So excited! Going to have a real Wilderness Experience, just like the explorers and trappers in the early days. Let’s see, need new mountaineering boots, ventilated four-season tent, waterproof breathable sleeping bag, propane stove, and for sure need a Sherpa solar charging kit for my tablet and android. Wait a minute I don’t think this is much like what the explorers, trappers and traders experienced, actually not much different than driving into a “primitive” Forest Service campsite with no running water or electric hookup.
So what IS this thing politicians call “wilderness”? It can be a lot of things, like the open sea, the wild environs of New York City, an open or treed area or even Calvin & Hobbs’ backyard. Some have conjured up the mental picture derived from reading pulp fiction of the Old West. Their minds picture Lewis & Clark with beautiful Sacagawea standing on the mountaintop surveying the vast unspoiled landscape where all of nature was in balance and peaceful. Pop the bubble – that was not how it was.
So what is the excitement over the words “wilderness area”? There weren’t any designated wilderness areas until 1964, when the dreamers sold the misconception to Congress that land areas they liked should be preserved for themselves in the way they preferred. In their ignorance, they didn’t realize (or care) that you can’t preserve natural resources like a photo point in time as conditions are constantly changing, and have been since the beginning of time.
The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, stated that nothing would change except the designated area was to be managed to maintain its “primeval character and influence”. Of particular interest was the statement in Sec. 4 (a) (1) “Nothing in this Act shall be deemed to be in interference with the purpose for which national forests are established as set forth in the Act of June 4, 1897 (30 Stat.11), and the Multiple Use Sustained –Yield Act of June 12, 1960 (74 Stat. 215).” The purpose stated therein was “to improve and protect the forest, or to secure favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber.” Actually everything was to continue as it was – so how has it gotten so screwed up? Well, the Wilderness Act also gave the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to make regulations as he deemed necessary. The Congress abdicated its constitutional authority to make law, giving it to the administrative branch that has no lawmaking authority. That was the beginning of the end of resource management, conservation and protection.
By 1970, there had been conceived about 9 million acres of man-defined “wilderness” areas. Today, there are 765 wildernesses in 45 states encompassing over 110 million acres. The 12 Western states contain 104.4 million acres of that 110 million. There are also an additional 12.7 million acres of BLM lands designated as “Wilderness Study Areas” that are treated under Wilderness Act rules (non- management) that are years past due for a decision.
Don’t forget the 60 national parks with 52.2 million acres and numerous other recreation withdrawals from conservation management. They also are “wilderness”.
Here in Colorado, there are eight different names for “wilderness” land set aside from conservation management. There are eight national monuments, four national parks, 41 designated wilderness areas, designated roadless areas, two national recreation areas, two national conservation areas, eight national wildlife refuges, 54 wilderness study areas, all totaling over 10 million acres, all with the common goal of single-purpose withdrawal from conservation management and protection.
For perspective, there is 25 million acres of federally controlled public lands In Colorado, so a full 40 percent of the public lands are not multiple- use managed and obviously not protected from insects, disease and wildfire. Can you guess where most of that 40 percent is? Nearly all of it is in the higher elevations of forest watershed lands where the majority of all the water in the state originates. Think about that when you get notice that there is not enough water to irrigate crops, or that daily shower you like so much. What was the charge to the Forest Service in 1897 about securing favorable flows of water? Why has 40 percent of our watersheds been shut down from improvement, conservation and management?
There is a huge misconception that designating a piece of forest or other land base as wilderness magically “protects” it. The only thing it is protected from is improvement, conservation, and YOU. It is not protected from wildfires, insects and disease, floods or erosion. There is no threat impending that would destroy these watershed lands except for them to continue to be designated for single purpose and no management as has been done with the 10 million acres of special “protected areas”. It can easily be argued that the wilderness and other false protection designations have contributed to the low water flows and increased wildfire losses we are and will be experiencing. The drought conditions will exacerbate these losses. The highest and best purpose and use for ALL the public lands of the state is to actively manage for health and production of the watersheds. Any and all recreation, tourism, hunting and other uses will be enhanced and improved.
One thing is for certain, we do NOT need another 61,000 acres of “designated wilderness” to be set up for wildfires to damage the already hurting watersheds of the state. Wake up, recreation of all kinds can take place on well-managed public lands. Each special interest group does not need nor have a right to their own designated area. Time to turn around land and resource management for the benefit of the land, resources, people and the state while there is still a little bit left to manage. What is “wilderness”? Not what we have been told!
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.