It’s always difficult to rank the top outdoor stories. Should I pick the stories that grabbed the most headlines and created the most controversy? Or do I select stories that have more significance to the future of the earth and our ability to enjoy the great outdoors, even if that issue might have been lightly covered by the press and doesn’t come up often at the coffee shop or saloon.
If you go with the headline grabbers, two issues, wilderness and wolves, easily lead the pack. I’d actually consider this a tie for first place. Any mention of either “W word” automatically generates howls of protest or support from extremely engaged public on both sides of the issues. The phenomenally successful, if not too successful, re-introduction of wolves and the seemingly endless attempt to protect our last roadless lands never disappoint reporters looking for hot copy.
But if you go with long-term significance, my pick for the top story of not only 2009 but also of the 21st Century is the pandemic of Nature Deficit Disorder, a term so aptly coined by Richard Louv in his best-selling outdoor book, Last Child in the Woods. Our next generation, the so-called “screen generation,” growing up without a connection to nature has rightfully caused a panic among conservation groups and the outdoor industry. Nowadays, kids stay inside, close to electric outlets, and consequently, we aren’t getting enough recruitment into most outdoor activities and hence not as much outdoor gear being sold, nor are we getting increases in memberships of green groups.
I’m sure some readers believe climate change is a bigger outdoor story. I suppose I’ll rile up a few of them by not agreeing, but I persist in thinking that without a populace interested in natural wonders, involved in outdoor activities and in preserving wild nature, we’re looking at the end of the game.
Anyway, here are my picks for the top five outdoor stories of 2009, in both categories, with a slight bias toward issues key to the New West and those we covered on NewWest.Net.
1. Ending the Wilderness Debate. Efforts to end the 26-year Wilderness Drought in both Idaho and Montana probably grabbed as much news as any other outdoor issue, except perhaps, the wolf delisting and hunting controversy. Chief among the headlines would be efforts by Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) to move forward. Crapo actually pulled it off with the passage of the Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness Act, and as 2009 slips away, Tester is pushing hard to end Montana’s drought by passing the state’s first wilderness bill since 1983, a misnamed wilderness bill that he calls the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, S. 1470.
1. Wolf Wars. Ever since the federal government approved re-introduction of the exterminated gray wolf back into Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in 1995 and 1996, the Big Dog has stirred up more controversy than all the other species on earth combined. A colossal victory for conservationists but an unwelcome agent of change for many westerners, the big bad wolf really showed its stuff by populating the New West much faster than even the experts expected. That brought attempts by both the Bush and Obama administrations to remove the prolific canine from the protection of the Endangered Species Act, a plan bitterly opposed by many conservation groups, but in the end, the government prevailed, mostly, and Idaho and Montana held their first-ever wolf hunting seasons in 2009–and quite successfully, I might add. The courts still have their fingers in the issue, though, so stay tuned for much more controversy next year.
3. Firearms industry, Pro-gun Groups Prosper. During the worst economic downtown in a generation, the firearms industry had its best sales ever. Gun and ammo manufacturers thrived because of false fear sweeping through the gun community, which was convinced President Obama and the new, blue Congress would enact more restrictive gun laws and regulations, but viola, exactly the opposite happened. Congress passed and Obama signed the most pro-gun law in many years, a bill allowing open, concealed carry of firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges, which goes into effect in February. And this was only one of the numerous pro-gun victories of the year. (Check next week’s column for more on this issue.)
4. Public Lands Omnibus Bill Passes. Early in the Obama administration, after a decade or more of debate and frustration, Congress finally passed and President Obama quickly signed, the massive Public Lands Omnibus Bill, which included Idaho’s Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness, the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, and 160 other pieces of legislation. The omnibus bill designated 2 million acres of Wilderness, set aside several wild and scenic rivers, created a new national monument and three new national parks, and much more, in all western states, except Montana, where the delegation was MIA in this historic event.
5. Road Rage for Cyclists. In spite of many sincere educational efforts, it seems conflict between motorists and road cyclists on public roadways worsened during 2009.
WORLDLY SIGNIFICANT STORIES:
1. The Nature Deficit Disorder Pandemic. Do your part by spending more time taking children and grandchildren outdoors to experience nature and supporting the No Child Left Inside Act of 2010.
2. The Changing Climate. The most visible indicator of future catastrophic events we all see here in the New West are entire landscapes turned brown by millions of beetle-killed lodgepoles.
3. Economic Downturn Bankrupting Major Ski Resorts. Several large resorts struggled to exist as real estate sales plummeted and financing dried up.
4. Protecting the Last Roadless Lands. Dozens of bills to protect individual wildlands and one key measure to codify the entire Clinton-era Roadless Rule have been introduced to Congress, but how many will pass? Will we ever resolve the seemingly endless debate over how to protect our last roadless federal lands?
5. Recreation Fees Keeping More People Off Their Land. Federal agencies just keep on using the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004 to add and raise more and more recreational fees, often using highly questionable interpretations of the law, and make visiting our public lands more and more expensive. Consequently, use has declined. Even though Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) has spearheaded a congressional effort to repeal FLREA, his bill has gone nowhere.