A Legal Win for the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and a Call to Protect Wolves and Wilderness in Idaho

Dana blog

by Dana Johnson

 

You might recall that in January 2016, the U.S. Forest Service authorized Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to make 120 helicopter landings in the River of No Return Wilderness to place radio telemetry collars on 60 elk, despite the Wilderness Act’s clear prohibition on motorized intrusions and its directive to preserve an untrammeled Wilderness. To our knowledge, this was the most extensive helicopter intrusion in Wilderness that has ever been authorized. IDFG said the project was necessary to study an elk-population decline that has occurred since the return of gray wolves to the Wilderness and to inform IDFG’s future decisions concerning hunting, trapping, and “predator control” actions in the Wilderness.

 

Represented by Earthjustice, Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Clearwater, and Western Watersheds Project filed suit in Federal District Court—hours after receiving a copy of the signed special use permit authorizing project implementation. Within the next three days—over the weekend—while the suit was pending and before we could get before the judge, IDFG inundated the River of No Return Wilderness with repeated helicopter flights and landings. And, even though it was abundantly clear IDFG was not authorized to harass and collar wolves, IDFG nonetheless captured and collared four wolves. IDFG released those 60 elk and four wolves with collars transmitting precise location points to IDFG – an agency with an unapologetic history of wolf extermination efforts and a current plan to “aggressively manage elk and predator populations,” including exterminating 60 percent of wolves within the Middle Fork Zone of the River of No Return Wilderness.

 

The judge assigned to the case was no stranger to this issue. Back in 2010, after the reintroduction of wolves in Idaho, the same judge sat on our case where IDFG requested permission from the Forest Service to use helicopters to dart and collar at least one wolf in every pack in the same area. The judge reluctantly allowed the activity because the case represented the “most rare of circumstances” where “[i]t was man who wiped out the wolf from this area[, and] now man is attempting to restore the wilderness character of the area by returning the wolf.” But, the judge noted “the next helicopter proposal in the [Wilderness] will face a daunting review,” and “[t]he Forest Service must proceed very cautiously here because the law is not on their side if they intend to proceed with further helicopter projects in the [Wilderness].” The judge also put the Forest Service on notice that it “would be expected to render a final decision [on any future helicopter projects in the Wilderness] enough in advance of the project so that any lawsuit seeking to enjoin the project could be fully litigated.” 

 

Not surprisingly, the judge was concerned that “[t]he agency ignore[d] that directive in the present case,” and then the agencies argued that the Court didn’t have jurisdiction to review the case because IDFG had already completed the action. The Court rejected that argument, found the Forest Service in violation of the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and enjoined IDFG and the Forest Service from utilizing the fruits of their illegal activity. Specifically, the judge’s order 1) forbade the Forest Service from considering the data from the illegally placed collars and from approving any future wildlife-related helicopter projects without delaying implementation for at least 90 days to allow time for litigation, 2) forbade IDFG from using any of the illegally obtained collaring data to justify future collaring proposals in Wilderness, and 3) ordered IDFG to destroy data received from the collars.

 

Both the Forest Service and IDFG appealed that ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But, the appeal was narrow. The agencies did not contest their violations of the Wilderness Act and NEPA. Instead, they argued, once again, that the Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place because the action was already done and that, even if it did have jurisdiction, it went too far in its injunction against IDFG and the Forest Service. 

 

In March 2020, after four years of litigation, we received an opinion from the Ninth Circuit largely upholding the lower Court’s order but narrowing the injunction. The Circuit reduced the 90-day implementation delay to 30 days, and it held IDFG does not need to destroy the data it obtained, but the Forest Service cannot consider that data as a basis for any future projects in the Wilderness. Importantly, the Circuit flatly rejected the argument that the case could evade judicial review by virtue of the agencies rushing to complete the project before the judge could rule, noting:

 

[The Forest Service] was aware that Wilderness Watch had lodged objections to the proposed operation and planned to challenge the permit in court at the first opportunity. On Wednesday, January 6, 2016, Wilderness Watch received notice of final agency action and requested a copy of the permit. On Thursday, January 7, Wilderness Watch received a copy of the permit, effective immediately, and filed its complaint. Wilderness Watch requested that the agency halt implementation of the operation to allow for a legal challenge. [The Forest Service] did not respond to this request until close of business on Friday, January 8. The agency denied the request. Wilderness Watch prepared a motion for emergency injunctive relief on Saturday, expecting to file it first thing on Monday, only to receive notification on Sunday that the operation had been completed earlier that morning. This sequence of events transpired in spite of the district court’s admonishment to [the Forest Service], in a 2010 proceeding regarding a similar helicopter operation, that the agency would be expected to issue future permits with enough time to allow for potential legal challenges. The record shows that in the weeks leading up to the issuance of the subject permit, Wilderness Watch reminded [the Forest Service] of the 2010 order. The record also makes clear that IDFG plans future helicopter operations, and that [the Forest Service] approval was motivated, at least in part, by the IDFG’s threat to proceed irrespective of [the Forest Service’s] approval and the [the Forest Service’s] desire to avoid litigation with the [IDFG] Director.

 

While this ruling will make it more difficult for the agencies to avoid judicial review of similar projects in the future, we know we have not seen the last of IDFG’s relentless focus on killing wolves, and we know they’ve got their eyes set on the River of No Return Wilderness. And, as the Ninth Circuit observed, the Forest Service has taken pains to avoid a show-down with IDFG—we have no indication this will change either. In fact, shortly after we received news of the Ninth Circuit opinion, IDFG announced that it killed 17 wolves in the Lolo area in Idaho—a remote, roadless area in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Wolves in the Lolo area have been brutally targeted by IDFG for years in an effort to inflate elk numbers to meet IDFG’s objectives. We know from Freedom of Information Act documents and other reports that IDFG regularly utilizes GPS collaring data to track and kill wolves, oftentimes through aerial gunning. Even more appalling, the documents and reports also show that IDFG and cooperating agencies utilize “Judas wolves”—a collared wolf that is tracked to its pack via GPS data. The pack is killed, but the collared “Judas wolf” is spared and then tracked until it establishes with another pack. Then that pack is gunned down, once again sparing the collared wolf who is doomed to repeat this horrible cycle over and over again. 

 

IDFG’s narrative about the Lolo area sounds remarkably similar to the story it is telling about the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. It has a plan to kill 60 percent of the wolves in the heart of the Wilderness to return elk numbers to levels observed in the 1990s – before the return of wolves to the Wilderness and before the restoration of natural predator / prey dynamics. We assume IDFG will pull no punches in pursuing that goal. We’ve already seen, and challenged, IDFG’s use of a professional trapper to kill two resident wolf packs—the Golden Creek and Monumental Creek packs—deep in the Wilderness. The Forest Service authorized IDFG’s use of a Forest Service cabin to serve as the trapper’s base camp, and it waived special use permit requirements, which allowed IDFG to proceed without public notice or federal oversight. As noted above, we challenged two IDFG helicopter-assisted collaring projects in the Wilderness, both geared toward advancing IDFG’s Elk Management Plan and its “aggressive” predator control measures. These projects were carried out under authorization from the Forest Service, including the rushed implementation of the second project in blatant disregard of a federal court order. And, in the last year, IDFG has significantly relaxed hunting limits on wolves and pushed to open airstrips within and adjacent to the Wilderness to increase hunter access. 

 

All of this is going on with Forest Service acquiescence and to the detriment of Wilderness, the values it safeguards, and the wild places and animals that find increasingly rare refuge within its borders. The Forest Service—the agency entrusted to protect this Wilderness pursuant to the tenets of the Wilderness Act—has demonstrated that it finds IDFG the squeakiest wheel. We will keep the pressure on in the courts, but we need to be louder than IDFG. We need to raise our collective voice in defense of this incredible place, in defense of the animals who call it home, and in defense of the idea of Wilderness. Intensive manipulation of wildlife populations is fundamentally antithetical to preserving “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” and “primeval character and influence” are retained. The use of helicopters to pursue, capture, and place telemetry tracking collars on wild animals deep within the Wilderness—to transmit their every movement to a computer, manned by a “game” agency that places high value on control and manipulation—is fundamentally antithetical to everything Wilderness is about. It’s well beyond time for the Forest Service to take a stand for Wilderness.

 

And, even though its track-record is not encouraging, IDFG can also take this as an opportunity to pivot. IDFG will face growing public opposition to its wolf eradication and Wilderness manipulation efforts, and the latest court case has made it much more difficult for IDFG’s activities to slide under the radar of judicial review. It is time for IDFG to adopt an approach to wildlife management that respects natural processes and Wilderness. It is incumbent upon the Forest Service to ensure this happens.

 

You can help defend wolves and Wilderness in Idaho by writing to the responsible U.S. Forest Service officials and demand they stop sanctioning Idaho’s aggressive predator killing programs.

 

You can also make a special donation to Wilderness Watch to help us continue the fight to defend wolves and Wilderness in Idaho.

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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.

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What’s All the Buzz in the Boundary Waters?

