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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Let's Protect our Nation's Largest Wilderness Study Area

kevinproescholdt 02 18 13 201by Kevin Proescholdt

 

At the end of October, Wilderness Watch filed a formal objection to the new Final Land Management Plan for the Chugach National Forest in response to the Forest Service’s seemingly intentional disregard for protecting the 2 million-acre Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area (WSA) that is part of the Chugach. In January, Wilderness Watch participated in an objection resolution meeting with the Forest Service, though the agency has not yet ruled on any of the objections we raised.

The Congressionally-designated Nellie Juan-College Fiord WSA in Alaska’s western Prince William Sound is an ecological and scenic treasure of roughly 2 million acres of ancient rainforest, stunning mountains, sprawling glaciers, and meandering fiords laced with hundreds of remote islands. The Nellie Juan-College Fiord WSA is also the nation’s largest Wilderness Study Area.

Not a single acre of Wilderness has been designated on the 5.4 million-acre Chugach National Forest, further elevating the importance of protecting the Nellie Juan-College Fiord WSA. Unfortunately, the agency’s Final Land Management Plan for the Chugach fails abysmally to protect the wilderness character of the Nellie Juan-College Fiord WSA.


Wilderness Watch filed the formal objection with Alaska Wilderness League, Eyak Preservation Council, WildEarth Guardians, and the Wilderness Society, highlighting the following concerns:

  • The Final Plan downgrades protection for the WSA.  The past two Chugach management plans have directed the Forest Service to protect “presently existing wilderness character” of the WSA, but the new plan downgrades that management to the undefined and meaningless standard of “presently existing character,” which would allow never-ending degradation over time. 
     
  • The Final Plan eliminates use of the Minimum Requirements Analysis (MRA), a tool for protecting wilderness. The 1964 Wilderness Act generally prohibits the use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment, structures and installations, allowing their use only if it is “necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area” to preserve its wilderness character. Congress included this clause in the Wilderness Act to minimize the use of nonconforming activities that agencies often want to do when stewarding Wilderness.  Though terribly weak and are often abused by the agencies, the MRA process is still better than nothing. The Forest Service completely eliminated the use of MRA in the Final Chugach Plan, suggesting the agency has little or no intention to analyze the impacts of its management activities on the WSA’s wilderness character.
     
  • The Final Plan eliminates WSA protection for 100,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands.  The federal government acquired lands from other ownerships within the boundaries of the Nellie Juan-College Fiord WSA as part of the settlement following the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) in 1989. Past Chugach National Forest plans haven’t differentiated between WSA lands and EVOS-acquired lands within the WSA, but the new Final Plan does, and creates a new management area classification for the EVOS lands that could well lead to degradation and development over time. The Forest Service should instead equally protect the EVOS-acquired lands by managing them as WSA lands, and the agency should also recommend the EVOS-acquired lands within the WSA for wilderness designation.
     
  • The Final Plan needs a larger Wilderness recommendation.  As part of any Forest Plan, the Forest Service recommends to Congress areas that the agency believes should be formally designated as Wilderness. The agency recommended only 1.4 million acres of the 2 million-acre WSA for Wilderness designation. But this is Alaska, after all, home to some of the wildest, largest, and most magnificent wilderness lands in the nation, including the Nellie Juan-College Fiord WSA.  The agency should instead recommend all of the qualifying lands in and adjacent to the WSA for Wilderness designation.
     
  • The Final Plan fails to protect Chugach National Forest roadless areas. The Final Plan fails to incorporate Roadless Rule protection for all Inventoried Roadless Areas on the Chugach. The Inventoried Roadless Areas are National Forest lands on the Chugach outside of the WSA that retain wild and roadless characteristics. Particularly with the Forest Service proposing in a separate action (the Alaska Specific Roadless Rule) that the protection for any Alaska roadless area could be eliminated after a 45-day comment period, the need to protect the Inventoried Roadless Areas on the Chugach is greater than ever. The Final Plan should incorporate Roadless Rule protections for these roadless areas on the Chugach so they retain some protection even if the Alaska Specific Roadless Rule is adopted.

