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