wilderness plus the Green’s three designated wild and scenic river segments. Plans should clearly specify that Wilderness areas must be managed primarily to protect wilderness character—as the 1964 Wilderness Act mandates! Plans should also prioritize wildlife, native species and overall wildness rather than trying to mollify various user groups.

 

The BLM should also maintain the roadless/undeveloped character of unprotected roadless areas, and should recommend them for Wilderness designation.

 

In addition, vacant livestock allotments should be permanently closed, and the BLM should amend its resource management plans to curtail livestock grazing where it is damaging natural ecosystems, which is nearly everywhere in these arid environments. Then they should remove unnecessary grazing infrastructure. Motor boats are an insult to Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons and should be banned. So should aircraft landings in Wilderness. In fact, the BLM should eliminate all mechanized use of Wilderness and roadless potential wilderness within the planning area. And finally, closing off and reclaiming cherry-stemmed road intrusions would enlarge Wilderness, and create more defensible wilderness boundaries plus more ecologically functional Wilderness with less edge and more secure interior habitat.

 

Utah’s remaining wild canyon country is a gift. That much of it still remains wild is a function of luck, topography and the hard work of conservationists in Utah and elsewhere. Let’s give future generations of all creatures the enduring gift of perpetual wildness. For there is no greater quest than that to protect and restore truly wild wilderness.

 

I encourage you to write to BLM and voice your support for better protections for these irreplaceable wild places. Use your own words or borrow from mine, but insist that BLM emphasizes protecting these areas wild character for the benefit of their native wildlife and those visitors willing to accept Wilderness on its own terms. And to keep these areas whole, tell BLM to protect the surrounding roadless lands and close the cherry-stemmed routes. These routes turn large, intact wild areas into fragmented parts that don’t come close to equaling the whole! If you’ve visited these wild places it’s a good idea to share something from your experienceYou can email BLM’s Price Field office at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or write to Area Manager, BLM Price River Resource Area, 125 S. 600 West, Price, Utah 84501. Thank you!

 

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Howie Wolke is a retired wilderness guide/outfitter from southern Montana near Yellowstone National Park. He is on the Wilderness Watch board of directors and has also served two terms as president of the organization. He lives with his wife Marilyn Olsen and their dog Rio in southern Montana near Yellowstone National Park.

 

Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

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I agree wholeheartedly with Bonnie MacRaith about the awe-inspiring wilderness areas we have had the wisdom ad foresight to set as... Read More
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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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Wilderness: What and Why

howie 05 03 13WILDERNESS: WHAT and WHY
By Howie Wolke

A few years ago, I led a group through the wilds of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range during the early autumn caribou migration. I think that if I had fourteen lifetimes I’d never again experience anything quite so primeval, so simple and rudimentary, and so utterly and uncompromisingly wild. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this beheld my eye above all else. Maybe that trek—in one of the ultimate terrestrial wildernesses remaining on Earth—is my personal yardstick, my personal quintessence of what constitutes real wilderness among a lifetime of wilderness experience. The tundra was a rainbow of autumn pelage. Fresh snow engulfed the peaks and periodically the valleys, too. Animals were everywhere, thousands of them, moving across valleys, through passes, over divides, atop ridges. Wolves chased caribou. A grizzly on a carcass temporarily blocked our route through a narrow pass.  It was a week I’ll never forget, a week of an ancient world that elsewhere is rapidly receding into the frightening nature-deficit technophilia of the twenty-first century.

Some claim that wilderness is defined by our perception, which is shaped by our circumstance and experience. For example, one who has never been to the Brooks Range but instead has spent most of her life confined to big cities with little exposure to wild nature might consider a farm woodlot to be “wilderness.” Or a small state park laced with dirt roads. Or, for that matter, a cornfield, though this seems to stretch this theory of wilderness relativity to the point of obvious absurdity. According to this line of thought, wilderness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Yet those who believe that perception defines wilderness are dead wrong. In our culture, wilderness is a very distinct and definable entity, and it can be viewed on two complementary levels. First, from a legal standpoint the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness quite clearly. A designated wilderness area is “undeveloped” and “primeval,” a wild chunk of public land without civilized trappings that is administered to remain wild.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “untrammeled,” which means “unconfined” or “unrestricted.” It further defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent human improvements or habitation.” The law also generally prohibits road building and resource extraction such as logging and mining. Plus, it sets a general guideline of 5,000 acres as a minimum size for a wilderness.  Furthermore, it banishes to non-wilderness lands all mechanized conveniences, from mountain bikes and game carts to noisy fumebelching all-terrain vehicles and snow machines.

