THE WILDERNESS STORY
2004 marks the Fortieth Anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act. In celebration, the LYNX will address this wonderful event in each issue all year.
The Wilderness Act, after nearly a decade of debate in Congress, became Public Law 88-577 on September 3, 1964 with the signature of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. It remains one of the most potent and profound pieces of legislation ever, notable in its legislative poetry and conciseness - in seven pages!
Following the immediate designation in 1964 of 54 Forest Service Wilderness Areas on nine million acres, the Forest Service, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service (BLMís wilderness studies were authorized in 1976) were instructed to study additional areas and make recommendations to Congress by 1974. The Forest Service was to study and make recommendations on 34 Primitive Areas (4.5 million acres), administratively designated for the most part in the late 1920s. The High Uintas Primitive Area (HUPA) was the only area in Utah under consideration and the hearings were held in 1967, where the Forest Service considered enlarging the 247,000 acre HUPA to a proposed Wilderness of 323,000 acres by adding the Uinta River drainage. A few brave Utah conservationists at the time suggested the area should include more acreage, including additional lands on the North Slope.
The deep significance of the Wilderness Act occurred during these times - the simple matter of fact is there were many areas that qualified as wilderness and the Forest Service was doing as little as possible to protect or recognize them.
It was two incidents at the beginning of the '70s that sparked the depth of the wilderness movement under the guidance of the Wilderness Act. The first was a proposal by the Forest Service to log East Meadow Creek which was contiguous to the Gore Range-Eagle Nest Primitive Area in Colorado. Litigation was filed, much of it under the watch of good friend Clif Merrit, then of the Wilderness Society (and the guy who gave me a chance by hiring me as the Utah Representative of The Wilderness Society back in the mid '70s). Clif never loses when it comes to his love of wilderness; he was the inspiration behind making the wilderness movement of those days a grassroots movement. The Court ruled that the Forest Service could not destroy the wilderness character of lands adjacent to these primitive areas until they were studied and acted upon.
The second is tied to an even broader history. While the Wilderness Act did not require the Forest Service to inventory lands for wilderness consideration, other than extant Primitive Areas and adjacent lands, nothing in the Act prohibited other areas from being designated under the Wilderness Act. Shortly after passage of the Wilderness Act, conservationists pursued this possibility with the Forest Service, but were consistently ignored. Clif Merrit and Lincoln, Montana hardware store owner Cecil Garland were busy fighting a proposal to log Montana's Lincoln-Scapegoat area. While some in the Forest Service quietly accepted the idea of a Lincoln-Scapegoat Wilderness, the agency's position was clear - develop it. Merrit recognized that Congress, with broad public support, was the answer and by 1972 Lincoln-Scapegoat was designated the first de facto wilderness after passage of the Wilderness Act. The gate was opened.
Citizens around the country started proposing wilderness recommendations. The Forest Service felt the only way to gain control of this issue was to initiate their own inventory of lands that may qualify as wilderness. The agency was also receiving distinct pressure form the Nixon Administration to get on with protecting wilderness values.
Thus early in the 1970s came the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation. But as an inventory it was poorly done, even dishonest. The process was to evaluate roadless areas as potential wilderness recommendations using a Quality Index (QI) rating system. One of the most important considerations was size the larger an area, the higher its QI and the more likely it would be recommended as wilderness and protected through a forest unit plan (later to become forest plans.)
Here is where the deception started. On the Uintas, for example, the Forest Service identified a number of roadless areas, all contiguous to the HUPA and to one another. In other words, one large roadless area on the Wasatch, the North Slope, was turned into two long, skinny roadless areas both rating low on the QI because they were small! They were one area!
On the Lakes Roadless area, the agency actually drew a timber sale proposal in the Reids Meadow area as a separate roadless area within the larger Lakes Roadless Area. Similar shenanigans took place on the South Slope of the Uintas and were common throughout RARE.
Suffice it to say, in part due to a legal challenge, RARE faded and failed. It only enhanced the conflict and showed the Forest Service simply lacked the vision to understand and protect wild places.
By 1980 the agency, under pressure from conservationists and a new President, was again inventorying roadless lands, this time lovingly called RARE II. The inventory was better, the direction clearer, but the results were still skewed and clearly biased toward nonwilderness.
In between and part of all of this came the Eastern Wilderness Act (1975), the Endangered Wilderness Act (1978) and a host of individual state Wilderness Acts (Utah in 1984, for example). But the issue of wilderness and land preservation would simply not go away. It achieved a metaphysical status. Protection of wilderness was the pillar of the conservation movement. It had deep importance in our psyche and all but a few, far too many in the Forest Service, unfortunately, have come to realize its deep importance in ecosystem integrity.
Thus late in the 1990s another inventory occurred under the Clinton Administration - the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. By far the most complete inventory, the process still lacked in some areas, but it was the first and broadest-based comprehensive national guidance to preserve roadless values on Forest Service roadless areas. We have covered the issue in numerous editions of the LYNX so the details will be skipped here other than to note the "new" Forest Service and this administration have deserted this rule, stepping back a few decades, and promising a rule with less preservation and more flexibility.
The results? The Wasatch Cache National Forest plan revision, also covered in great detail in previous editions, called for protection of well less than half of the forest's roadless area, recommending tiny and pathetic wilderness additions on the North Slope of the Uintas , opening large swaths of roadless lands for future timber harvesting and proposing half a mountain on the Lakes Roadless area as wilderness.
But history bumps along. And that is why this is all so important. Progress is made, reconsidered, reversed, reversed again, and onward. There is no straight line to follow and conservationists are not always innocent bystanders. It will be left to others far wiser than most of us to determine whether things are better or grander or ever will be... We can say this, the Wilderness Act in 1964 designated 54 areas on 9 million acres as wilderness and ordered a bunch of studies on National Parks, Fish and Wildlife Areas and a few Forest Service Primitive Areas. Today the National Wilderness Preservation System has something like 625 areas on 105 million acres under its arching and graceful wingspan! We can also say that this graceful wingspan came from powerful and wild voices of Marshall, Murie, Zahniser, Leopold and a host of others.
At the same time, these wilderness areas, lands not yet designated, and lands that will never qualify as wilderness are more threatened than at any other time in the past. That will likely also continue. So history turns...