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Wilderness On Hold

The Wilderness Act is turning 40 and \nMontana hasn’t put it to use in the past \ntwo decades. Is it still relevant today?


Forty years ago, the United States did something that no nation had ever done before. With the passage of the Wilderness Act on Sept. 3, 1964, the U.S. made the decision to preserve some of the country’s wild places in perpetuity, to create areas in which development would not be allowed, so that future generations would be able to enjoy the same beautiful and valuable natural settings that hikers, hunters, fishermen and even passing drivers seeking windshield scenery enjoyed in 1964. The bill was first introduced in 1956 and finally enacted after eight years of heavy wrangling over its language. Nationwide, nine million acres were declared wilderness almost immediately. Since then, Congress has added to that portfolio, which now totals 106 million acres. In Montana, five wilderness areas—the Bob Marshall, Cabinet Mountains, Gates of the Mountains, Selway-Bitterroot and Anaconda-Pintler—were designated immediately after passage of the Act, and in the 20 years that followed, 12 other designations would come down the pike. During the second 20 years of the Wilderness Act, however, from 1984 to 2004, the number of new wilderness designations in Montana has dropped sharply—to zero. After two decades with no new wilderness in the Treasure State, is the 40th birthday of this historic piece of legislation relevant to us now?


That Montana hasn’t created any new officially protected wilderness since the Beaverhead and Gallatin National Forests’ Lee Metcalf Wilderness in 1983 is not for lack of trying on the part of the state’s environmental community. Some of that community is present for the first (possibly annual) Yaak Valley Wilderness Festival on Sat., July 31. Dogs and children run loose on the hillside adjacent to the Yaak’s Dirty Shame Saloon as the scent of meat on the grill overpowers the tofu on a buffet table before mixing with the pine in the air. Gretchen Kruse, a member of the Kootenai River Network, demonstrates proper and improper ways to deal with riverbank erosion with the help of a truck bed filled with what looks like white sand, but is actually recycled ground-up light switches. The granular banks are parted to create watersheds, and children place plastic cattle along the “riverbanks” to see how animals’ hooves affect the land. Meanwhile, Missoula folksinger Amy Martin tunes up on stage.

“It’s healthy to get out of an environment sometimes that is not necessarily reflective of yourself,” Martin says, as to why she values wilderness.

Across the way, on a hillside campsite just beyond the festivities, Jason Moore, who works for helicopter logging company Precision Helicopters, surveys the scene.

“I’ve never seen so many Subarus,” he says, setting off on a rant about environmentalists from his campsite, next to a Precision Helicopters company SUV.

“My job happens to be flying timber out,” he says. “If they work at a bank, I’m not going to go bitching to them that my bank account isn’t getting any bigger.”

Moore is working on the Garver timber sale in the Yaak.

“It’s a paycheck,” he says. “If something comes along that pays better, I’ll do that.”

Down the slope at the festival, author and environmental activist Rick Bass is hoping that he can provide loggers such as Moore with something that will pay better, and last longer, such as restoration work. Bass works with the non-profit Yaak Valley Forest Council, which was established in 1997 with hopes of keeping roughly 180,000 roadless acres in the Yaak roadless. Rather than attempting to shove a wilderness solution down the throats of those with different points of view, however, the Forest Council is searching for a solution that is acceptable to all local interests in the Yaak, and doesn’t plan on approaching the Legislature until a middle ground has been found.

“Our organization has small mill owners, loggers, road builders, hunting and fishing guys and environmentalists. It’s as wide a cross-section of Montana as you’ll find anywhere. In our view, there is no conflict between the need to take wood off of the forest and the need to protect our wild places as wilderness,” Bass says. “We’ve shown that we can do both.”

At the same time, Bass argues that the environmental community hasn’t been receiving much quid pro quo when acquiescing to some development proposals.

Bass considers the Yaak Wilderness Festival “quasi-rebellious,” since there are actually no officially designated wilderness lands in the Yaak, nor a wilderness study area.

“A lot of people have been trying to get these roadless areas up here protected since wilderness was first legislated in ’64,” Bass says. “It’s starting to feel like a long time to some of us, so we thought, ‘Let’s just go ahead and celebrate wilderness here even though we don’t have any protected yet.’”

He calls the Yaak “the land that the Wilderness Act forgot.”


In order to get new wilderness designated, you need two things, according to Bart Koehler, director of the Wilderness Support Center, a program of the Wilderness Society, based in Durango, Colo. Koehler is a self-described “wilderness scout” and a founding father of Earth First! who accomplished considerable success in working for designated wilderness in Alaska in the 1980s. The first thing you need, Koehler says, is local, grassroots support.