Written primarily by the late Howard Zahniser, the Wilderness Act creates a National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) on federally administered public lands. All four federal land management agencies administer wilderness: the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Under the Wilderness Act, the NWPS is to be managed uniformly as a system. And an act of Congress followed by a Presidential signature is required to designate a new wilderness area.

In addition to wilderness as a legal entity, we also have a closely related cultural view, steeped in mystery and romance and influenced by our history, which yes, includes the hostile view of wilderness that was particularly prevalent during the early days of settlement.  Today, our cultural view of wilderness is generally positive. This view is greatly influenced by the Wilderness Act, which means when people speak of wilderness in lieu of legal definitions, they speak of country that’s big, wild, and undeveloped, where nature rules. And that certainly isn’t a woodlot or cornfield.  In summary, then, wilderness is wild nature with all her magic and unpredictability. It lacks roads, motors, pavement and structures, but comes loaded with unknown wonders and challenges that at least some humans increasingly crave in today’s increasingly controlled and confined world. Untrammeled wilderness by definition comes with fire and insects, predator and prey, and the dynamic unpredictability of wild nature, existing in its own way in its own right, with utter disregard for human preference, convenience, and comfort.  And perception. As the word’s etymological roots connote, wilderness is “self-willed land,” and the “home of wild beasts.” It is also the ancestral home of all that we know in this world, and it spawned civilization, although I’m not convinced this is a good thing.  So wilderness isn’t just any old unpaved undeveloped landscape. It isn’t merely a blank space on the map. For within that blank space might be all sorts of human malfeasance that have long since destroyed the essence of real wilderness: pipelines, power-lines, water diversions, overgrazed wastelands, and off-road vehicle scars, for example. No, wilderness isn’t merely a place that lacks development.  It is unspoiled and primeval, a sacred place in its own right. Wilderness designation is a statement to all who would otherwise keep the industrial juggernaut rolling: Hands off! This place is special!  Designated wilderness is supposed to be different “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape.” (Wilderness Act, section 2c)

Nor is wilderness simply a political strategy to thwart bulldozers from invading wildlands. That’s one valid use of our wilderness law, yes, but when we view wilderness only—or even primarily—as a deterrent to industry and motors, we fail to consider all of the important things that differentiate real wilderness from less extraordinary places. Some of those things include tangible physical attributes such as native animals and vegetation, pure water, and minimal noise pollution. But in many ways, the intangible values of wilderness are equally important in differentiating wilderness from other landscapes. Wonder and challenge are but two of them. For many of us, the simple knowledge that some landscapes are beyond our control provides a respite of sanity. Solitude and a feeling of connectedness with other life forms are also best attained in wilderness.  Wilderness also provides us with some defense against the collective disease of “landscape amnesia.” I began to use this term in the early 1990s while writing an educational tabloid on wilderness and roadless areas. It had begun to occur to me that, as we continue to tame nature, each ensuing generation becomes less aware of what constitutes a healthy landscape because so many components of the landscape gradually disappear. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water slowly brought to a boil, society simply fails to notice until it’s too late, if it notices at all. For example, few alive today remember when extensive cottonwood floodplain forests were healthy and common throughout the West. So today’s generations view our currently depleted floodplains as “normal.” Thus there’s no impetus to restore the ecosystem. This principle applies to wilderness. Wilderness keeps at least some areas intact, wild and natural, for people to see. We don’t forget what we can still see with our own eyes. Moreover, when we keep wilderness wild, there’s little danger that as a society we’ll succumb to wilderness amnesia, and forget what real wilderness is.  Perhaps the most important thing that sets wilderness apart is that real wilderness is dynamic, always in flux, never the same from one year or decade or century to the next, never stagnant, and entirely unconstrained despite unrelenting human efforts to control nearly everything. Natural processes such as wildfire, flood, predation, and native insects are (or should be) allowed to shape the wilderness landscape as they have throughout the eons. Remember, wilderness areas are wild and untrammeled, “in contrast” with areas dominated by humankind. That domination includes our interference with the natural forces and processes that shape a true wilderness landscape.  It has been said that wilderness cannot be created; it can only be protected where it still persists. There is some truth here, but there’s a big gray area too. Even though most new wilderness units are carved out of relatively unspoiled roadless areas, Congress is free to designate any area of federal land as wilderness, even lands that have been impacted by past human actions, such as logging and road building or off-road vehicles. In fact, Congress has designated such lands as wilderness on numerous occasions. Once designated, agencies are legally required by the Wilderness Act to manage such lands as wilderness. Time and the elements usually do the rest. For example, most wildernesses in the eastern U.S. were once heavily logged and laced with roads and skid trails. Today, they have reattained a good measure of their former wildness.