What’s All the Buzz in the Boundary Waters?Dana blog

by Dana Johnson

 

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is located within the Superior National Forest in Minnesota and stretches over 115 miles along the Minnesota-Ontario border. The Wilderness, along with Canada’s adjoining Quetico Provincial Park, protects a complex ecosystem of nearly 3,000 glacial lakes connected by a vast, meandering network of streams and portages. This watery landscape is home to a diverse mix of wildlife, and it holds one of the largest remnants of uncut forest east of the Rockies. Humans have relied upon its natural abundance for centuries, including the Ojibwe who navigated its waterways in birch bark canoes. More recently, the area offers an increasingly rare connection to a world that existed before an expanding population, with all of its fast-paced and heavily consumptive interests, took hold.

Efforts to protect this area from the fallouts of Westward Expansion, industrialization, and motorization span back over a century culminating in the designation of the BWCAW. Sigurd Olson, one of the eloquent leaders in the push to protect the Boundary Waters, recognized a tie between the silence of the canoe and something we were losing through the story of progress—the knowledge of what it is to be of and with the land and waters. 

"The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores.... There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions." -Sigurd Olson, The Singing Wilderness, 1956

Sigurd would be troubled to learn that roughly one-fifth of the Wilderness’s waterways are still subjected to the persistent back and forth buzzing of motorboats including, on some routes, commercial towboats carting paying clients and their canoes to campsites and remote drop-off locations within the Wilderness, turning many entry-points and travel routes into busy motorways. The popular entry point of Moose Lake, where commercial towboat use is particularly excessive, is known for its motorized bottlenecks and the whine of engines. During one trip to survey the Moose Lake entry-point, Wilderness Watch staff were told by an outfitter that Wilderness visitors who would not otherwise consider a motorized tow regularly take a tow because paddling through motorized use areas is so unpleasant. The motorized mess in the Boundary Waters is a good example of why when Wilderness areas are designated it is so important to make sure it’s via a clean wilderness bill, without special provisions. 

The Wilderness Act was passed as a counterweight to “an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization,” and to safeguard a few wild areas “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape.”[1] It expressly prohibits motorized and mechanized uses within Wilderness recognizing that these things represented the opposite of the restraint and humility needed to guard against our compulsion to stand as masters and controllers of the world around us.

It was in this context that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was designated as one of the original Wildernesses in the 1964 Wilderness Act. Unfortunately, due to the familiar story of political pressure, the Wilderness Act included a confusing special provision allowing motorized use already existing in the BWCAW, as long as such use would not undermine the “primitive character of the area.”[2] Motorized use always undermines the primitive character of a wilderness area—that’s why the Wilderness Act prohibits it! This provision was short-lived. In response to “the confusion and litigation generated by the proviso, as well as in reaction to threatened deterioration of the wilderness from excessive use,”[3] Congress repealed the special provision and enacted the BWCAW Act of 1978.[4]


Unfortunately, once again due to political pressure, Congress was not able to eliminate motorboat use outright. Instead, this time around, Congress prohibited all motorboat use within the Wilderness except on a few specifically named lakes, instituted phase-outs of motorized use on other lakes, and imposed motor size restrictions.[5] On lakes where motorboat use was allowed, Congress set a statutory cap at “the average actual annual motorboat use of the calendar years 1976, 1977, and 1978 for each lake,”[6] and the Forest Service calculated and allocated that cap through a series of entry point quotas for each lake. What followed was decades of confused and inconsistent statutory application, an indecipherable hodgepodge of management policies and practices, multiple rounds of litigation, and an increase in particular types of motorized use to the detriment of the Wilderness. Commercial towboat use is a prime example. 

Congress did not expressly contemplate the continued use of commercial towboats when it passed the BWCAW Act in ’78, and the Forest Service has never been clear on how it monitors commercial towboat use in relation to the overall statutory cap on motorboat use. That notwithstanding, towboat use continued, and the Forest Service adopted measures to regulate it in the 1993 BWCAW Management Plan. The Plan required towboat operators to obtain special use permits, and it limited towboat use to “1992 levels for numbers of boats, trips, current operators, and specific lakes.” However, Wilderness Watch learned from a series of Freedom of Information Act requests that the Forest Service has not consistently monitored actual commercial towboat use since the inception of the BWCAW Act or since the 1993 Plan, it does not appear to know what the level of towboat trips from 1992 was, it has allowed some commercial towboat operators to run towboat services without a special use permit, and it appears that actual commercial towboat use has been steadily increasing.

Making matters worse, the Wilderness Act prohibits commercial enterprise in Wilderness with the exception of certain “necessary” commercial services.[7] The exception requires a specific finding of necessity—something typically done through a “commercial needs assessment” with requisite public involvement and formal National Environmental Policy Act review. The Forest Service had not done this either, and it wasn’t about to. So, we sued. That lawsuit resulted in a settlement where the Forest Service agreed to prepare a commercial needs assessment to get a handle on the current amount of actual towboat use in the Wilderness, make a determination on whether towboat services are necessary at all—particularly given their impact on wilderness character, and if the Forest Service deems them necessary, to what extent. The Forest Service agreed to complete this process by November 2019.

The Forest Service produced a document that attempts to assess the amount of current towboat use, but it doesn’t assess that use in the context of the overall regulatory scheme (the limitations imposed by the Act and the Plan) and explain how current use is within those limits, it does not analyze necessity in the context of impacts to wilderness character and opportunities for motorized recreation outside of Wilderness, and a host of other issues. You can read our concerns about the Forest Service’s Draft Needs Assessment here: https://wildernesswatch.org/images/wild-issues/2019/10-09-2019-WW-Comments-BWCAW-CNA.pdf.  Likely in response to the concerns we raised in the Draft Needs Assessment, the Final Needs Assessment included a reference to an “extent necessary worksheet” that might address some of our concerns (and comply with the settlement agreement). However, in a nod to Orwell, when we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for this worksheet, the Forest Service refused to give it to us saying the information was privileged and exempt from disclosure. 

The Forest Service has indicated it will likely, at an undisclosed point in the future, engage in National Environmental Policy Act review of commercial towboat use in the BWCAW. We’ll keep everyone posted about that process and encourage public involvement when the time comes. In the meantime, the towboats keep buzzing under the cloak of regulatory ambiguity and agency confusion, and we’re assessing our options for additional legal challenges. The moral of the story: Clean, simple wilderness bills without special provisions best protect Wilderness, and we must keep demanding them from Congress. In an era where much of the environmental movement has become apologetic in its approach to land protection, it isn’t surprising that wilderness bills littered with compromise are considered the norm. And we know we can’t expect the agencies to do the right thing without constant vigilance and pressure.

The very idea of Wilderness is on the line, and we must keep the courage to hold that line.

 

[1] 16 U.S.C. § 1131(a), (c).

[2] 16 U.S.C § 1133(d)(5) (1976), repealed by Pub. L. No. 95-495, 92 Stat. 1649, 1650 (1978).

[3] Minnesota v. Block, 660 F.2d 1240, 1246 (8th Cir. 1981).

[4] Pub. L. No. 95-495, 92 Stat. 1649 (1978). 

[5] Pub. L. No. 95-495, T92 Stat. 1649 (1978), 92 Stat. at 1650, 4.

[6] Pub. L. No. 95-495, T92 Stat. 1649 (1978), 92 Stat. at 1651, 4(f).

[7] 16 U.S.C. § 1133(d)(5).


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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.

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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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Why Chainsaws Matter

george nickas 200x150

by George Nickas

 

Bill Worf, Wilderness Watch’s founder, liked to tell the story of when shortly after the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, engineers at the Forest Service Development and Technology Center expressed their interest in developing a “silent” chainsaw. Their rationale was that if the newly passed wilderness bill prohibited noisy machines, a really well muffled chainsaw would pass muster since only the operator would hear it. Bill told them not to bother—the Wilderness Act didn’t ban motorized equipment simply because it made noise, but rather because it represented a level of technology that was not in keeping with the ideals of the Wilderness Act.

Bill would have known. He served on the Forest Service task force that wrote the regulations and policies for implementing the Wilderness Act, and then became the first Forest Service wilderness program leader. Prior to that, as Forest Supervisor overseeing the Bridger Wilderness in northwest Wyoming, he had the opportunity to lead wilderness bill author and chief lobbyist Howard Zahniser on a trip into the Bridger. Bill credited his time with Zahniser with helping him to understand that the wilderness the Wilderness Act sought to protect wasn’t an undeveloped recreation area, but a place where we let nature be—a commitment to humility and restraint. Accept Wilderness on it on its own terms, and use only the lightest touch when allowing for the public uses (recreation, science, education, etc.) it provides.

Congress prohibited chainsaws because motorized tools are about domination—they allow humans to transform the landscape quickly and easily to meet our ends rather than transforming our own attitudes and desires to accommodate the landscape. Chainsaws are the antithesis of restraint. They embody the attitude that our convenience, impatience and demands come first, that we aren’t willing to slow down and meet nature on its own terms, and that there aren’t a few wild places left beyond the reach of our attempts to dominate and control.

Authorizing chainsaws to clear trails, as the US Forest Service regional forester for Region 2 recently did strikes a blow to this foundational tenet of the Wilderness Act itself, and that’s why Wilderness Watch and our allies challenged his decision in court.