The formal administrative objection process continues, as Wilderness Watch and our allies urge the Forest Service to protect the wilderness lands on the Chugach and in the Nellie Juan-College Fiord WSA. We will continue to fight to protect the wild character of the magnificent Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area so that future generations may also know the awe-inspiring beauty and magnificent wilderness qualities of these nationally important lands.

 

Read our Objection
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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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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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The Not So Good Public Lands Omnibus Bill

george nickas 200x150

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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It’s time to change how we administer Wilderness and strengthen the National Wilderness Preservation System

Brett HaverstickBy Brett Haverstick

 

Taking a long trip into the backcountry during winter doesn’t appeal to some people. That’s understandable. But I enjoy it, and it’s something I try to do a few times a year. Winter backpacking is very different, and more challenging, compared to strapping on the pack during other seasons.

 

For one it’s darn cold, with many trips never getting above freezing, day or night. Two, there’s usually lots of snow on the ground, which means you’re probably wearing snowshoes, and, perhaps, breaking trail too. Three, your pack is heavier because of all the extra warm gear you are carrying, including more food because you need to consume a lot of calories each day. Four, you have to work harder in just about everything you do, from setting up your shelter and trying to stay warm to melting water and attempting to stay hydrated. Five, there’s not a lot of daylight, so you have to stay motivated and keep moving if you want to cover some miles. Lastly, not too many people want to spend 5-6 days in the cold, blowing snow of the northern Rockies in January! But find someone to share the workload if you can!

 

My recent trip into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness was with a friend, and, perhaps more importantly, an individual with a skill set that I could trust and depend on. Once the weather report showed a high-pressure system moving across the region, Russell and I finalized our plans and set out for the trailhead. We felt confident we could cover 50 miles before the next weather front moved in.

 

brett haverstick 1    brett haverstick 2

 

For two and a half days, we trudged across the frozen ridge, one foot after the other, breaking snow almost the entire time. Occasionally, we would hear the call of the raven or the knock of the woodpecker, but for the most part we walked in silence and deep in thought. Accompanying us the whole time was a set of moose tracks, with deer and elk tracks scattered about. It appeared snowshoe hare were in the area too. Blood on the trail indicated that a mountain lion, or another carnivore, might have wounded one of the ungulates.


The daily routine of building the morning fire, boiling water, drying gear, packing up, snowshoeing 10-16 miles, and then searching for a place to dig out the next snow cave was in some ways more mentally challenging than physical. But the white silence of the forest was peaceful, views of the snow-covered mountain peaks were tantalizing, and the cold, crisp air was exhilarating. With each arduous step, the wilderness boundary drew nearer.


You know the feeling. As one travels down the trail, through the forest, around the next bend or over the saddle, your heart pounds like a kid at Christmas. You anxiously await the sign that reads “…Wilderness, “…National Forest.” Yes, you say to yourself. Hope for humanity. Escape from the madness. Refuge for the plants and animals. Nature’s Bill of Rights at last. Leave me here and let me die with my true friends! And down the trail you continue.


Prior to our trip departure, Russell and I learned about the intent of the Idaho Fish & Game Department to land helicopters, and harass and collar elk, in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. We were angry, concerned, disappointed, and flabbergasted by the fact that the Forest Service gave the green light to land machines in the Wilderness, up to 120 times over a 3-month period. Of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s 1 time or 12 times, but 120 times was mind-blowing. Who the hell is running the Forest Service? Didn’t they, along with millions of Americans, just celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act not too long ago? Looks like that was lip service!


And what about the people running the Idaho Fish & Game Department? Why do they still have authority over wildlife management on federal public lands? Why are their intensive and intrusive management plans being permitted in federally designated Wilderness? When is that going to change? Why is the Forest Service continually shining the shoes of the state hook and bullet departments? Who is really administering the Wilderness?


