December 2015

The cost of wilderness

By Dexter Gill

There is a lot of push to “conserve and protect” the public lands and environment these days. It is being said that we need to make more wilderness areas, national monuments, national parks, national conservation areas to protect and conserve the lands. Nice thought, but this is really playing on the ignorance and gullibility of the public to achieve the desires of a few. Words can be a powerful manipulator of the minds of the public. One word carries different perceived meanings to different people. What does “conservation” mean to you? Webster declares it to be the action of “protection from loss or waste”. So how do we conserve and protect the public lands? There are two schools of thought, one is the “old school” that believes we manage and use the lands and resources for an improved and sustained output of water, timber, forage, wildlife and other beneficial uses such as recreation. The new school is to set the lands aside and protect them from man’s intervention, access, and to not utilize or manage the resources, but let nature do its own thing. Which “system” is defined by conservation? If you are having trouble figuring this out, here are a couple of local examples. First one is the Boggy Draw area that had “old school” management done for years. The second one is the west side of Wolf Creek Pass where the natural fire went through demonstrating the new school of thought, which utilized “wilderness and roadless” rules for protection from man’s access and use. OK, which one fits the definition of “conservation” for protection from loss and waste?

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for preserving the beauty of the forests, canyons, peaks and really neat spots, as best as we can, knowing that we are not in control of nature, God is! The issue is how do we do our part? I experienced the effects of nature on Mt. St. Helens in Washington. All of man’s efforts to preserve Spirit Lake and the mountain and ecosystem went poof! It was not caused by global warming or fracking either. By the way, many think Yellowstone will be a bigger and better bang than Mt. St. Helens some day.

What do we know about wildernesses on public lands? We have just learned that the wilderness system as set up is the “non-conservation” of the public lands, or better described as the “Planned Natural Deterioration” (PND) of the lands and resources. The wilderness philosophy includes the new “roadless areas,” national monuments, national park and national conservation areas. Did you know there are 44 states and Puerto Rico with wilderness areas totaling nearly 110 million acres? Here in Colorado we have 42 wildernesses totaling nearly 4 million acres; 8 National Monuments for 430,000 acres; 4 National Parks for 434,000 acres; Colorado Roadless Areas (these are de-facto wildernesses) totaling 4.4 million acres; 2 National Recreation Areas for 74,000 acres; 2 National Conservation areas for186,000 acres; 8 National Wildlife Refuges for 163,000 acres; all totaling to 9.7 million acres. There are 24.1 million acres of Colorado’s lands under federal management, or rather lack thereof. The above 9.7 million acres of non-producing lands comprises 40 percent of all lands under federal management in the state. How big is that? It is about 15 thousand square miles, which is larger than any of nine entire Eastern states. The Wilderness and Roadless non-conservation lands (PND) in Colorado, comprise 57 percent of all the National Forest administered lands. If outdoor recreation is the concern, did you know there are also 42 state parks? With all these millions of acres set aside, prohibiting access and use by the vast majority of the public, why are some groups pushing for 53 more wildernesses, 6 right here in Montezuma and Dolores counties for another 59,872 acres of no use (PND)? How much is enough, or too much?

How are we to administer and protect all these non-producing lands? Well I hear you say that the forests, wilderness, roadless and BLM lands are YOUR public lands, so then YOU should be responsible to protect and care for them, right? There is about 5 million people or 1.4 million families of 3.5 persons in Colorado. That means every Colorado family will have 16 acres of National Forest and BLM land to be responsible for the fire protection, insect and disease control, storm damage repairs, noxious weed control, erosion control, wildlife, water production for streams and local economic enhancement and taxes. This is your personal expense and effort since you want your lands set aside as nonproducing “natural wilderness.” There can be no oil and gas drilling to provide revenues, no logging, no grazing, no recreation use fees (public land is free use, right?), no hunting or hiking access fees. So which 16 acres is your responsibility to manage, pay taxes and protect with no income from the land? Where are you going to get the money from?

Incidentally, an economic study by the Utah State University found that counties with wilderness in the county had notably less average household income, total payroll, and county tax receipts, than counties with no wilderness. Interesting don’t you think? I forgot, you don’t want any responsibility, that is for others to provide for you at their cost. OR, maybe the land and resources could actually be managed to improve them and provide jobs and revenues to do conservation works and recreation opportunity for the improvement and protection of all the resources? What a concept! It has worked here in the past and it can work again!

Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.