But there’s another reason the decision to allow chainsaw use should concern all who care about Wilderness. The regional forester’s rationale for allowing their use—not enough trail crews to clear trails the traditional way—was essentially an admission that the Forest Service has failed miserably to maintain an adequately staffed or trained wilderness program. At a moment’s notice, the agency routinely assembles hundreds of firefighters, planes and heavy equipment to attack even a small wildfire, but from its nearly 30,000-plus employees and $5 billion budget it can’t pull together a handful of trained trail crews to help clear the trails in the Weminuche and South San Juan Wildernesses. Why is that?

About two decades ago the Forest Service effectively abandoned its wilderness program and outsourced the job to volunteers. It began by diverting funds from field crews to pay the salaries of foresters, engineers, or other desk-bound bureaucrats and putting “wilderness” in their job descriptions to make the transfer seem legit. But the main effort was putting the emphasis on creating “partnerships" with volunteer groups to mask the fact the wilderness program was being gutted. Its freshly minted directorship for Wilderness was charged with building partnerships, not rebuilding the agency’s flagging wilderness program. So today while many Wildernesses have volunteer “friends” groups trying to keep trails open or plug holes elsewhere, the agency’s program of a professionally trained and skilled field-going wilderness force has—to borrow a phrase from Bob Marshall—faded like a south-facing snowbank under a June sun.

The real lesson from the proposed chainsaw assault on the Weminuche and South San Juan Wildernesses isn’t that the Forest Service is ignoring the Wilderness Act—that’s hardly news at all. The most important takeaway is that Forest Service leadership has so decimated the agency’s wilderness program that using chainsaws to clear trails is even being discussed.


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George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.

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Thank you George Nickas for this article. I live in Durango Colorado and am familiar with this chainsaw issue, and the western Wem... Read More
Friday, 20 December 2019 19:58
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Buyer Beware

Hovercraft Ruling Deals a Major Blow to Land Conservation in AlaskaDana blog

by Dana Johnson

 

In a major blow to conservation efforts in Alaska, including efforts to protect over 56 million acres of Wilderness in the state, the U.S. Supreme Court held that John Sturgeon, a moose hunter, can “rev up his hovercraft in search of moose” on the Nation River—a river that flows through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska. The suit came after the Park Service told Sturgeon he could not use his hovercraft within the Yukon-Charley because Park Service regulations ban hovercraft within national preserves and parks. Sturgeon sued the Park Service, arguing that it had no authority to regulate activity on rivers in the preserve because the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) restricts Park Service authority to federally owned “public lands,” and the Nation River does not constitute federally owned public land under ANILCA. The Court agreed, noting, “If Sturgeon lived in any other State, his suit would not have a prayer of success” because the Park Service’s normal statutory authority would allow it to regulate both land and waters within parks and preserves, regardless of who owns the land and water. But, the Court found Alaska is “the exception, not the rule.”


ANILCA, signed into law in 1980, more than doubled the size of the National Park System and protected over 104 million acres of federally owned public land in the state, including over 56 million acres of new Wilderness. The Act designated such iconic Wildernesses as Denali, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Wrangell-Saint Elias, Izembek, Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Kenai, Misty Fjords, as well as many other Wildernesses administered by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Unfortunately, the law also contains a number of bad provisions that affect federal agencies’ abilities to protect these areas from degradation.


The problem here comes with one provision within ANILCA stating, “Only those lands within the boundaries of any conservation system unit which are public lands (as such term is defined in this Act) shall be deemed to be included as a portion of such unit.” The Court noted that while the Park Service normally has broad authority to protect the land and water in parks, “add Section 103(c) [of ANILCA], and the equation changes.” Under this one provision, “[a]ll non-public lands (… including waters) [are] ‘deemed,’ abracadabra-style, outside Alaska’s system units,” and “[g]eographic inholdings thus become regulatory outholdings, impervious to the Service’s ordinary authority.” While the Park Service can still regulate “public lands flanking rivers,” and while it may still enforce regulations designed to protect its reserved water rights from diversion or depletion, it cannot apply park regulations to rivers in Alaska that fall outside of this narrow regulatory bubble.

Understandably, the Park Service argued that such a holding would significantly hamstring its ability to protect parks and preserves from degradation. Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg seemed to agree. While they felt legally constrained to join the unanimous opinion, in a separate concurring opinion they highlighted the unintended consequences that can flow from compromise provisions in statutes. “Many of Alaska’s navigable rivers course directly through the heart of protected parks, monuments, and preserves. A decision that leaves the Service with no authority, or only highly constrained authority, over those rivers would undercut Congress’s clear expectations in enacting ANILCA and could have exceedingly damaging consequences.”

So, where does this leave things? The Court’s opinion states that the Park Service cannot apply park system rules and regulations to non-public lands and waters in Alaska. Presumably this would apply to other federal land management agencies. Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg suggest that there may be avenues for the Park Service to regulate non-public areas when such regulation is necessary to protect parklands—it just can’t “apply normal park rules to nonpublic lands.” For example, while the Park Service can’t broadly prohibit hovercraft use on the Nation River under its general park ban, it might be able to prohibit hovercraft “in certain designated areas [on the River] to protect a particular sensitivity in a surrounding (public) park area, including some habitats on the banks of the Nation River.” Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg also suggest that the opinion might have gone differently had the Nation River been designated a Wild and Scenic River, noting “the Service should retain full authority to regulate the Wild and Scenic Rivers as parklands.” But, the legal durability of those regulatory paths will be left for a different day, and the two Justices worry “that authority may be more circumscribed than the special needs of parks require… threaten[ing] the Service’s ability to fulfill its broader duty to protect all of the parklands through which the rivers flow.” To remedy harm caused by Section 103(c) of ANILCA, they note that “Congress can and should clarify the broad scope of the Service’s authority over Alaska’s navigable waters.”

Ultimately, this case is illustrative of the poison pill problem—compromise provisions made to get a conservation bill passed may ultimately weaken the law so substantially that its original intent is smothered by the weight of exception. In this case, one provision leaves navigable waters flowing through the heart of National Parks and Wildernesses in Alaska largely unregulatable by the federal agencies charged with protecting them. Buyer beware.


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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.

Recent Comments
Guest — Carol Wagner
Yes, isn't patriarchy wonderful, driving us all to extinction!
Tuesday, 02 July 2019 15:50
Guest — margarita clayton
Why the great need to hunt/KILL in this era? The need to control,feel superior and feel powerful fits this ego....and to do it in ... Read More
Thursday, 02 May 2019 05:11
Guest — Patrick M Finnegan
This is rough. The concept of fair chase hunting seems to be lost . Thanks for the informative article Dana. Very well done.... Read More
Monday, 29 April 2019 18:50
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The Not So Good Public Lands Omnibus Bill

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The Not So Good Public Lands Omnibus Bill

by George Nickas

 

As they say, the devil is in the details, and when the likes of anti-public lands legislators Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) stamp their approval on a massive 698-page public lands omnibus bill, we’d best dig deep.  So, why isn’t that happening?  A bipartisan chorus has applauded the “Natural Resources Management Act,” a bill written in the last Congress—the most anti-public lands Congress in memory—and about to be rubber-stamped by the new one. It is being hailed as one of the biggest conservation achievements in decades, but it is full of harmful provisions that would never see the light of day were they not tucked quietly into the omnibus. 

Take the relatively innocuous sounding “wildlife management in national parks” provision.  It should be called “Opening National Parks to Hunting,” because that’s what it does.  It allows the Secretary of Interior, heretofore Ryan Zinke, to open the Parks to “volunteer” hunters whenever the Secretary deems a wildlife population needs culling.  Zinke has already made such a declaration for predators in national preserves in Alaska, where state officials are pushing to eliminate wolves, grizzly bears, and anything else that eats hunters’ “game”.  There’s little reason to believe Zinke and his ilk won’t do the same elsewhere.  In the states surrounding Yellowstone National Park there’s a constant cry from State officials to cull the bison and elk herds, and to limit the number of wolves and grizzly bears that dare wander beyond the Park borders.  Zinke’s trophy hunting buddies in groups like Safari Club International and the NRA have always chafed at the ban on hunting in National Parks, and the public lands bill is their key to finally opening the lock.  And it’s not limited to just Yellowstone.  Bison in the Grand Canyon, elk in Rocky Mountain and wildlife in other parks could become targets with passage of the bill.

And then there’s the Alaska Native Vietnam Era Veterans Land Allotment provision that makes hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands, including in national wildlife refuges, available to privatization, development and resale in Alaska. It’s the biggest public lands privatization scheme in 50 years.  For background, in 1971, Congress passed a law that established a sunset date for a 1906 land allotment program available to Alaska Natives.  It gave a “final” opportunity for those who hadn’t made a claim in the preceding 65 years.  However, some Alaska Natives stationed in Vietnam couldn’t meet the deadline.  To address this, Congress created a new 18-month window in 1998, which was later extended to 2000.  Congress made it clear at the time that the latest deadline was final.  That didn’t stop the Alaska delegation from coming back in 2002 for another extension, which Congress and the Bush Administration roundly rejected as a land-grab.  Yet here they are again.  So much for “keeping public lands in public hands.”

There’s more. The so-called “sportsmen’s” provision elevates hunting, angling, and recreational shooting as a priority in public lands management.  A major gas pipeline will run through Denali National Park. Other provisions bring many new problems for our National Wilderness Preservation System. What did you expect, given the previous Congress wrote the bill.