As Russell and I descended in elevation on the third day, the sun shined warmly, the skies stretched a bright blue, and the mighty Salmon River came within view. We peered though the binoculars, and combed the south-facing slopes for herds of elk. Dozens of ungulates lay basking on the hills, while those closer leaped and bound to a more secure place. We also observed whitetail and mule deer (strangely enough together) and lots of wolf tracks. Far off in the distance, we saw what looked like two golden eagles circling a spot on the hill, as if a kill had recently occurred.


Despite seeing a number of horses by the river late that afternoon (why are horses running freely on the national forest in winter, particularly in crucial winter-range habitat?), not a human was in sight, and the frozen riverbank was ours to explore and make home. We rested and dreamily watched small pieces of ice float downstream along the sides of the quiet, rolling river.


Later that evening, after a hot meal, warm fire, and the usual time-to-get hydrated routine, we dozed peacefully under a star-studded sky when suddenly we were awoken by the yips, screams, and howls of coyotes. After shaking our heads no, those are not wolves, we gleefully listened to the songs (and celebrations?) of a dozen coyotes not far from our tarp. They yipped for 3-4 minutes but it felt like a lot longer than that. The sweet music of the Wilderness had finally reached us!

When day broke and our bags were packed, Russell and I contemplated where the Idaho Fish & Game helicopters could be. Were they invading to the south along Big Creek? Were they harassing and stressing dozens of cows and calves to the east? The mere thought of these non-conforming, highly mechanized machines flying and landing wherever they want in the Wilderness made us sick to our stomachs. We both wanted to know how can the uses of helicopters, net-guns, tranquilizers, and GPS-collars be the minimal tool(s) needed to administer the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness? None of it made any sense. Little did we know that wolves were being collared too.


Which leads me to my final thoughts. What good is a National Wilderness Preservation System if the federal officials charged with administering the system, and individual areas, continues to approve projects that are incompatible with the Wilderness Act? Why are the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly rubber-stamping proposals that harm Wilderness? How is the collaring of wildlife in federally designated wilderness representative of a self-willed landscape? Explain to me how helicopters, net-guns, and radio-collars enhance or preserve wilderness character?

This tragedy (“accident”) should serve as a lightning rod to spark a discussion, better yet, a movement, to do two things: create an independent federal department solely charged with stewardship of the wilderness system, and pressure Congress to pass legislation that forbids all state fish and game agencies from conducting any operations inside federally designated Wilderness.


To hell with the Forest Service and the other federal agencies, which continue to trammel the Wilderness and our natural heritage. We cannot keep leaving it to the attorneys to defend the Wilderness Act. We must do something bold. The status quo is badly broken and only getting worse. Ed Abbey is rolling in his grave and still screaming, “The Idea of wilderness needs no defense, just defenders.” This message needs to reach every living room in America.


Brett Haverstick is the Education & Outreach Director for Friends of the Clearwater, a public lands advocacy group based in Moscow, Idaho. He has a B.S. in Parks & Recreation Management from Northern Arizona University and a Master’s degree in Natural Resources from the University of Idaho. He has been a member of Wilderness Watch since 2007. The views expressed are his own.

Recent Comments
Guest — Jeff Vollmer
I'm gonna have to try me some winter backpacking. I think a hammock would be the way to go. Thanks for the story.
Tuesday, 12 July 2016 20:29
Guest — Bob Brister
Wolf advocates failed to hold Obama responsible for his administration's war on wolves. Why shouldn't he screw us when we fail to ... Read More
Wednesday, 22 June 2016 15:15
Guest — Jim glover
Good on ya Brett!!
Tuesday, 15 March 2016 17:41
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Wolves and Isle Royale: Manipulated Zoo or Wild Wilderness?

by Kevin Proescholdt

Isle RoyalePressure has been mounting on the National Park Service to “save” the wolves on Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park and Wilderness.  Wolf numbers on the Lake Superior island have dropped, proponents of manipulation proclaim, and the decades of in-breeding have flattened the population’s genetic diversity.  We should transplant wolves from the mainland to insure that the wolf population survives, they assert, and to provide a “genetic rescue” to freshen up the wolves’ gene pool, much as zookeepers do with certain captive animals.