“I don’t think you’re going to go very far without support from your home area,” Koehler says.

Lex Hames, communications director for the Montana Wilderness Association, agrees. Currently, Hames’ organization is moving forward on proposals to protect as wilderness parts of the Rocky Mountain Front, which extends from just south of Glacier to just north of Helena; the Yaak in the upper northwest corner of the state; and the Winton Weydemeyer, located in the Whitefish Range west of Glacier.

“Any wilderness proposal needs the support of the local people and politicians like county commissioners or mayors. Then it needs widespread support around the state,” Hames says. “So you have to convince people on both a local and statewide level that wilderness connects with their values. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The other thing you need is a federal congressman or senator willing to champion your cause. Montana has lacked such an advocate in D.C. since former Congressman Pat Williams left the House of Representatives in 1996. Williams introduced the legislation that brought about the Rattlesnake Wilderness in 1981 and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in 1983. From 1981 to 1996, he introduced a total of 16 wilderness bills.

“Montana and Idaho are the only two states in the country that haven’t resolved the bulk of their wilderness dilemmas,” says Williams, now a teacher at UM’s O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, in a phone interview. “We still have—from the Rocky Mountain Front to the Yaak, including parts of the Cabinets and Ten Lakes—areas that should be in wilderness.”

Much of the wilderness debate that rages on today might have been unnecessary, thanks to a 1988 bill which would have declared 10 national forests and six recreation areas in Montana as official wilderness, while releasing other lands from further wilderness review. But although the bill passed both the House and Senate, it ultimately sat for 10 days on the desk of President Ronald Reagan, who never signed it—what’s known as a “pocket veto.”

Shortly after the veto, Reagan appeared on television ads in Montana explaining why he vetoed the bill and urging Montanans to elect a then-relatively unknown Yellowstone County commissioner named Conrad Burns to the U.S. Senate.

Burns and Montana’s Democratic senator, Max Baucus, both supported a 1992 Montana wilderness bill which would have designated just over one million acres of new federal wilderness and opened an additional four million roadless acres to development. The bill passed the Senate, was amended in the House, and was then sent back to the Senate, where it saw no further action.

There was once a time—and to hear Pat Williams tell it, it sounds almost like a fairy tale—when wilderness designations were not so controversial.

“The transition began in the early ’80s,” he says. “It was caused primarily by increases in productivity—that is, equipment replacing timber workers—and changes in world prices. That transition of old economies of extraction toward restoration and tourist economies scared the hell out of Montana and its workforce, which is understandable. Any people that are going quickly from one economy to another are frightened by it. That in turn created very vocal, funded, organized opposition to wilderness bills, primarily engineered by industry. That’s central to what’s happened here. If you don’t understand that transition, you can’t understand why the politics changed the way it did. Because people weren’t opposed to wilderness prior to this. They were actually for it. And it isn’t that the majority of Montanans opposed wilderness even after it, as evidenced by the early ’90s Kootenai-Lolo Accord vote [in which only 32 percent of Lincoln County—home of the Yaak—favored, on a ballot referendum, no more wilderness, whereas a vast majority supported increased wilderness]. It’s that the companies, fearing the loss of product and profit, dug in their heels and organized in a major way against the passage of any new wilderness bills.”

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that anti-wilderness forces have had a successful 20-year run. The current Montana wilderness legislation now pending in the House is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, introduced by Connecticut Republican Senator Christopher Shays in 1992, which has now picked up 185 House sponsors. The bill would declare new wilderness areas in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, many in locales that have already been declared Wilderness Study Areas (or “WSAs”) by the Forest Service. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called the bill the “leading piece of environmental legislation” in the House. It has multiple sponsors in Washington and Oregon, but none in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and because representatives are often hesitant to step on a colleague’s home-state toes, it is unlikely to go anywhere unless legislators from those states, including Montana’s sole congressman, Dennis Rehberg, get on board.

Brad Keena, Rehberg’s communications director, summed up the congressman’s position on the bill, which includes the Rocky Mountain Front, via e-mail: “Denny has long-maintained that an inventory should be made of the resources of the [F]ront before long-term decisions can be made, and he is continuing to gather input from Montanans on the subject.”

But Michael Garrity, executive director of the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, isn’t holding his breath for any new wilderness protections, including the Rocky Mountain Front, until after the upcoming presidential election.

“There hasn’t been a lot of good wilderness legislation passed in the last 20 years nationwide,” says Garrity. “But I think a lot of that could change after the election that’s coming up. John Kerry has been a strong supporter of the Wilderness Act, so if he got elected president I think you could see some movement on this bill. It definitely won’t become law as long as Bush is president.”