Perhaps the most crucial but overlooked sections of the Wilderness Act deal with caring for designated areas. The Wilderness Act quite clearly instructs managers to administer wilderness areas “unimpaired” and for “the preservation of their wilderness character.” This means that the law forbids degradation of wilderness areas.  Therefore, you would assume that once an area is designated as wilderness, all is suddenly right with at least a small corner of this world. But you would be wrong.

That’s because, despite the poetic and pragmatic brilliance of the Wilderness Act, land managers routinely ignore the law and thus nearly all units of the National Wilderness Preservation System fail to live up the promise of untrammeled wildness. To be fair, agency wilderness managers are often under tremendous pressure—often at the local level—to ignore abuse. Sometimes their budgets are simply inadequate to do the job. On the other hand, we citizens pay our public servants to implement the law. When they fail to properly maintain wilderness character, they violate both the law and the public’s trust.

Throughout the NWPS degradation is rampant. Weed infestations, predator control by state wildlife managers (yes, in designated wilderness!), eroded multi-laned horse trails, trampled lakeshores, bulldozer-constructed water impoundments, the proliferation of structures and motorized equipment use, over-grazing by livestock, and illegal motor-vehicle entry are just a few of the ongoing problems.  Many of these problems seem minor in their own right, but collectively they add up to systemic decline, a plethora of small but expanding insults that I call “creeping degradation,” although some of the examples seem to gallop, not creep. External influences such as climate change and chemical pollution add to the woes of the wilds as we head into the challenging and perhaps scary decades that lie in wait.

In addition to wilderness as both a cultural idea and a legal entity, there’s another wilderness dichotomy. That’s the dichotomy of designated versus “small w” wilderness. America’s public lands harbor perhaps a couple of hundred million acres of relatively undeveloped, mostly roadless wildlands that so far, lack long-term Congressional protection. These “roadless areas” constitute “small w” or “de-facto wilderness.” Here’s a stark reality of the early 21st century: given the expanding human population and its quest to exploit resources from nearly every remaining nook and cranny on Earth, we are rapidly approaching the time when the only remaining significant natural habitats will be those we choose to protect—either as wilderness or as some other (lesser) category of land protection. Before very long, most other sizeable natural areas will disappear.  In order to get as many roadless areas as possible added to the NWPS, some wilderness groups support special provisions in new wilderness bills in order to placate wilderness opponents. Examples include provisions that strengthen livestock grazing rights in wilderness, allow off-road motor vehicles and helicopters, grandfather incompatible uses like dams and other water projects, exempt commercial users from regulations, and much more. So we get legalized overgrazing, ranchers and wildlife managers on all-terrain vehicles, overzealous fire management and destructive new water projects, just to mention a few of the incompatible activities sometimes allowed in designated wilderness. This de-wilds both the Wilderness System and the wilderness idea. And when we allow the wilderness idea to decline, it is inevitable that society gradually accepts “wilderness” that is less wild than in the past. Again, it’s the disease of landscape or wilderness amnesia.