Wilderness Watch has strongly urged the National Park Service to refrain from that option, and rather let Nature take her course, even if that means the wolf population might become extirpated at some point in the future.  This decision about Isle Royale has national implications for all of the National Parks and all of the National Wilderness Preservation System, so it’s important to get it right at Isle Royale.

I was invited to be one of four panelists at a well-attended forum on this issue held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis this past June, sponsored by the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute and the National Parks Conservation Association.  The other three panelists were long-time wolf biologist Dr. Dave Mech; Dr. Tim Cochrane, Superintendent of Grand Portage National Monument and an Isle Royale historian; and Dr. Rolf Peterson, the current lead wolf researcher on Isle Royale.  Isle Royale Park Superintendent Phyllis Green also participated in the forum, though not as one of the four panelists.  Of the four of us on the expert panel, only Rolf supported transplanting more wolves to Isle Royale, and he as the current wolf researcher there has more than a tiny conflict of interest in pushing for that option in order to perpetuate his research.

Isle Royale WolfThe issue of the Isle Royale wolves is very interesting and quite complex, but I’d like to offer the following reasons to support the non-intervention option and why we should let Isle Royale itself determine the fate of the wolves there.

1. New Wolf Pups Born in 2013.  The National Park Service reported earlier this summer that at least two and maybe three new wolf pups were born on Isle Royale in 2013, after none were born in 2012.  This breeding success reduces the need for a hasty decision, and eliminates one of the main arguments by transplantation promoters that the wolves are not reproducing.  The success with these new pups doesn't necessarily mean that the wolves are guaranteed long-term survival, but I think it does show that the wolf population is more resilient than the transplantation promoters believe.

2. Exaggerated Symbolism of Wolves.  I’m an Isle Royale visitor and one who loves wolves.  But Isle Royale has immense value and meaning beyond its well-publicized and well-studied wolves.  If wolves become extirpated on the island, Isle Royale itself will live on.  Isle Royale became a National Park before the wolves arrived, and the park will continue even if the iconic wolves die out.  And even if the wolves die out, that dynamic would be part of the evolution of Isle Royale, a likely outcome given what we now know about island biogeography.  If wolves “blink out” there, Isle Royale itself will endure.

3. Science Will Continue.  I certainly appreciate the extensive information and knowledge that have come from the classic predator-prey study on Isle Royale over the past half-century.  As Dave Mech pointed out in the June forum, the validity of that study will end if wolves are transplanted to Isle Royale now.  But other ecological studies will continue on Isle Royale to provide new scientific insights, whether the wolves survive or become extirpated.  Regardless of the outcome of the wolf population, continuing research can shed new light on questions of genetic variability in the context of island biogeography.  If wolves die out, how will the moose population respond?  Will genetic variability in moose also flatten over time?  Will the moose population revert to the boom-and-bust cycles of the 1920s to 1950, or will something else occur?  Will wolves naturally re-colonize Isle Royale on their own, even if the frequency of ice bridges to the Ontario mainland has declined with recent warmer winters?

4. Slippery Slope of Manipulation.  If we humans start transplanting wolves to Isle Royale, we start on a slippery slope that may have no end.  Additional wolves may be needed on the island after the first installment, to “freshen up” the gene pool yet again and again.  With a warming climate, Isle Royale may eventually lose its moose population, too.  Will we then import moose to Isle Royale in perpetuity to keep the imported wolves fed?  And, as Tim Cochrane pointed out in June, should we reintroduce the caribou and lynx that inhabited the island before the wolves and moose and lived there far longer?

5. Wilderness.  Congress has designated about 99% of the 132,018-acre Isle Royale as Wilderness.  The language and background of the 1964 Wilderness Act define Wilderness as “untrammeled” or unmanipulated.  This means that we allow Nature to call the shots, even if that might lead to extirpation of the wolves, either temporarily or permanently.  This is the very essence of Wilderness, that humans must treat Wilderness with humility and restraint and not manipulate Wilderness just because we can or think we know how to do so.  The writings of Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser are full of these deeper values and meanings of Wilderness.