Former Congressman Williams thinks the bill is overly broad, but he does say that it’s time to make a decision on the seven Montana Wilderness Study Areas that have been in limbo since 1979, when the Forest Service came to Congress with research data from the second Roadless Area Review and Evaluation, known as “RARE II.”

“It’s now 2004 and Montana and Idaho still have not acted on the Forest Service recommendations,” Williams says.

Former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, now a UM wildlife conservation professor, thinks it’s unlikely that Montana’s congressional delegation will act on the recommendations made by the Forest Service over 20 years ago, because doing so, he says, may not be politically expedient.

Under the Wilderness Act, visitors can use designated land for hiking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and limited grazing, but all motorized vehicles and bicycles are banned, as are commercial enterprises and permanent roads. Because wilderness study areas are managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management so that they may become preserved wilderness if Congress so decides, management of wilderness areas and wilderness study areas is nearly identical, says Thomas.

“The wilderness study areas are managed as wilderness. Basically, they’re de facto wilderness. I think Congress should pass the bill in order to add clarity, but it’s obviously a controversial issue,” Thomas says. “So with nothing changing, the politicians figure, ‘Why should I stick my neck out on this one way or the other?’”

Of course, things soon may be changing. On Mon., July 12, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman announced that the Bush administration would open up 58.5 million roadless acres of national forests—also de facto wilderness—to possible development. While the announcement doesn’t impact wilderness study areas, environmental activists around the nation have suddenly found themselves without the roadless tool in their wilderness-building kit, and thus now have fewer assurances that de facto wilderness will remain so.

Pete Rafle, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, says that the roadless rule rollback is just the tip of the iceberg.

“The White House has basically told federal agencies not to inventory any more wilderness and not to recommend wilderness in their management plans,” Rafle says. “It’s little things like that that, when put together, add up to a message to the federal land managers that they really don’t want to see any more land protected as wilderness.”

Yet the Bush administration may be unintentionally renewing the push for Wilderness Act protections, some in the environmental community contend; when threats to wilderness abound, protection under the Wilderness Act is the gold standard.

“The roadless rule rollback takes a non-wilderness option off of the table,” says Laurie Ashley, field and outreach coordinator for the Wilderness Institute at UM’s College of Forestry and Conservation. “Without that, we won’t be able to just relax and say, ‘OK, it’s going to be roadless so there’s going to be some protection there.’ Without that, it may become more urgent for some groups to find other sorts of designations for those places.”

“We had some dry years. There’s no way around it,” says Chris Mehl in the Wilderness Society’s Bozeman office. “But I think the pendulum is swinging back.”

Montana has nine million roadless acres. Of that, three-and-a-half million are located in declared wilderness, meaning that five-and-a-half million roadless Montana acres could potentially be effected by the Bush administration announcement.

Nationally, the U.S. wilderness system encompasses 106 million acres, or 4.7 percent of the total land in the country.

“Four point seven sounds like an interesting wilderness number,” says Doug Scott, policy director for Campaign For America’s Wilderness and author of The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting America’s Natural Heritage Through the Wilderness Act, which will be released later this month. But there is a catch, Scott says.

“About half of that wilderness is in Alaska. In the Lower 48 states, it’s 2.8 percent.”

Scott is a former park ranger and also worked on the first wilderness area added—in 1967—after the 1964 passage of the act. Today, he is considered by many, including the Wilderness Society’s Rafle, to be “an unofficial historian of the whole wilderness movement.”

“Is that [2.8 percent in the Lower 48 states] enough?” Scott asks. “I don’t think so, but I don’t know what ‘enough’ is, and I think it’s presumptuous of any one person or generation to think they know that.”

The question of what is “enough,” “not enough” or “too much” is central to the discussion of wilderness in our state and nation, but Scott argues that it is better to err on the side of “too much” than “not enough.”

“I suppose there’s a possibility that we could overdo this preservation of wilderness, though we’re a long ways from that. But, let’s just imagine that somehow we manage to conjure the Congress into enacting ‘too much,’ whatever that means. The future would still have the choice,” he says. “But I think that they will judge that we didn’t save enough. In a nutshell, that’s what animates today’s wilderness activists.”


In 1907, Kalispell’s Daily Inter Lake ran an editorial against the proposal to create Glacier National Park. “There may be some local people who favor the park plan, but we know of only two,” the paper wrote. Today, Pat Williams looks back on this and laughs.

“People from Kalispell took a caravan over to Washington, D.C. to oppose the creation of the park,” he says. “They protested and rallied like hell against it. And now, it’s a cash register.”