To be sure, the bill contains positive provisions, but it should have undergone the scrutiny of committee hearings, public hearings, and proper oversight.  The U.S. House of Representatives should do just those things before the bill becomes law, or if the ship is too big to steer at this point, perhaps we should hail an iceberg. 

They say it’s a done deal, and it probably is.  But if you want to contact your Member of Congress and express your concerns, you can reach their offices at 202-224-3121.


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George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.

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Outlook for Wilderness in Congress

george nickas 200x150kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by George Nickas and Kevin Proescholdt

 

Now that the 116th Congress has convened, the good news is no longer will the likes of Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Tom McClintock (R-CA) set the agenda and tone for wilderness and public lands legislation in the People’s House. Largely gone from public debate will be the tidal wave of terrible legislation that threatened to undo a half-century of Wilderness protection. And there should be no more pseudo “oversight” hearings that served no purpose but to attack the Wilderness Act.

 

The more sobering news is that not much changed in the Senate, and we can expect the Trump Administration to continue to push the limits of administrative power to exploit our public domain.

 

Here's our brief take on the House and Senate:

2019 Congress: House. The Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives as a result of the 2018 mid-term election, and now have a 235-200 majority. While not all Democrats are good for Wilderness (and not all Republicans are bad), this change in control is generally great news for Wilderness.

 

            Leadership: Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) now chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, replacing anti-wilderness Republican Rob Bishop (R-UT). Rep. Grijalva has been a strong supporter of Wilderness, and virtually all wilderness-related bills go through this committee. The incoming chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies is Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), who has been a champion for National Parks and Wilderness, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in her home state of Minnesota. She replaces Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) as chair of this influential panel.

 

            Outlook: Even with a more favorable House, passing good legislation will remain a challenge as any bill must get through the Senate and be signed by the President. The best news is that bad wilderness bills that have been pushed relentlessly by House Republicans in the past several Congresses, such as the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act (SHARE Act) (which would have gutted the 1964 Wilderness Act), and the Wheels in Wilderness Bill (which would have opened every Wilderness in the nation to mountain bikes and other mechanized forms of transportation), are now unlikely get a hearing in the House, let alone pass.

 

In the House we might be able to look forward to more oversight of the federal land management agencies and their wilderness programs. Oversight hearings, or even letters from committees to the land management agencies can shine a light on agency abuses and ultimately bring about positive change, as we saw in the early 1990s, the last time Congress took a serious look at the agencies’ wilderness programs. Hearings can also lay the groundwork for legislation to strengthen existing Wilderness laws and ensure those laws are enforced, should oversight alone fail to right the ship.

 

The House can also use the power of the purse to set policy and undo some of the most destructive actions of the current Administration and last Congress. Foremost on its agenda should be preventing the spending of any federal dollars to pursue mineral exploration or leasing on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. The Alaska delegation used a must-pass tax bill to open the Arctic Refuge to leasing and drilling, the House could potentially use the same to stop it. Similarly, the House might be able to use the budget process to prevent the Dept. of Interior from spending money to effectuate a land exchange with the State of Alaska that will lead to a road through the heart of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness. This would buy time for our lawsuit challenging Zinke’s unlawful end-run around the Wilderness Act and the 1980 Alaska Lands Act to work through the courts.

 

2019 Congress: Senate. Republicans retained control of the Senate and picked up two additional seats as a result of the mid-term election, and now have a majority of 53-47. This means that the Senate will probably treat Wilderness much the same as in the past couple of years of Republican control. Because the Senate operates differently from the House, and the majority needs some minority votes to reach the 60-vote filibuster-ending level, Democrats can still exercise some control (albeit limited) over the really bad wilderness bills promoted by Republicans.

 

            Leadership: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will continue to chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the committee through which nearly all wilderness-related bills must pass. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is slated to become the Ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Manchin has a thin record on Wilderness, which leaves open the potential to create an advocate. The chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies will also continue to be Sen. Murkowski, leaving this anti-wilderness legislator in two key positions of power over Wilderness. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), a good supporter of Wilderness, will continue as the ranking minority member of this appropriations subcommittee.

 

            Outlook: Even though Republicans will retain control of the Senate, the dynamic between the House and Senate will dramatically change as a result of the new Democratic control of the House. In the past, the Republican House kept passing and sending over to the Senate one bad wilderness bill after another. That pattern will change now. While gridlock is probably the best bet, there may be opportunities to pass some modest wilderness designation bills or reforms to agency programs.

 

2019 Omnibus.  In December 2018, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee put together a massive public lands omnibus bill that ran to nearly 700 pages. While many of the bills in that package were noncontroversial, the omnibus did contain some bad bills as well. Fortunately, the omnibus was not included in the Continuing Resolution at the last minute in the Senate, but Sen. Murkowski has revived it in the new Congress.

 

Wilderness Watch will carefully monitor the discussions, and will work to protect Wilderness in any possible omnibus package.


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George Nickas is the executive director and Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director of Wilderness Watch.

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What’s Wrong with Monitoring Inactive Volcanoes in Wilderness?

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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kevin proescholdt

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

 

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Why Wilderness? It's Irreplaceable

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Why Wilderness? It's Irreplaceable

By Franz Camenzind

 

There is a lot being said about wilderness these days: some misrepresentations and a lot of confusion as to what wilderness is, legally and ecologically.

First, wilderness designation is the best land protection law our nation has. As one wildlands advocate stated decades ago: “Wilderness is nature in its original condition.”

Wilderness cannot be manufactured; it can only be protected. Just as the 300-square-mile Jonah Field exists where oil and gas occurs, so can wilderness be protected only where it occurs. And the Jackson region is blessed with incomparable wild lands in need of protection.

Some say a wilderness designation is tantamount to a “lockout.” Wilderness is not a lockout. Anyone can enter on foot, skis, canoe, kayak, horseback or wheelchair. Anyone can backpack and camp, and any license-holder can enter to hunt and fish. Licensed hunting camps are permitted in wilderness areas, and many allow livestock grazing.

What wilderness excludes is entry by mechanized transport and the commercial extraction of resources, the building of dams and roads, the flying of drones and the landing of aircraft. It allows whipsaws, but not chain saws. It welcomes footsteps and sweat, but not motorized conveniences.

Nor is wilderness a place to be raced through on mountain bikes. Instead, it’s a place to be experienced as it was before the invention of the wheel. It’s incredible to think that anyone capable of riding a mountain bike into a wilderness area would not be able to walk or ride a horse into the same landscape.

At most wilderness is a filter that asks nothing more of those seeking entry than to check mechanization at the trailhead. Wilderness designation protects the land’s “original conditions” while allowing human activities that leave no land-altering footprint.

Our wilderness areas help shape our quality of life by providing incomparable, year-round recreation opportunities. They help fuel today’s robust economy while also protecting our watersheds and wildlife.

Besides the obvious benefits to humans, wilderness provides our iconic wildlife with secure habitats and movement corridors at a time when globally the rate of wilderness loss is nearly double the rate of protection.

We have our wilderness areas and national parks because of the vision of Jackson Hole’s first conservationists. They understood the value of protecting what is best about this region: our public lands. Their foresight and determination has served us well, and continuing their legacy is clearly today’s best investment strategy.

Jackson Hole’s conservation work continues. We are now on the threshold of making the largest land management decision in decades: the destiny of the Palisades and Shoal Creek wilderness study areas.

These wilderness study areas came about as a result of the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act, which dedicated the Gros Ventre, Winegar Hole and Jedediah Smith wilderness areas. Although both county political parties and the full Teton County Commission wanted more wilderness dedicated, they could not convince our Congressional delegation. Consequently, a compromise was reached where it was agreed that these areas would be protected as WSAs, to be managed as wilderness until their fate could be determined at a later date. Now is that later date.

The Palisades connects the Tetons and the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to the Wyoming and Salt River ranges, which in turn approach the High Uintas, which then line with the Colorado Rockies.

A Palisades Wilderness will allow wide-ranging species such as the lynx, wolverine, wolf and potentially the grizzly bear to reconnect with large portions of their historic range. It will benefit all our native wildlife and provide them with a better chance of thriving well into the future.

Likewise, the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area has high ecological value. It contains low-elevation habitats rare in many wilderness areas. It provides summer parturition and winter habit for elk, deer and moose, and contains documented migration corridors for our mule deer population. Wilderness designation for the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area will ensure that these critical habitats retain their highest wildlife values.

On Oct. 9 the Teton County Commission is tentatively set to take a position on the future of these lands. Will it recommend that the wilderness study areas be released for multiple use, such as roads, mechanized and motorized activities, logging and mineral development? Or will it recommend full wilderness protection?

Jackson Hole has a long and enviable history of land conservation; to suddenly express less then full support for wilderness would be an economic and ecological mistake with irreparable consequences. And so doing would be an affront to our conservation legacy.

The decision will put our community on record as either supporting wilderness, the best land protection option, or as giving up and turning these two great, in “original condition” land masses over to special interests for inevitable commercialization and degradation.

Jackson, which will it be: conservation or commercialization? When it comes to wilderness we can’t have it both ways. Share your views with the commission at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Franz Camenzind, Ph.D.
Jackson, Wyoming
9/26/2018
 

 

Franz is a wildlife biologist and the Vice-President of Wilderness Watch's board of directors.