An equally egregious threat to wilderness is the recent tendency to create new wilderness areas with boundaries that are drawn to exclude all potential or perceived conflicts, also in order to pacify the opposition. So we get small fragmented “wilderness” areas, sometimes with edge-dominated amoeba-shaped boundaries that encompass little core habitat. Or legislated motor vehicle corridors that slice an otherwise large unbroken roadless area into small fragmented “wilderness” units. These trends alarm conservation biologists, who are concerned with biological diversity and full ecosystem protection.

Make no mistake, there’s a huge realm of unprotected public wildlands out there, and I’d give my right arm to get a big chunk of that largely roadless “small w” domain protected under the Wilderness Act. My arm yes, but not my soul. The soul of wilderness is wildness.  When we sacrifice wildness by undermining the Wilderness Act, we lose both an irreplaceable resource and an irreplaceable part of ourselves. We lose soul. If we fail to demand and work for real wilderness, then we’ll never get it. That’s guaranteed.  To some, particularly those who equate motors or resource extraction with freedom, wilderness designation seems restrictive. But in truth, wilderness is more about freedom than is any other landscape.  I mean the freedom to roam, and yes, the freedom to blunder, for where else might we be so immediately beholden to the physical consequences of our decisions? Freedom, challenge, and adventure go together, and wilderness provides big doses of each. Should I try to cross here? Can I make my way around that bear? Is there really a severe storm approaching? When we enter wilderness, we leave all guarantees behind. We are beholden to the unknown. Things frequently don’t go as planned. Wilderness is rudimentary and fundamental in ways that we’ve mostly lost as a culture. This loss, by the way, weakens us. Wilderness strengthens us.  Freedom. In wilderness we are free to hunt, fish, hike, crawl, slither, swim, horse-pack, canoe, raft, cross country ski, view wildlife, study nature, photograph, and contemplate whatever might arouse our interest. We are free to pursue our personal spiritual values, whatever they might be, with no pressure from the proclaimed authorities of organized church or state. And we are generally free to do any of these things for as long as we like.  Wilderness is also the best environment for the under-utilized but vitally important activity of doing absolutely nothing—I mean nothing at all, except perhaps for watching clouds float past a wondrous wilderness landscape.

Wilderness provides numerous free services for humanity. It is an essential antidote for civilization’s growing excesses of pavement, pollution, technology, and pop culture. Wilderness provides clean water and flood control, and it acts as a clean air reservoir. It provides many tons of healthy meat, because our healthiest fisheries and game populations are associated with wilderness (Who says “you can’t eat scenery”?).

Another wilderness service is the reduced need for politically and socially contentious endangered species listings. When we protect habitat, most species thrive.

By providing nature a respite from human manipulation, wilderness cradles the evolutionary process. It helps to maintain connectivity between population centers of large wide-ranging animals—especially large carnivores. This protects genetic diversity and increases the resilience of wildlife populations that are so important to the ecosystem. We are beginning to understand that without large carnivores, most natural ecosystems falter in a cascade of biological loss and depletion.

Wilderness is also our primary baseline environment. In other words, it’s the metaphorical yardstick against which we measure the health of all human-altered landscapes. How on earth might we ever make intelligent decisions in forestry or agriculture, for example, if there’s no baseline with which to compare? Of course, wilderness only acts as a real baseline if we really keep it wild and untrammeled.

Wilderness is also about humility. It’s a statement that we don’t know it all and never will. In wilderness we are part of something much greater than our civilization and ourselves. It moves us beyond self, and that, I think, can lead only to good things. Perhaps above all, wilderness is a statement that non-human life forms and the landscapes that support them have intrinsic value, just because they exist, independent of their multiple benefits to the human species.  Most emphatically, wilderness is not primarily about recreation, although that’s certainly one of its many values. Nor is it about the “me first” attitude of those who view nature as a metaphorical pie to be divvied up among user groups. It’s about selflessness, about setting our egos aside and doing what’s best for the land. It’s about wholeness, not fragments. After all, wilderness areas—despite their problems—are still our healthiest landscapes with our cleanest waters, and they tend to support our healthiest wildlife populations, particularly for many species that have become rare or extirpated in places that are less wild.