Isle RoyaleThe current debate over the potential loss of wolves also indicates the fairly short-sighted approach of most land and wildlife management that is often based on the next 1-10 years, not centuries or millennia.  Because Wilderness is forever, we need to look beyond the short timeframe of human lifetimes and allow these natural processes to play out over much longer time spans, “to make it possible for those areas from the eternity of the past to exist on into the eternity of the future” as Zahniser once eloquently described it.  We should be “Guardians, Not Gardeners” as Zahniser urged us in another of his writings.  We should guard the natural processes on Isle Royale, even if they might lead to wolf extirpation, rather than garden the wilderness to become something more pleasing to our current human preferences and tastes.

The whole debate really comes down to this basic question:

Do we want a manipulated zoo at Isle Royale or a wild Wilderness?

That’s why we continue to urge the National Park Service to not intervene and manipulate the wolf population at Isle Royale by transplanting wolves from the mainland.

kevin proescholdtKevin Proescholdt is conservation director for Wilderness Watch. Kevin guided canoe trips in Minnesota's million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) for 10 years, and has visited designated and undesignated Wildernesses throughout the U.S. and Canada. He helped pass the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act through Congress, directed the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness for 16 years, and co-authored the 1995 book, Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For the eight years prior to joining the Wilderness Watch staff, Kevin directed the national Izaak Walton League's Wilderness and Public Lands Program. Kevin has been active with Wilderness Watch since 1989, joined the board of directors in 2003, and served two years as president of the board. He has written extensively on the Boundary Waters, and wilderness policy and history.
Recent Comments
Guest — Diane Brodak
One man I would not listen to is Dave Mech. Ask him what became of his beloved wolves when he was done with them. They were left ... Read More
Friday, 15 November 2013 12:00
Guest — Marilyn M Cooper
Without a top predator, isle Royale will live on all right, but it won't be a beautiful wilderness. I was in Yellowstone before th... Read More
Thursday, 14 November 2013 23:11
Guest — wildernesswatch
Thanks for your post, Marilyn. Wilderness is not supposed to be "beautiful" according to our current human tastes, but it is to b... Read More
Tuesday, 19 November 2013 07:38
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Bill Worf, Wilderness Champion, Has Died at 85

billworf 12 30 1112/21/11

Dear Friends,

It is with great sadness that Wilderness Watch announces the death of Bill Worf, our founder, long-time board member, president emeritus, and inspirational leader.  He was 85.  Bill died of natural causes at his home in Missoula, Montana.

Bill dedicated his life to making certain the ideals expressed in the Wilderness Act would live on in the National Wilderness Preservation System.  No one alive, then or now, worked as hard or with such great principle toward that goal.

Bill was raised on a homestead in Rosebud County, Montana, during the Great Depression where he learned the lessons of hard work and perseverance that were hallmarks of his life.  He joined the Marines at 17, and soon found himself in the thick of combat in the invasion of Iwo Jima. After the war, he returned home, married Eva Jean Batey, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Forestry from the University of Montana, and started a storied 32-year-career with the U.S. Forest Service.

Bill began his 50-year affair with wilderness in 1961 when he was appointed forest supervisor overseeing the Bridger Wilderness in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  In typical fashion, Bill jumped into wilderness stewardship with a fervor that attracted the attention of all around him.  He initiated the first wilderness management program and hired the first wilderness rangers.  He became an outspoken proponent for the wilderness bill at a time when the Forest Service was lukewarm to the legislation.  His advocacy for wilderness led the Chief of the Forest Service to select Bill as one of a small group to write the regulations and policies for implementing the Wilderness Act of 1964 shortly after it passed.  Bill was then asked to lead the agency's wilderness program in the Washington Office, which he did for many years before getting his feet back on the ground in the regional office in Missoula, Montana.