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Isle Royale Wolves: I Vote for Nature's Way

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Isle Royale Wolves: I Vote for Nature's Way 

By Franz Camenzind

 

Isle Royale is both a National Park (1940) and a designated Wilderness Area (1976). Each authority brings significant protection to the land, but with differing mandates. As a National Park, its clear purpose is to preserve and protect its wilderness character, cultural and natural resources, and ecological processes; where humanity's protectionist's footprint may be very apparent.


As a Wilderness, its clear purpose is to protect the area so as to preserve its natural conditions in a manner that generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature; where humanity's preservationist's footprint leaves at most, only a faint impression.


These mandates contain contradictions that may seem subtle to most, but they can confound management decisions. Isle Royale, known for its wolf population, is facing a critical decision point-to physically import wolves from the mainland to "rescue" the current isolated population which is likely to "blink out" in the next year due to the consequences of severe inbreeding or, to leave nature alone and allow the island's wolf population to disappear. Wolves first arrived on the island in the late 1940s via an ice bridge from the mainland, but their stay appears to be a short one. The question is whether to allow a natural event (likely extirpation) to play out, as was the case when wolves first arrived on the island, or to intervene and extend the wolves tenure by translocating wolves from mainland.


We now face a situation where some argue that the Park's mandate allows for the heavy footprint of an artificial reintroduction of wolves to keep a functioning wolf population on the island. Others argue that the wilderness designation means managers should leave nature to take its course and preserve the area's wild and untrammeled condition even if that means the end of the wolf population on the island. It is nature's way.


Adding to the decision's challenge is the argument that Isle Royale without wolves will result in a moose population explosion (the wolf's major food source and the moose's only significant predator), which will lead to severe over-browsing and long-term habitat damage. Wilderness advocates argue that this impact too would pass. If over-browsing occurs and moose populations subsequently decline, the habitat will very likely rebound. This happened before wolves arrived on the island (moose predate wolves on the island by several decades). It's nature's way.


Although their origins are uncertain, what is known is that moose first appeared on Isle Royale at the very beginning of the 20th Century, decades before the first wolves arrived. It is widely accepted that the particularly cold winter of 1948-49 allowed an ice bridge to form, which in turn allowed the first wolves to cross the 15 miles from the mainland to the island. However, for nearly half a century the island, and its moose, survived without wolves. Interestingly, during that wolf-free period, it is quite clear that moose had severely over-browsed their forest habitat and were on the verge of starving out. Not surprisingly, the habitat recovered, and so did the moose population.


Scientists say that moose populations are controlled by available forage as much or even more so than by the presence of wolves. Clearly, for decades, the two acting together have made for a very interesting and natural dynamic. But in the long course of ecological events, their decades-long drama may have been nothing more then a brief relationship.


I vote for nature's way. I do so because ninety-nine percent of Isle Royale's 134,000 acres is Wilderness, and so a different type of "management" is required for this place, one that respects the area's wild character and does not try to manipulate wildlife populations or habitat conditions on the island. In other words, impose a management decision not to manage.


I also support nature's way because capturing and hauling wolves in from the mainland will not alter the overriding reality-Isle Royale is an island only occasionally connected to the mainland by an ice bridge. By itself, the island is too small to sustain a long-term, genetically healthy wolf population, and perhaps the same can be said for the moose population. I have to ask, if a "rescue" were to occur, when would inbreeding again overtake the isolated wolf population and when would demands for another "rescue" be made? Would this human manipulation become the new normal? How is this natural? How does this leave the Wilderness untrammeled? How does this maintain the Park's or its Wilderness' natural processes?


It doesn't.


Some rescue proponents insist that if the island's wolves die off, over 60 years of wolf-moose research will come to an end. Without a doubt, the Isle Royale wolf-moose dynamics have been superbly documented throughout this time as the longest major predator-prey study in history. However, if wolves are purposely brought onto the island, what will it do for the continuity of the research? It will effectively change a natural study paradigm into a manipulated (island) laboratory research project, one whose results will always require a disclaimer that the findings were influenced by human intervention and no longer represent a naturally occurring phenomena.

 

In effect, it would be new research that could best be described as a "before and after" intervention study and difficult to claim as an uninterrupted, continuation of the previous work.
Proponents of wolf "rescue" also argue that with climate change, ice bridges and natural re-colonization by wolves are less likely to occur, therefore human intervention is justified, if not necessary. A logical scenario, but other climate-driven factors are also coming into play on the island. Perhaps most significant is the documented change already occurring in the vegetative regime on the island, a change not favoring the moose population. As the habitat's vegetation shifts away from moose-preferred species, will the moose population again be put in jeopardy? If this is the case, do we "rescue" the moose population too? Or do we initiate a wolf reduction program to safeguard the remaining moose? Or do we initiate a moose reduction program in an attempt to safeguard the remaining habitat? Where does this intervention end?


We forget that Isle Royale is an island and cannot operate like an expansive and complex mainland landscape. Like most island settings, its species composition is much simpler then the nearby mainland. For example, only 19 species of mammals occur on the island compared to over 40 on the surrounding mainland. Consequently, its ecological systems are far simpler then those operating on the mainland. And because of its limited size, it cannot support populations of low density species such as the wolf or other large carnivores that require large, connected landscapes to sustain their own numbers, and their own genetic diversity. And we forget that as far back as 3,500 years ago, the island was home to woodland caribou and Canada lynx. And coyotes made it to the island on their own around 1905, but disappeared by 1955. Consensus is that they were all eliminated due to human actions. Do we re-colonize the island with these previous, naturally occurring residents, ones lost not naturally, but through deliberate human actions? We face a dilemma of conflicting values; not one solved with on-going intervention. When would it end?


And last, the decision to "rescue" the island's wolf population might be easier to accept if doing so would be a step toward saving the species from extinction. This is not the case. What happens to the wolves of Isle Royale will have little to no impact on the species' overall survival.


Allow Isle Royale to be a wilderness park, let its future be shaped as it was during its not so distant past-by nature's forces, not humankind's manipulated version of a "natural" island system. Then and only then can we observe and learn how island ecosystems truly function. There aren't many places like this left in the world, let us not spoil it with heavy-handed intervention.

Franz Camenzind, Ph.D.
Jackson, Wyoming
02/27/2018
 

 

Franz is a wildlife biologist and the Vice-President of Wilderness Watch's board of directors.

Recent Comments
Guest — scott
Great post. What a shame. Once done the Island can never again be said to be a true wilderness untouched by man (not many of the... Read More
Monday, 19 March 2018 08:44
Guest — August Allen
Amen. Wonderful post.
Saturday, 17 March 2018 12:13
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Restraint the Key to Keeping Wilderness Wild

Chris Neill

Restraint the Key to Keeping Wilderness Wild
Guest post by Christopher Neill

  

 

Ten years ago I got out of an MBL pickup truck and walked away from the only road for 300 miles into North America's greatest wilderness. Across spongy tundra alive with the tinkling of Smith's longspurs. Upstream along a braided river channel I shared with harlequin ducks, common mergansers and red-throated loons. Then up a jumbled talus slope with a view to the other side of glacial U-shaped valley through air so clear that the distant tops of unnamed Brooks Range mountains looked like you could toss a rock to the Dall sheep high up on their slopes.

 

For my one-day walk into the Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge I carried nothing but a daypack with warm clothes, a rain suit, a day's worth of food and binoculars. For me, it was the perfect antidote to a fast-paced modern world.
 
The Refuge—as its supporters refer to it—is the crown jewel of protected lands in the US. It's arguably the wildest and least human-modified swath of Earth that we as Americans have collective responsibility for. In one day, I hiked through a small but stunning southern section of the 19 million-acre Refuge that adjoins the north-south corridor for the Alaska Pipeline Haul Road. From there, the Refuge stretches for more than 160 miles—with no roads, no trails, and no other human structures—to the Arctic Ocean.
 
That now will change. This week the House and Senate included in the tax bill a provision that opens up the Refuge's costal plain to oil and gas drilling. At a time when the nations of the world need cut carbon dioxide emissions and keep fossil fuels in the ground to avoid the most disruptive consequences of runaway climate change, this decision reveals the worst side of human nature.
 
Wilderness protection started as an American idea. The US created a formal system for designating wilderness when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964. That Act protected 9.1 million acres on Federal lands.
 
The Wilderness Act contains a succinct and moving definition of wilderness: "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
 
Today's wilderness system encompasses 109 million acres in 44 states. The largest preserve is the 9 million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Wilderness in eastern Alaska. Eight million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are wilderness. The smallest wilderness is the six-acre Rock and Islands in California's northern coast. While 109 million acres of wilderness sounds like a lot, 40 percent of US wilderness is in Alaska and wilderness makes up less than 3 percent of the total area of the other 49 states.  
 
A few days after my hike into the Refuge, while at the nearby Toolik Field Station, I had the good fortune to hear a talk by Roger Kaye. Kaye, a bush pilot and historian at the University of Alaska, wrote a history of the Refuge's creation, first as the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960 and later as the current Refuge in 1980.
 