Williams sees more cash registers in Montana’s remaining wild lands, and hopes that the state doesn’t diminish that long-term value with short-term resource extraction.

“To me,” Williams says, “it’s an economic issue as well as an issue of biological imperative.”

Chris Mehl, with the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, makes a similar point: “Wilderness is the reason people are coming here. They’re not coming here because our strip malls are better than other people’s strip malls. We need to recognize that wilderness is not just a vital part of our culture, but our economy.”

Former Forest Service Chief Thomas says that Montana has already built roads and logged all the areas that make economic sense.

“We’ve extracted timber and built roads that we would not consider economically rational today,” Thomas says. “It just doesn’t pencil out.”

Garrity, who was an economics professor at the University of Utah prior to heading up the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, concurs, and is disillusioned by his sense that part of tomorrow’s economy may be neglected for profits that mainly line the pockets of a few timber company CEOs today.

And Garrity says he’s seen firsthand that the profits of large-scale logging aren’t really trickling down to the workers in the woods and the mills, whom he says are rapidly being replaced by more advanced machinery.

“I’ve visited a plywood mill in Oregon that goes through 250 million board-feet of timber a year, but they have only a handful of employees. So if we just do what the Bush administration wants us to do and open everything up to logging, we’re still going to have less logging jobs than we did yesterday.”

At his logging camp behind the festivities of the Yaak Wilderness Festival, logger Jason Moore is all too familiar with this dilemma. Moore says he isn’t making much money—just enough to keep himself afloat and buy food and beer. As he pulls off a worn leather boot to display a swollen ankle from a particularly hard day’s work, he comes off as the perfect candidate to sit down at the table Rick Bass and the Yaak Valley Forest Council are hoping to set in order to satisfy both environmentalists and industrial workers in the Yaak.

“I’m not here to piss off environmentalists,” Moore says. “I love wilderness as much as them. I’m out their every day, literally hugging trees, and I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love the outdoors.”

Later in the night, Moore makes his way down to the Wilderness Festival. He’s hoping to pick up a woman, but says that “once these hippies hear that I’m a logger, it’ll be all over.”

Still, the fact that he and the environmentalists are now hanging out in the same area is, perhaps, a start.

Before her set, Amy Martin sums it up thusly: “If there’s room within a person to see different people with different values and just have a beer—that doesn’t erase all the differences, but it does put them in perspective and make them seem less divisive.”

And Moore does enjoy a beer with the crowd that brought all those Subarus to the Yaak. Several, actually. Perhaps nothing is solved, but the “other side” certainly feels a little less “other.”

Though they may not know each other or agree on many points when it comes to the politics of land management, Moore and Bass do have a patch of common ground: their appreciation of their surroundings.

“As much as Madison Avenue would love to direct and manage and shape and control it, as much as they reach for it and would like to alter it, wilderness is still a place where you can step into the woods and they can’t lie to you there,” Bass says. “They can’t sell you anything there. It’s its own place, not my place or your place, and that’s very rare.”

How long will such places survive, and can they do it without the stamp of capitol “W” wilderness? That question is constantly being asked and answered in different ways, but it is clear that Montana’s environmental community isn’t about to give up on the Wilderness Act just because it’s been dormant for two decades.

“The Wilderness Act is more relevant and precious today than it was when passed 40 years ago,” says Williams, “because to me, wilderness is not about some romantic, poetic notion. It’s about keeping our air and water clean and giving our great Western land animals room.”

“It has to be relevant,” says the Montana Wilderness Association’s Hames. “Because it’s the only tool we have out there to really protect landscape. Nothing else uses the words ‘in perpetuity.’”

Doug Scott describes the Act in the lofty terms of a historian: “It remains historically remarkable because this document, the Wilderness Act, is the expressed will of a nation to act toward a portion of its common estate—its federal lands—with humility, to say, ‘Maybe we aren’t so smart. Maybe we shouldn’t make every choice today, and maybe 300 years from now people would be particularly grateful to us if we left some choices to them.’”

The philosophy and strategy of wilderness protection go mainly undiscussed at the Yaak Wilderness Festival, and if those in attendance are aware of next month’s 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, they’ve chosen to talk about taking a dip in the river instead. After all, they’re surrounded by beautiful trees and streams. There’s a gentle breeze to cool them down from the hot summer sun, and a short walk away from the Dirty Shame Saloon offers utter silence. When you’re actually in a wild area, whether it’s been designated or not, it doesn’t take long to forget that there are even such things as man-made wilderness designations. But they’re there, all right—and it seems unlikely that Montana will be able to put off dealing with them for another 20 years.

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