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Everlasting Wilderness

(Ed. Note: This is an abridged version of a speech by HUPC Coordinator Dick Carter at the University of Utah College of Law Natural Resources Law Forum and the Wallace Stegner Center Green Bag Series on November 6, 2002.)

Signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act approaches 40 years old. That alone tells you how sweeping, even profound, it is. Debated in the 50s (the law was first introduced into Congress in 1956 and by some accounts there were over 65 separate versions debated and discussed), it became law in the 60s and is more pertinent now than ever. It was a defining moment that swept our collective imagination and relationship to land into a new paradigm. It was a process of deep thinking and, while still hotly debated, it stands as a symbol. The law had no sunset, so it has become a perpetual, controversial sunrise of meaning.

Public Law, 88-577, The Wilderness Act, fits on seven 6 pages (I do know there is no context for that today-- it would not be possible to pass a Wilderness Act today, or within the last 25 years, at least not one that is reasonably simple, elegant and concise...) and is divided into 3 major components: Section 2, policy and definition; Section 3, allocation of wilderness; and Section 4, management of wilderness.

The policy is simply "...to assure that an increasing population... expanding settlement and growing mechanization... does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States...it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generation the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

It is noteworthy to recognize the Congress of 1964 understood the threat to wild land from an "increasing population." Yet today, the 'in your face' belief that ever increasing population growth is so often considered commensurate with increasing economic growth, quality of life, democracy and moral values dominates policy discussions! Who says we ve made progress?

The definition of wilderness? "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is... an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.... an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvement or human habitation... managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, without the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic or historical value."

Herein is one of the great early debates over the Wilderness Act-- the word untrammeled was chosen for clear and intentional purposes-- throughout the debate, and unfortunately that debate still sputters along, the framers of the Act... intended the opening first sentence in Section 2 to represent the ideal wilderness, if you will, what has become the idea of wilderness as ecological process, and the second sentence, a rather long one, as the pragmatic definition of wilderness intended by the Act-- the place. Clearly once designated each place was to be allowed-- managed-- for that untrammeled condition: "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man." The definition allowed the Wilderness Act to keep up with the changing context of what it means to be wild... The founders of the NWPS seemed to know wilderness designation had significant meaning beyond just the words in the Act. It is almost as though The Wilderness Act anticipated the future of its own context/content.

The Wilderness Act originally designated 54 areas, 9 million acres, as wilderness and instructed the Forest Service to study an additional 34 administratively designated primitive areas/ 4.5 million acres (the old High Uintas Primitive Area was the only area in Utah under consideration, being a primitive area designated by the Forest Service in the late 1920s in an old classification called the L-20 regs). As the value of wilderness has been increasingly understood, particularly within an ecological context, the acres of wilderness designated by Congress have spiraled upward in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, usually with heated debate (far too often that debate has come from the Forest Service!) Today the National Wilderness Preservation System contains 645 wildernesses, about 106 million acres! Alaska harbors the bulk of the designated wilderness- 58 million acres. BLM manages 5 million acres, with much, much more to come, particularly in Utah. The Forest Service manages 3 5 million acres, the Fish and Wildlife Service 21 million acres, and the National Park Service 44 million acres. The smallest wilderness are islands totalling 5 acres; the largest, in Alaska, is 9.7 million acres. Congress has designated and Presidents have signed wildernesses into law in 27 of the 38 years of the existence of The Wilderness Act. Forty-four states have designated wildernesses. Of the lower 48 Western states Utah is the only state with less than 1 million acres designated, next closest is NM and NV, each with about double Utah s acreage. And there will be much more to consider!

  • This depth of The Wilderness Act is portrayed both in the debate about how much (this has been the more visible debate) and management of designated wilderness.
  • The fact that The Wilderness Act recognized management and allocation as hooked, tiered to one another, but at the same time separate, was not a stroke of luck-- it was intended to assure allocation would proceed, while not allowing the wilderness characteristics to diminish.
  • Thus it is defined as a place-- wilderness-- that provides a recreational opportunity by way of a community of life untrammeled by man.
  • But from a management and political context it has always been easier to look at wilderness as a place--sort of like the Old West, in part, because these ecological concepts of how to keep an area primeval or in natural condition or untrammeled have been subject to a host of debates and some of the most rapid change in thinking we've seen. We've gone from nature in balance to nature in disturbance faster than politics and managers can apply The Wilderness Act.
  • Clearly we designate places but they do not stand in time-- they move through it.
  • The idea of place--the old, romantic, archetypal West, where big game roamed barely one step in front of the great white hunter-- has undergone a huge shift to a fundamental precept that wilderness is different both in place and process than other "resources." It is not, in fact, a resource, but a system defined not by utilizing resources for us-- culture. It is not void of human action, but its motor is not culture. It is easy to understand the context of the debate over wilderness in this light.
  • Users, researchers, ecologists, and wilderness managers are asking is wilderness for grizzly bears or hikers?
  • Is wilderness really wild if wildlife is hunted, trapped, baited, hounded? Or is this a tamed wilderness with wildlife responding to cultural mores and recreational values rather than ecological forces?
  • Wilderness-- wildness-- must be defined not by the bighorn sheep hunter, but by the millennial evolutionary dance between bighorn sheep and cougar. Should we be putting water troughs in wilderness to assure desert bighorn sheep have enough water to drink or have we then degraded the wild context once again to a human/cultural definition?
  • An issue of intense debate is the stocking of non-native fisheries or the introduction of non-native wildlife such as mountain goats into Utah's wilderness. Wilderness-- wildness-- must be defined by native wild critters moving to and through their life patterns, not introduced or stocked non-native rainbow trout or mountain goats to provide us with a recreational experience, whether it be hunting, fishing, or viewing. If wilderness-- wildness-- is to survive as something other than an abstract idea in a book, it can't be managed primarily for recreation.
  • It is reasonable to assume the framers of The Wilderness Act didn't have these concerns because one of the fundamental arguments for wilderness then was the recreational value of stepping back into the Old West for a hunting or fishing expedition. But The Wilderness Act was visionary and flexible enough to respond to changing perspectives.
  • Other management issues of today are as deep and far ranging as removing wind-blown trees literally choking trail bridges over roaring rivers...or even trails...or reservoir maintenance via helicopters or horse and wagon... or chasing trespass snowmobiles in wilderness with snow- mobiles....or the use of cell phones.

So the two questions of allocation and management are tied together. The usual question debated is how much wilderness but it should be how much wild wilderness? A lot, as much as we can get of wild wilderness. Wilderness where we kill cougar because they kill bighorn sheep and may hinder hunters or wildlife watchers is not really wilderness. Wilderness where native Utahns like grizzly bear, wolverine or wolves are not wanted is not really wilderness. Wilderness where fires don't occasionally rage is not really wilderness. Wilderness where desert bighorn sheep must be watered with man-made troughs isn't really wilderness. Those are static places defined by humans, not by ecological disturbance regimes-- the engine that drives evolution.


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