Kaye asked his audience, what single word best captures the philosophy behind designating a near-pristine swath of the planet a place where people can visit but not remain. After a minute somebody finally got it. Restraint.
 
That word stuck with me all these years because it's so utterly perfect. Wilderness is important not because lots of people visit it—but precisely because they don't. I have set foot in perhaps half dozen out of our nation's 765 official wilderness areas. I am unlikely to visit many more.
 
But the fact that they exist—and the fact that we can agree, through our collective endeavors, to let nature simply be over some meaningfully large patches of Earth—gives me great hope.
 
The three southern New England states have only one federally-designated wilderness area—but it happens to be our Cape Cod shoreline. It's 3,244 acres of the wild and dynamic Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham. Barely one percent of Cape Cod.
 
But unraveling protections seems also to be a deeply ingrained American idea—and one that cuts close to home. Even small protected areas are contentious. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Town of Chatham for the last several years have disputed the sand flats on the west side of the Monomoy Refuge because the FWS argues that some activities—like windsurfing and mussel harvests—are not compatible with the Refuge's primary mission to protect nesting and migrating birds.
 
On September 15 of last year, President Barak Obama designated the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument for permanent protection. It's a teeming, 3.1 million-acre marine ecosystem about 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod that is among the least-disturbed underwater habitats of the entire Atlantic Ocean within US territory. The area's extinct underwater volcanoes and marine canyons support thousand year-old corals, seabirds, whales and sea turtles. It's 1.5 percent of the US Atlantic coastal waters.
 
The pushback by some parts of the commercial fishing industry has been relentless. And the administration of President Donald Trump is likely to oblige. The Washington Post reported in September that a memo from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended opening the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument to commercial fishing. Claims that the Monument designation will harm commercial fishing are vastly overblown and contradict data collected by NOAA that show very little fishing actually takes place there.
 
Battles over wilderness and protected areas—including those just off our shores—go to the heart of who we are and what we are willing to hold sacred. We need places that, in the words of National Park Service biologist Lowell Sumner—who wrote about the Arctic Refuge at its founding—have the "freedom to continue, unhindered and forever if we are willing, the particular story of Planet Earth."
 
We need places that show we are willing to exercise that most important of human qualities—restraint. 
 

 

Christopher Neill is an ecologist and Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. He studies the consequences of deforestation and expanding agriculture in the Brazilian Amazon and approaches to management and restoration of grasslands, wetlands and estuaries along the New England coast. From 2008 to 2010 he taught a hands-on course in Arctic ecosystem change to science journalists at Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska.   

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Guest — Tina
Thank you for being so eloquent in speaking out for this human quality that receives too little attention.
Friday, 21 September 2018 03:06
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Gianforte joins stealth attack on Wilderness in Montana

George Nickas

Gianforte joins stealth attack on Wilderness in Montana
By George Nickas

 

Montana’s designated wildernesses are the pride of our state. We might fight like hell over whether to designate this area or that one as new wilderness, but the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat, Selway-Bitterroot, Absaroka-Beartooth, and our other protected wildernesses are sacred to Montanans of all stripes.
 
That is, apparently, all stripes except Rep. Greg Gianforte, who just voted to effectively repeal the Wilderness Act and open places like “the Bob” to endless forms of habitat manipulation, predator control, road building, and anything else that might be construed as benefiting “hunting, angling, recreational, shooting or wildlife conservation.”
 
This stealth attack on the Wilderness Act comes in the form of H.R. 3668, the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) Act, introduced by Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina. It would affect every wilderness in the nation, including all of Montana’s wilderness gems.
 
By nearly unanimous vote, Congress passed the 1964 Wilderness Act to protect America’s wildest landscapes. The law describes wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man... retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” The Wilderness Act is essentially nature’s Bill of Rights, places where we humans, out of a sense of respect, humility and foresight, have agreed to let nature be. Since passage of the Wilderness Act, the National Wilderness Preservation System has grown to include 110 million acres in more than 760 units.
 
The SHARE Act would turn the Wilderness Act on its head allowing logging, chaining, herbicide spraying or myriad other offenses under the guise of “wildlife conservation” or for providing hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting experiences. While such management might be fine for a Texas game farm, it represents a dramatic change for the Wilderness Act, which for over 50 years has required the preservation of wilderness character as the top priority for public Wildernesses.
 
The SHARE Act would also allow the construction of “temporary” roads, dams, or other structures in wilderness. And all such projects would be exempt from any environmental review or public scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act — in essence making wildernesses some of the least-protected of all public lands.
 
The bill is being pushed at the behest of the Safari Club International and a few like-minded groups that are upset that wildernesses around the country aren’t managed like game farms, something Montanans roundly rejected at the ballot box not long ago. Not satisfied with the rich diversity of life our wildernesses hold, these groups want wilderness managed solely to benefit their idea of hunting and to favor the animal species they want to shoot. Even if it means building a road or a dam, clear cutting a forest, or wiping out native predators to meet their hunting or angling goals.
 
Montanans who love our wildest, best places and don’t want them degraded for a selfish few should contact Gianforte and urge him to remove the wilderness-gutting provisions from the SHARE Act — before it’s too late.

 

George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch.  

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There was no secret deal for mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt
 

 

Congressmen Rick Nolan and Tom Emmer, among others, have made various claims recently suggesting that the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act opened the Superior National Forest outside the BWCAW in northern Minnesota to mining. Some variations of this story even talk about a "secret dea" or a "nod and a handshake."

 

These fictitious claims are usually made to support the proposed PolyMet mine or Twin Metals mineral exploration on the doorstep of the BWCAW. Both pose potentially disastrous environmental impacts, not only for the BWCAW but for the St. Louis River watershed as well.

 

As co-author of the definitive history of the 1978 BWCAW Act, "Troubled Waters," I can say that no such deal occurred. I say this not only based on my own involvement in the process and my direct contact with the involved members of Congress — including my friend Rep. Nolan — but also upon my research of:

 

 

  • All BWCAW bills in Congress from 1975-1978, including those by Congressman Jim Oberstar, who strongly opposed the wilderness legislation.

  • All Congressional Record debates.

  • Transcripts of BWCAW hearings in Washington.

  • All House and Senate committee reports.

  • The final conference committee report.

  • The published legislative history of the 1978 act.

  • All Congressional Record statements not included in the published legislative history.
     

In addition to these official documents, I reviewed every BWCAW article from 1978 in the Ely Echo, which strongly opposed the wilderness legislation. If such a deal occurred, the Echo would have reported it. As with the congressional documents, the Echo reported no mining deal. It was never reported anywhere because it never occurred.

 

The 1978 law did include provisions that intensified forest management on the Superior National Forest outside of the BWCAW. But forest management and mining are not the same thing, and the law included nothing promoting or promising mining on the rest of the Superior.

 

What I can report about mining during those congressional debates was the nearly universal concern to protect the Boundary Waters from the impacts of mining. Even Rep. Oberstar recognized the hazards of sulfide-ore mining, which poses hundreds, if not thousands, of years of toxic runoff to the waters of the BWCAW. Rep. Oberstar indeed spoke many times during the committee mark-ups and floor debates about the need to protect the Boundary Waters itself from mining.

 

This is the real promise of the Boundary Waters law, not the version being promoted by Reps. Nolan and Emmer. The real promise of the BWCAW Act, from its own language, is to "maintain high water quality in such areas;" to "provide for the protection and management of the fish and wildlife in the wilderness, so as to enhance public enjoyment and appreciation of the unique biotic resources of the region;" to "protect and enhance the natural values and environmental quality of the lakes, streams, shorelines and associated forest areas of the wilderness;" and to "minimize to the maximum extent possible, the environmental impacts associated with mineral development affecting such areas."

 

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a wildland resource of immense value to the nation and the world. Though parts were damaged in the past, it still retains a wilderness character unmatched anywhere else in the National Wilderness Preservation System, with lakes so clean one can drink right from them and where visitors can thrill to the evocative call of loons on a starlit night and experience the great silences and solitude that are increasingly rare in our frantic world.

  

This is the true promise of the Boundary Waters: not the imaginary promise of mining and its attendant pollution, as promoted by Nolan, Emmer, and others, but a promise from past generations to future ones to pass along unimpaired this hauntingly beautiful wilderness gem with its sparkling clear waters far into the future.

  

Rather than throw away this hope for a relatively few mining jobs and its toxic pollution, we should instead work together to fulfill the true promise of clean water and a protected Boundary Waters.

 

 

Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization.  He has written widely on Wilderness, including Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (1995) and Glimpses of Wilderness (2015).

 

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Mount Washington Wilderness Protected From Invasive Ecological Meddling

By Gary Macfarlane


Gary Macfarlane
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.
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National Monument "Review" Threatens Wilderness Too

George NickasNational Monument "Review" Threatens Wilderness Too

By George Nickas

 

President Trump’s executive order demanding a review of all national monuments larger than 100,000 acres and established since 1996 portends serious consequences for the National Wilderness Preservation System.

 

For starters, within those 27 monuments are 30 Wildernesses in six western states. While the president can’t undo the Wilderness designations—that would require an act of Congress—the protections national monument status affords to the lands surrounding these Wildernesses undoubtedly help preserve the conditions within them. Healthy wildlife habitat and populations, biodiversity, water quality, scenic vistas, silence, solitude, remoteness, and dark skies are all values within these Wildernesses that benefit from the surrounding national monuments.