Having made a living primarily as a wilderness guide/outfitter for over three decades, I’ve had the good fortune to experience many wild places throughout western North America and occasionally far beyond. Were I to boil what I’ve learned down to one succinct statement, it’d probably be this: Wilderness is about restraint. As Howard Zahniser stated, wilderness managers must be “guardians, not gardeners.” When in doubt, leave it alone. For if we fail to restrain our manipulative impulses in wilderness, where on Earth might we ever find untrammeled lands?

Finally, when we fail to protect, maintain, and restore real wilderness, we miss the chance to pass along to our children and grandchildren—and to future generations of non-human life—the irreplaceable wonders of a world that is too quickly becoming merely a dim memory of a far better time. Luckily, we still have the opportunity to both designate and properly protect a considerable chunk of the once enormous American wilderness. Let’s not squander that opportunity. We need to protect as much as possible.  And let’s keep wilderness truly wild, for that, by definition, is what wilderness is, and no substitute will suffice.

Howie Wolke co-owns Big Wild Adventures, a wilderness backpack and canoe guide service based in Montana’s Paradise Valley, near Yellowstone National Park. He is an author and longtime wilderness advocate, and is a past president and current board member of Wilderness Watch. This piece was published in "Wilderness: Reclaiming the Legacy." ©2011
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Wilderness: A Plan for Change

By Jeff Kane

jeff kane photo for ww2 05 25 11Last month I had the good fortune to hear a lecture by Dr. Frederick L. Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at a conference on food justice at the University of Oregon.  In the midst of discussing several aspects of food justice – from environmental sustainability to energy consumption to human health to conditions for agricultural workers – Dr. Kirschenmann discussed how we can bring about the change needed to create an equitable and sustainable food system.

He noted that in the book The End of Oil, author Paul Roberts made the point that bringing about the changes needed in energy policy worldwide would not be a matter of convincing the powers-that-be to make those changes. Rather it would require preparing for the inevitable change that will be forced upon us by dwindling fossil fuel supplies, pollution, climate change, despotic regimes, etc.

The lesson for food activists is not to be worried about persuading beneficiaries of the current broken system to change.  Rather, we should focus on developing alternatives that allow the system to adapt. We should focus on the doing ourselves, rather than trying to convince others to do it our way.

What struck me about this idea – in addition to fostering a vision of change and action that we as individuals can achieve whether politicians, Monsanto, or Cargill ever find it in their interests to tag along – was how the Wilderness Act embodies the concept of planning for the inevitable before the crisis arrives in full force.

Congress’ purpose in enacting the Wilderness Act in 1964, articulated in the Act’s preamble, was

to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.

In other words, Congress recognized that development and technology would soon extend to all corners of the country absent concerted planning and statutory intervention. If we sit back and let the inevitable pressures of population growth and economic development act unimpeded, little or none of our country’s landscape heritage would be left in its natural state.

Congress’ solution was to designate large tracks of existing, relatively pristine federal public lands as Wilderness areas. Within each Wilderness, motorized and mechanized uses, commercial activities, and roads, new buildings, and other infrastructure would be prohibited except when consistent with, or necessary to, preserving wilderness character.

Congress’ prescience in recognizing and planning for the inevitable march of development and technology is reaffirmed with each passing day. Wild lands, designated as Wilderness or not, are increasingly under threat of expanding settlement, the tentacles of technology, and economic enterprise. At one time, the agencies that manage wilderness could generally be counted on to understand and work to uphold the Wilderness Act. Now the four federal land management agencies—the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management—seem increasingly to believe it’s their duty to bend and ignore the requirements of the Wilderness Act to accommodate desires for more structures, motorized intrusion, and excessive recreational use.

Each of these trappings, so normal to life everywhere outside Wilderness, threaten to undermine the natural conditions Congress sought to preserve, and the legacy of wildlands unique to America and our history. Thus, the Wilderness Act provided the precise tool needed to plan for the inevitable pressures of change. It is now up to Wilderness lovers and our public servants to bring that plan to fruition and ensure our National Wilderness Preservation System is truly wild.

Jeff Kane recently completed law school and is a member of Wilderness Watch's Board of Directors.
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