Recently there’s been a lot of talk and some action regarding new wilderness designations here in Colorado and in other western states to “protect” the public lands. Then there is the issue of the Forest Service deciding to use chain saws to clear trails for the hikers in the wilderness areas. There are also bills in Congress known as “Resilient Federal Forest Act” to “protect” the public forest lands from insects and disease and wildfires.
This may come as a surprise, but you cannot have designated wilderness and also protect and manage it. Why? Under the wilderness rules, nature is left in control using windstorms, disease, insects, wildfire and erosion as tools for its “management.” Man is not permitted to utilize or be involved in management of the wilderness forest. Let it die and burn naturally is the preference of the wilderness and other environmental corporations.
What is the most common word used in promoting wilderness areas? The word is “protect”! Webster defines that word as “to cover or shield from exposure, injury, damage or destruction.” Leaving a forest in the control of nature is certainly not going to “protect” it! The 416 fire north of Durango did not suddenly stop when it reached the Hermosa Creek wilderness sign, nor did the later flooding and erosion stop because it was designated a wilderness. So what does wilderness designation actually protect? It protects it from the public using and benefitting from it in fulfilling their God-given rights of Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness, which includes having one’s own land. This whole wilderness thing is a fiasco and in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Colorado State Enabling Act.
Let’s back up, just what is “wilderness” anyway? Webster defines it as 1. A region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings; 2. Wild or uncultivated state; 3. A confusing multitude or mass. I really like that last one, it clearly defines what we have today. Back in September of 1964 Congress passed the “Wilderness Preservation System,” Public Law 88-577, with its own convoluted definition, to protect areas from man (that means you), and to manage the areas designated, “to maintain their wilderness character.” It is of interest that it specifically stated “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), the said purpose was—‘to improve and protect the forest, or to secure favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber. The Act is not intended to authorize the inclusion within national forests of lands that are more valuable for mineral or agricultural purposes’, and the Multiple Use Sustained-Yield Act of June 12,1960 (74 Stat.215).” Today it does interfere and violate both of those original acts.
Do you realize the Forest Service is in control of 14.5 million acres of lands of the State of Colorado, with 3.8 million acres of it locked up in 44 designated wilderness areas? That is 27 percent of all the forest in designated wilderness thus not managed, improved or protected. Add to that, the “Colorado Roadless Plan” which mostly is adjacent and contiguous with the wilderness areas, includes another 4.2 million acres of quasi wilderness with similar management and access restrictions. Combined, that is 8 million acres of Colorado watersheds, or a full 55 percent of the National Forest removed from active management, protection and recreational use by a majority of the public.
It has been estimated that only about 2 percent of the United States population will ever visit a designated wilderness area. Let’s see, there are now about 803 designated wilderness areas encompassing 111 million acres. That is almost as much as the entire states of Colorado and Utah combined. Those acres have been set aside for a select few to access, limiting beneficial use by the majority. Are the wilderness areas and trails ADA compliant for our wounded veterans to access and recreate in? But wait, the Wilderness Watch corporation was quoted in the Cortez Journal’s May 4th edition as saying, ”the purpose of the Wilderness Act is to protect wild areas, not provide recreational opportunities.” Well now, the pushers of legislation for more wilderness designations cite the value of wilderness for recreation, which includes hunting and fishing. So now we have one group demanding lands to be protected from people and left natural, and the much larger population demanding the lands be managed and improved for water, economic use and recreation including hunting and fishing. Can you imagine what spot that puts the Forest Service in? They cannot scientifically and economically manage or protect the forest, but only comply with their political direction in Washington. Good land and resource management cannot be done by politics and courts! Incidentally, the decision to use chainsaws to clear the trails is completely legal under the Wilderness Act. I say kudos to the supervisor!
The Wilderness Act was an ill-conceived idea based upon the selfish dreams of one segment of society 55 years ago, without any sound scientific principles, locking up public lands from most public use and allowing the lands and resources to deteriorate and costing the public millions of dollars per year in wildfire fighting costs and hundreds of millions in lost economy to local areas and reduced forest health that will be lost for at least 100 hundred years and more to recover. We have just experienced a record drought. Will we take action to protect, manage and improve the entire watershed now, or wait for the next drought when it will be way too late again? It is time to repeal both the Wilderness and Roadless Acts and get back to being good stewards of the lands and resources, managing and protecting the health of the forest environment and local economies now and for future generations.
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.