 

Consider the Dark Canyon Wilderness, as just one example.  This relatively small 45,000-acre Wilderness on the Manti-LaSal National Forest in southeastern Utah lies near the geographic center of the new 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Prior to establishment of the national monument, much of the land around Dark Canyon was open to logging, mining, oil and gas development, and off-road motorized and mechanized vehicle use. But because of the monument proclamation the lands surrounding Dark Canyon Wilderness are largely protected from industrial uses, and vehicles are limited to roads and trails designated for their use. If Bears Ears National Monument is rescinded, the Dark Canyon Wilderness could eventually be ringed with development and ORV use.

 

But there is an even greater threat to Wilderness from President Trump’s monument repeal effort: it is the first shot across the bow of the Administration and Congress to undo many of our nation’s greatest conservation laws. There are all ready more than a dozen bills introduced in Congress to weaken the Endangered Species Act. And as I write this the House of Representatives has an oversight hearing scheduled to discuss the “overreach” of the Wilderness Act and Federal Land Policy Management Act, which they claim have “gone astray.” Any day we expect to see the latest incarnation of the “Sportsmen’s Heritage Act,” legislation that would effectively repeal the Wilderness Act. Previous versions have passed the House, but stalled in the Senate, partly due to the Administration’s opposition.  That opposition has likely vanished.

 

While the national media and public attention is focused on issues like the health care debate, tax reform, and Russian meddling in our elections, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the Trump Administration is failing and its agenda is stalled. To those involved in protecting our endangered wildlands, threatened wildlife, and our nation’s natural legacy, the Trump agenda is anything but stalled. It’s full speed ahead.

 

This is why every wildlands and wildlife conservationist should be alarmed and ready to do battle over the Administration’s efforts to repeal any of our nation’s national monuments. Should Trump, Secretary Zinke, and their allies in Congress succeed, the monuments will be only the first to fall.

 

 

George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch. 

This is a corrected version of an essay that appeared in our Summer 2017 newsletter. 

 
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Bigger is Better

Bigger is Better
By Howie Wolke

howie 05 03 13 201This essay appeared in our Spring 2017 newsletter.

When it comes to wilderness, bigger is better. This is as true from an ecological perspective as it is from that of the human wilderness experience.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness (in part) as “…at least 5,000 acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition…” Although as a Montanan, 5,000 acres seems pretty small, the Act’s authors recognized that wilderness is fundamentally distinct from tiny areas of protected open space, such as many county parks or small state recreation areas, with size being one of its distinguishing characteristics.

From a human perspective, it is difficult to experience wilderness values such as awe, oneness with nature, solitude and challenge in a small woodlot or county park hemmed in by noisy roads or machines. The authors of the Wilderness Act rightly understood that in the face of our growing and expanding civilization, if folks accepted postage-stamp sized natural areas as “Wilderness”, then our perception of wilderness would lose its unique distinction. And as the wilderness idea is cheapened, so too, is wilderness on the ground.

From a biocentric perspective, conservation biologists assert that size of a protected area is crucial to maintaining native biodiversity. So is connectivity. And often ignored is the interior to edge ratio of protected lands.

Large wild areas with connectivity to other wildlands protect native species populations from inbreeding depression, random loss of adaptive genetic traits (common in small isolated populations), disease, and environmental events such as wildfire, flood or prolonged drought. Species that have specific habitat needs such as old growth forest or undisturbed sagebrush steppe are particularly vulnerable to the problems associated with small isolated habitats. So are large carnivores, which naturally occur in much lower densities than prey species, and thus are spread thinly across large areas. Many of these vulnerable creatures are called “wilderness dependent species” and small isolated wildland tracts do not promote their survival.

I also mentioned interior to edge ratio. As human population growth continues to spiral out of control, most protected wildlands are increasingly impacted by human activities on surrounding lands. Logging, mining, roadbuilding, road “hunting”, poaching, urban sprawl, off road vehicles, livestock grazing, fences, power corridors, dams and diversions and more all serve to isolate wilderness areas. When wilderness boundaries are amoeba-shaped with “cherry-stemmed” exclusions, we create lots of edge compared with more secure interior habitat. Along the edges are where many of these destructive human activities occur. So not only is bigger better, but so are areas with holistic boundaries that minimize edge.

The problem is that what works best on the ground is often forsaken by the increasingly sketchy politics of wilderness conservation. Many conservation organizations now get funding from foundations that demand “collaboration” with traditional wildland opponents. And all too often these collaborations produce “wilderness” boundaries that exclude all or most of the potential conflicts in order to mollify the opposition. These processes create compromised wilderness units that are small, isolated and laden with boundary intrusions and non-wilderness corridors that create much edge and minimal secure interior habitat. Moreover, so-called wilderness proponents often accept or even promote special provisions in wilderness bills that clash with the intent and letter of the Wilderness Act. Or, they sometimes actually support agency actions that overtly violate the Wilderness Act.

Of course, our political system is based upon compromise, and compromise works when both sides have legitimate concerns and common goals. When it comes to wilderness, though, we do well to remember that each wilderness debate begins with an already greatly compromised remnant wildland. And also, wilderness areas laden with legislated exceptions to the letter of the Wilderness Act are not really wilderness in any meaningful sense of the word.

So, bigger is better. In North America, we find healthy populations of grizzly bear, wolf, lynx and many other species only where big wilderness is a dominant landscape feature. Healthy watersheds thrive only where the entire watershed is protected. Also, dynamic disturbance-driven natural vegetation patterns can be maintained only in large protected landscapes. For example, natural wildfire patterns are not allowed to prevail in small nature preserves near suburbs or commercial timber stands.

In other words, temptations to compromise wilderness in terms of size, “collaborated” boundary exclusions and diminished internal untrammeled qualities are immense in 21st century industrial America. Protecting and maintaining real wilderness won’t get easier. But unless wilderness organizations develop a better understanding of what real wilderness is and the importance of size, connectivity and wholeness, it is unlikely that the very concept of wilderness will survive for many more generations. And I mean generations of the four-leggeds and all members of the biotic community, in addition to the upright two-legged great apes that we call “human”.


Howie Wolke is an ornery old wilderness guide from southern Montana and is a recent past President of Wilderness Watch.

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Guest — Maggie Frazier
Absolutely! Just knowing there ARE wilderness areas that care & protect our native species - both plant & animals - gives me such... Read More
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Wilderness Intended as Refuge from Bikes and other Mechanization

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

Several recent opinion pieces from around the country[i] have asked why mountain bikes cannot be allowed to ride in Congressionally-designated Wildernesses.  A new mountain biking organization has even had a new bill introduced in Congress (S. 3205)[ii] to open all Wildernesses in the country to mountain bikes and chainsaws.  But the short answer to their question is that allowing bicycles in these areas would defeat the very purpose of setting aside and protecting these areas as Wilderness.

 

Congress passed the Wilderness Act to protect the wilderness character of these places, not to establish recreation areas. Wilderness preserves the great silences of lands removed from the influences of modern civilization.  Wilderness is free from human domination or manipulation, where ecological and evolutionary processes may continue unhindered by humankind.  Wilderness provides places where wildlife can thrive without being startled by zooming human machines.

 

In order to protect wilderness character, Congress and the framers of the 1964 Wilderness Act prohibited bikes (and other intrusions of modern civilization) from Wilderness while writing and passing this landmark law.  The law specifically says, “there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”[iii] (Emphasis added.) Bicycles are obviously a form of mechanical transport; the law can’t be much clearer than this.

 

This issue is not about the physical differences in trail damage by bikes versus horses, this is not so much about trail safety, nor is it about whose mode of outdoor transportation is better.  This issue is about protecting the wild character of Wilderness.

 

Under the Wilderness Act, Wilderness is a sanctuary for wild animals and wild processes to occur, and a sanctuary for humans to escape the influences of our modern industrialized civilization.  Like other sanctuaries, Wilderness must be treated with humility and restraint.  Part of that humility and restraint lies in how we approach and travel through Wilderness.  Mountain bikes and other machines are no more appropriate in Wilderness than they might be in other sanctuaries like Washington National Cathedral.

 

Mountain bikers sometimes claim that Congress didn’t specifically mention bicycles in the Wilderness Act so therefore they must be allowed.  Such an argument is merely wishful thinking, just as would be claims by all-terrain vehicle owners or snowmobilers that the Wilderness Act didn’t specifically enumerate their choice of machine transport.

 

Mountain bikers sometimes claim that the U.S. Forest Service didn’t specifically ban bikes until 1984, but that’s an intentionally misleading claim.  For starters, Congress banned bikes from Wilderness in 1964, and it doesn’t matter a whit whether the Forest Service waited to specifically mention bikes in its regulations.  If bikers did ride in Wilderness after 1964 (in that era before mountain bikes were invented), they did so illegally. Moreover, the other three federal agencies that administer Wilderness (National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management) all specifically banned bicycles in designated Wilderness in their initial regulations and there was never any doubt about or challenge to the rules.