Like many of his peers, Bill initially saw wilderness as a recreation resource.  He saw his duties as a manager primarily to promote it as a backcountry playground.  He often told the story of standing on the shore of Island Lake, gazing out at hordes of tents surrounding that wilderness gem.  "We were making use of the country, and it made my Forest Service-heart swell with pride," Bill would recall with a laugh.  But a pack trip with the Wilderness Act's author, Howard Zahniser, started an evolution in Bill's understanding. Wilderness stewardship was about much more than recreation.  His understanding continued to grow as he worked with congressional leaders and their staffs while writing the policies to implement that visionary law. As Bill often noted, "Those of us writing the policies had to forget much of what we knew about wilderness management in order to understand the higher goals the Wilderness Act was trying to achieve."

Upon his retirement from the US Forest Service in 1981 and with the active support of Eva Jean, Bill vowed to dedicate his remaining years to working for sound stewardship and protection of Wilderness. In 1989, he and two colleagues founded Wilderness Watch, the only national citizens' organization dedicated solely to protecting designated wildernesses and wild rivers. As a measure of Bill's tremendous credibility, it wasn't long before former Secretary of Interior, Stewart Udall, and former Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, accepted Bill's invitation to join the Wilderness Watch Board of Directors.  Bill remained active with Wilderness Watch and wilderness issues until his death. "I shall not perish from this earth without doing everything within my realm to save its most precious non-human resource," he wrote.

Bill was the right person in the right place at the right time, and he made the most of it.  He inspired an entire generation of wilderness rangers and wilderness advocates and was a hero to many. All of us, but especially future generations of American citizens, are the fortunate recipients of Bill's dedication to the wilderness cause.

Bill Worf will be sorely missed, but his spirit lives on in all those who believe in the principled stewardship and defense of wilderness in America.

Bill's family has asked that donations be made to Wilderness Watch's Endowment Fund, P.O. Box 9175, Missoula, MT 59807.



Click here to read Bill's obituary.
Click here to view a WW video with Bill and to read his founder's message.

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Your vote will help gain a stronger Wilderness stewardship policy for wildlife refuge Wilderness

Arctic FWSIn 1999 the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a new draft policy for Wilderness stewardship in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The draft policy was a bold step forward for protecting Wilderness on National Wildlife Refuges. Public comments overwhelmingly supported the draft policy with the vast majority requesting the policy be further strengthened to protect Wilderness. But political hacks in the newly arriving Bush administration hijacked the policy, took its final development away from wilderness leaders in the FWS, and turned it over to State fish and game agency officials who were very antagonistic toward Wilderness protection. The resulting current policy is but a faint shadow of the bold policy developed more than a decade ago. Managers are given far too much leeway in approving projects that manipulate wilderness ecosystems—foregoing the Wilderness Act's basic tenet that Wilderness areas be "untrammeled by man"—and far too much leeway for casting aside the Act's prohibition on motor vehicle and motorized equipment use, structures and installations. Wilderness protection is treated as a secondary (or lesser) concern even in designated Wilderness.

With 20 million acres of Refuge lands already designated Wilderness, and tens-of-millions more that qualify for future designation, the need for a revised and strengthened wilderness stewardship policy is paramount. There’s an opportunity right now to show your support for such a policy. The FWS’ new vision initiative, called Conserving the Future: Wildlife Refuges and the Next Generation, offers the chance for public participation by voting on this and other ideas and reviewing and commenting on the draft vision. 

To vote for a stronger FWS Wilderness stewardship policy:

1. Visit the website
2. Click Join the Conversation to create an account or login with your Facebook account
3. Look through the Draft Vision, or go to Your Bold Ideas
4. Use your 20 votes to vote for your favorite ideas (up to three votes/idea)

Ideas we feel are especially worthy of your votes:
1. Revise the Wilderness Stewardship policy*
*Please vote as soon as possible on this idea so that it will move to the front page of "Top Ideas," where people will see it and it'll garner more support.
2. Recognize that our National Wildlife Refuges are not state game production areas
3. Prevent wolf control on Alaska refuges
4. Make the communication of environmental sustainability a high priority for the NWRS and USFWS
5. Wilderness for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
It’s a good idea to comment on the Bold Ideas you support. You can also comment on all sections of the Draft Vision.

Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to speak up for Wilderness on our wildlife refuges!
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P: 406-542-2048
E: wild@wildernesswatch.org

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Minneapolis, MN 55406

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