The wilderness debate never seems to go away, and how can we have so much disagreement without ever having any agreement, let alone any results?
Now, the issue has hit the news again with the re-introduction of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). The comment section quickly filled up with the same vitriol we see every time the word, “wilderness,” appears on the Internet–and from the same cast of characters who consider wilderness some type of plot to rob them of their rights.
It made me ask, again, how could we–and by “we,” I mean people who live here in the New West and politicians who supposedly represent us–be so short-sighted, if not stupid?
I’ve actually given up on our politicians ever passing a true Wilderness bill i.e. so-called big “W” Wilderness” designated by Congress under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Instead, I define “wilderness” as public land with no road-building or motorized recreation allowed. Regrettably, the little “w” and big “W” have become the same in the public vernacular, so for the rest of this column, think little.
This isn’t Indiana. We have something here in the New West most people can only dream about having–millions of acres of wilderness on our horizons, but we don’t understand that what is rare is precious, and we still allow or promote turning the special into the ordinary.
Before skipping the rest of this column and heading down to the comment section to repeat worn-out accusations about wilderness being a top-down, eastern-liberal-conceived, environmental conspiracy to drive westerners and their machines and livestock off public land and make it a sanctuary for the rich, elite super-fit, please pause, look around, and consider the following.
Why do most people move to states like Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming? Why to they vacation here?
To see mines, drilling rigs, and “stewardship logging”? To see cattle grazing on federal lands that all Americans own? Or elk and bears? To enjoy noisy, smelly ATVs tearing around? Or hear nature’s sounds?
How many small businesses depend on wilderness? How many more would spring up if we protected the rest of it?
Why is wilderness never considered a jobs program? If we could track the number of people who depend on wilderness, directly or indirectly, for their economic livelihood, we’d have protected all our roadless lands decades ago.
Where to people move to and visit and spend their money? To rural cow towns or mining communities? Or resort communities surrounded by national parks and wilderness?
What drives the economics of communities like Aspen, Bend, Big Sky, Bigfork, Bozeman, Choteau, Cody, Coeur d’Alene, Crested Butte, Durango, Estes Park, Jackson, Livingston, Kalispell, Ketchum, Moab, Polson, Priest Lake, Red Lodge, St. George, Vail, Whitefish and many dozens more communities, large and small, like them? And makes these towns our fastest growing communities?
The economics of these communities, if not the entire region, is based on what I call, “eating the scenery.” Our economy heavily depends on proximity to wilderness.
What would those who incessantly oppose wilderness say if we proposed developing Glacier or Grand Teton, Indian Peaks or Frank Church, Wind Rivers or Beartooths? We know the answer, don’t we? In fact, we’ve already seen this happen–normally anti-wilderness people opposing gold mines or geothermal development near (not in) Yellowstone or fossil fuel drilling near Canyonlands, or my favorite from back in the late 1970s when an energy company proposed “Bombing the Bob,” setting off a string of seismic charges to search for fossil fuel. Surprise, politicians and chamber presidents who worship anything-jobs were in an uproar. They didn’t even want to know if we had fossil fuel under the Bob Marshall Wilderness. You all can think of more such examples; when the push comes, all-business people understand how their bread gets buttered. It’s the wilderness, stupid.
Yes, mining, logging, and grazing are legitimate uses of our public lands and create jobs, but so does wilderness. We’d be shocked if we knew how many jobs our unprotected wilderness already creates, but it could create a lot more if we protect it. We’ve proved this over and over; when a wilderness or national park is designated, the local economy benefits.
NREPA might not be the answer, but at least its backers have the moxie to propose a sweeping proposal to do what needs to be done, protect our roadless heritage. The people with no courage, the people who should be barraged with our anger, are our senators and representatives, for being so disinterested as to sit ideally by watching our wilderness disappear knowing they’re the only people who can do anything about it.
The politicos only want “bottom-up” bills. Well, hello, everybody wants this, but often, it simply isn’t possible. NREPA is, in fact, a “bottom up” bill. It didn’t originate in skyscrapers of New York City where its sponsor lives. Concerned citizens created it right here in Idaho and Montana and wanted our local delegations to carry it, but they wouldn’t even consider it.
It’s fantasy to think wilderness will ever be a political lay-up. In most cases, diametrically opposed stakeholders can’t agree on a compromise bill, and in the cases where they’ve done this, the bill has become so convoluted that it accomplishes little and often becomes even more controversial. Plus, it’s nitpicking. We have many millions of acres to protect.
The now-infamous Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership bill gives us an excellent example–a failed collaboration that hopefully won’t be introduced in its present form. Most wilderness advocates oppose it, and those who wrote it don’t dare call it a wilderness bill.
There is a better way.
In most states, particularly in my state, Montana, we have proved that we can’t agree on what we should do, so I say to the politicians, stop waiting for a slam-dunk and draft your own wilderness bill. This might give some of my wildernut friends strokes, but right now, I prefer it isn’t a big “W” bill. “Wilderness” has, so sadly, become just another “w” word like “wolf” or “war” that promotes polarization. Instead, go for an alternative land designation. Call it anything; just make sure it allows bicycling and not road-building or motorized recreation.
Don’t put non-wilderness stuff in the bill. If the timber industry needs help–and I’m among those who think it does need relief–put that aide into a different bill.
You could argue all day whether the majority supports wilderness. Some polls say the majority does; others say no. But I believe most people would answer, “yes,” to this question: Should we protect our roadless lands?
Even if we wilderness advocates aren’t the majority, does it matter? We are definitely a large, important constituency, and we deserve some attention.
I feel–surprise!–the same away about the logging and motorized recreation constituencies. People who like to watch trees being pinched off or enjoy racing around on ATVs probably aren’t majorities either, but they, too, deserve attention.
But not in the same bill!
So, senators and representatives, please take control and do something to take care of your constituencies with specific bills addressing their concerns. An excellent place to start would be getting together and passing a regional or series of statewide wilderness bills (note, the little “w”).
If you can’t accept your responsibility, you have no right to stop somebody who owns just as much public land in New West states as you do from doing it. Don’t rush to the podium to criticize those evil “outsiders” who don’t understand our “local concerns” and dare to introduce bills to protect “our” public lands. You’ve had your chance to do something meaningful. If you can’t stand up for your wilderness constituency–and your wilderness economy–then get out of the way and let somebody who does care do it.
Footnote: For more articles on the wilderness debate, click here.