 

The 1964 Wilderness Act has served the nation well in the 50-plus years since it was enacted.  It protects these special places from activities that degrade their wilderness values, including mechanical transport and mountain bikes.  As a nation, we need to continue to use humility and restraint in how we treat our Wildernesses, and that includes not weakening the Wilderness Act.  The new bill in Congress (S. 3205) would allow mountain bikes to invade these sanctuaries.  That bill must not pass.  There are many, many areas for riding bicycles, but Wilderness is not one of those places.

 

----

kevin proescholdtKevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch[iv], a national wilderness conservation organization.  He has written widely on Wilderness, including Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness[v] (1995) and Glimpses of Wilderness[vi] (2015).



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Guest — Ava Heinrichsdorff
One minor - but not trivial to deaf people - beauty of wilderness designation as it has been in the past is that we deaf hikers ca... Read More
Saturday, 12 August 2017 19:46
Guest — Jim Summers
I have been a mountain biker since 1983. Now that I am 70 and have three replacement joints and back fusion, these mechanisms are... Read More
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Guest — kj
Thank you for this. I hope this logic always prevails. People are so selfish.
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Wolke On Wheels

Wolke On Wheels

By Howie Wolke

howie 05 03 13 201A slightly edited version of this essay appeared in our Summer 2016 newsletter.

Our readers will note much discussion about mountain biking in this issue of Wilderness Watcher. As I reflect upon my early years in the conservation movement (the mid-1970’s), the primary opponents to Wilderness were the timber, mining, oil, livestock and off-road vehicle industries. Mountain bikes simply did not exist. But times have changed, to say the least.

If, in 1975, I could have peered into a crystal ball and seen that groups of mostly young, physically fit people would replace extractive industry as the primary organized impediment to Wilderness designations and to keeping Wilderness wild, my jaw would have dropped. Yet that’s exactly what has happened.

It’s not that the traditional wilderness foes have disappeared. Rather, off-road mountain bikers have emerged as an organized anti-wilderness lobby every bit as fanatical as typical four-wheel drive or extractive industry proponents. Almost wherever there are endangered roadless lands, off-road bicyclists emerge to oppose or diminish potential Wilderness designations.

But that’s just part of the problem. Radical mountain bikers are also lobbying to open the National Wilderness Preservation System to mountain biking. They’ve even convinced two U.S. Senators, Republicans Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee (both from Utah) to introduce the so-called “Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act” (S-3205) that would amend the Wilderness Act to allow for mountain biking at the discretion of the managing agencies! This is a dangerous bill, for once we amend the Wilderness Act for bicycles, will snow-machines be next? And will we also tarnish the Wilderness Act for who-knows-what contraptions that have yet to be invented?

Please contact your elected representatives and ask them to oppose the Hatch/Lee bill.

One of the most egregious mountain biker claims is that the Wilderness Acts’ authors never intended to exclude bicycles from designated Wilderness. Hogwash! In fact, the Wilderness Act did not specifically preclude mountain bikes because these contraptions didn’t exist in 1964, and the authors couldn’t even imagine them. Yet with impressive foresight, the Wilderness Act specifically excludes “mechanized”, not just motorized transportation.

What really sticks in my craw, though, is that these people claim to be “conservationists”, who just want the rules changed to accommodate their “harmless” muscle-powered recreation. Yet mountain biking in wild country is anything but harmless. Bikers destroy fragile vegetation by riding off-trail. They also rip up trails. And studies show mountain biking to be particularly disturbing to sensitive wilderness-dependent species such as grizzly, lynx and wolverine, because the quiet, speedy approaches startle animals. And, as a recent fatal incident near Glacier National Park illustrates, backcountry biking in griz country is bad for both the bear and the biker!

In addition, mechanized speed renders the deep interior of wild country more accessible and less remote. Wilderness landscapes become effectively smaller, and for non-mechanized human travelers, the “wilderness experience” becomes more ordinary, contrasting less with civilized environments. And make no mistake; mountain biking is about speed and adrenaline. Otherwise, bikers would be content to walk. And they wouldn’t need to wear the padded lycra suits with helmets.

Conservationists? Hardly. With exceptions, mountain bikers are just another self-interest group, willing to sacrifice land protection for their own selfish purposes. Wilderness, by contrast, is about selflessness, a statement that we humans ought to simply let nature prevail wherever possible, while we still have the chance. Off-road mountain bikers are, in general, as selfish as any organized anti-conservation lobby.

There are so many reasons to designate new Wilderness areas and to keep the National Wilderness Preservation System as wild as possible. It almost seems frivolous to spend so much energy on bicycles. But in modern America, where the political discourse constantly sinks to new lows, nothing surprises me. The mountain biker problem is real. It has already kept millions of deserving acres out of the Wilderness System. And some of these people want to kick the door in for a wheeled invasion of designated Wilderness, too. It is time for the conservation movement to take the gloves off and oppose these alien invaders of Wilderness and potential Wilderness with all of our resources.


Howie Wolke, President Wilderness Watch
& Co-Owner, Big Wild Adventures
Emigrant, Montana


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 the president of Wilderness Watch.

 

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Guest — Russ Hanbey
So what's next? Unicycles on the Pacific Crest Trail? X Games on Mt. Rainier? Skateboards in the Canyonlands? Tramway to bottom of... Read More
Saturday, 10 September 2016 17:14
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Wilderness: A Place to Unplug

By Gary Macfarlane

Gary Macfarlane"The temptation for wilderness users themselves to resort to practices that modify through convenience their own wilderness experiences is indeed one of the great threats to the maintenance of wilderness. When this temptation is used by administrators and other friends of wilderness areas to attract more people into the wilderness the result is a compound threat.”  Howard Zahniser, 1949

Howard Zahniser, the author of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the single person most influential in developing the idea of Wilderness, was perhaps prescient. This quote foreshadowed, more than 60 years ago, one of the most insidious threats to Wilderness, technological communication gadgets. Cell phones and GPS units are the most obvious examples with the second generation of tech toys also including satellite and smart phones, notebook computers, eBook readers, digital cameras and video recorders, personal locator beacons, and MP3 players. And if that isn’t enough, new devices formerly undreamed of are being developed right now.

By using these devices, the user diminishes Wilderness and the wilderness experience for himself and other visitors. Real time web-posting of trips to sensitive, “undiscovered” places can lead to overuse and a loss of solitude, which the Wilderness Act seeks to protect. Viewing photos and/or video of a wilderness spot online certainly diminishes one’s sense of discovery and mystery upon seeing the “real thing.” The GPS-supported sport of geo-caching has led some people to leave illegal caches of junk and litter all over some Wildernesses. Evidence suggests that cell phone use is increasing visitor requests for motorized rescues in Wilderness. Gadgets provide a false sense of security and people fail to prepare for the unexpected conditions inherent in wild places, rather than rely on self-sufficiency to keep themselves safe in wild country. And for those of us who value wilderness as a place to unplug, meeting someone shouting, “Can you hear me now?,” certainly lessens our wilderness experience.

The agencies are also using these devices in Wilderness. They radio-collar wildlife, destroying the wildness of wildlife and wilderness.  There ought to be a few places where we don’t poke, prod, and collar wildlife, where they can live out their lives as wild creatures, and where our science is done the way Aldo Leopold used to do it: with a notebook and field observation. If not in Wilderness, then where? Neither should human visitors be tagged and collared with miniature satellite tracking devices on backpacks, even if agencies believe doing so will improve user management in Wilderness.

A few years ago the idea of radio collars for humans would have been considered absurd.  Already, there are chips embedded in drivers licenses and passports. All too soon, visitors may be required to carry tracking beacons, at least in certain areas. Thus we will be, in effect, tracked and collared wherever we wander. This will be sold as a safety device and a way to better provide a “quality” wilderness experience. All it would take would be a location chip embedded into the wilderness permit, something the agencies have begun discussing in the name of “safety.”

As usual, the agencies and most environmental groups are way behind the curve on this major wilderness threat. The outdoor industry’s aggressive marketing and promoting of gadgets certainly doesn’t help. Indeed, some environmentalists may support and see nothing wrong with the use of these wilderness-destroying technologies.

Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahniser both issued warnings against technology in wilderness. Leopold despised the technology of his day—guidebooks and hunting gadgets. How far we have sunk in the decades since his death! The academic community issued a direct warning, in 1998, about the very kinds of devices that have proliferated (see Wilderness @ Internet: Wilderness in the 21st Century—Are There Technical Solutions to our Technical Problems? Wayne Freimund and Bill Borrie, International Journal of Wilderness Volume 3 Number 4. P. 21-23).  The few warning voices in the environmental movement have been literal voices crying in the wilderness. Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness has written passionately about this problem. Wilderness Watch addressed the issue at a conference in the late 90s when the threat was emerging.

You can do something for Wilderness to keep it wild. Don’t take tech toys on your next wilderness visit. Instead, learn outdoor survival and route-finding skills and be prepared for the unexpected. Learn how to read a map or better yet, navigate by sight or teach yourself to follow a rough game trail. You will be amazed by how much you may experience if you are not always consulting that small luminous screen. Perhaps you will catch a glimpse of a wolf, hear a hummingbird fly by, smell the decomposing leaves on a wet forest floor. Your wilderness experience will be real and authentic if you shed the gadgets. Not only you, but wildness itself deserves no less.

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.
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