THANKS, WONDERFUL MEMBERS!
An old friend, a very good and wise person winding up a distinguished career with land management agencies, recently thought out loud, if you will, as to why agencies like the Forest Service and BLM are so unwilling to engage the meaning and values of wilderness and roadlessness. He answered his own question, of course, noting that the reason(s) the first Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE) led to RARE II to a sort of RARE III to the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (RACR) to the Road-less Petition back to the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, all the while with stiff resistance from the Forest Service—ironically more so now than ever (history does not move in an ever progressive arrow)—were many, but primarily the Forest Service as an institution has never accepted wilderness as a REAL (his emphasis) resource. The same, we both agreed, can be applied to BLM.
The key is the intent of REAL resource. I understand what he meant. The problem, if anything, is that the Forest Service (let’s focus there, since that is the agency we deal with) does consider wilderness as a resource. It always falls under the larger Recreation division within each office of the Forest Service. Its value is measured by recreation visitor days, or number of parties, stock use or outfitter and guide permits, and then compared to other typical resource values such as developed recreation visitor days, always by a magnitude greater, or boater days on Flaming Gorge, for example, on any given summer weekend probably greater than a season on the Uintas. On the West Fork Blacks Fork the value of 3-5 parties on any given day hiking through the High Uintas Wilderness was deemed insignificant to the value of the sheep permit.
Ironically, wilderness/ backcountry outfitting and guiding, while often done with sensitivity, still too often becomes the reason for over-use or abuse because of the economic value to the outfitter. Over and over we see outfitters, when subjected to a reduction in use, complain bitterly that the business will suffer an economic hardship if constraints dictated by environmental concerns are implemented. These complaints often mirror the same concerns by logging, grazing or mineral users—because the value of the use is translated into the value of the resource. Resource is the word— in our world-view, resource has a direct economic connection, affiliation, attraction.
Obviously, we are well aware of the numerous studies that show economic value of wilderness on local communities, especially when the context is broadened to include the far less precisely measurable quality of life, and the even broader ecosystem value—certainly the ultimate quality of life valuation. Maybe the most important valuation is the latter, but it has proved the hardest for our economic system to engage. It simply doesn’t produce much of a bottom line, except that of life itself, not just human life—another issue not yet fully explored within our definition of economics. The value of elk in Utah, for example, is determined first and foremost by its value to be harvested, secondarily by its value to be watched. The value of a cougar or pack of wolves is de-valued, if you will, by their possible predation upon elk.
The Forest Service has not yet been able to get past the management value of timber as a resource. A natural fire burned the roadless landscape on what the Ashley National Forest calls the North Slope High Country a year or so ago. Now the tongue-wagging starts about the need to get in there and do some salvage logging to take advantage of the last of the economic— or just as clearly stated, resource— value of the forest stands. This plays over and over, in spite of a vault of clear and indisputable evidence that fire is normal, the results of such fires are normal and deeply valuable to the ecosystem—what my friend meant by REAL resource.
But trying to discuss this results, on the best days, in simply being told, ‘Thank you for your comments. They are outside of the scope of the proposed action.’ Sometimes a friend in the agency will say, ‘I agree with you, but we have no way of incorporating them into the analysis.’ And in today’s hyper-political era, where all-truth-is-political, where righteous self-aggrandizement is political-truth at a foundational level (largely a function of neo-cons and various thugs, but by no means limited to them; many in our community argue the same way, just the other side of the coin), and you are likely to be targeted as an advocate of terrorism, a debased hater of freedom, patriotism and goodness, and, of all things, a radical. As a political system we have twisted on ourselves so often that the things needing discussion are just those forbidden by this encompassing and growing all-is-fundamental- political-truth.
But back to the Forest Service for a moment. There is an even deeper irony, if we talk about the symbolic values of wilderness— the mystery, the spirit, the silence, the wildness—not recreation, manageability of boundaries, sights and sounds, or resource tradeoffs. Without exception the agency will tell us, ‘These are so subjective that they have no place in the analysis. We appreciate that they are yours but we can go no further with them.’
Yet, in another analysis, for example, the agency will then tell us that the value of maintaining a grazing program on the forest, in part, is to maintain the cultural values or connection with the livestock tradition. The same with logging—that old logging tradition, the values associated with that past. Or firewood cutting—the traditional values of the family cutting firewood on a fall Saturday afternoon. Or the deer hunt—the family getting together at the traditional campsite on the forest on opening weekend, everybody together, a frosty morning, the ATVs revving up for a good muddy romp with dad bonding with the kids. (This later version has done far more to kill the traditional deer hunt than probably any other action, but that is another story.)
The deeply ingrained bias toward wilderness in management agencies has much refraction, but in the end wilderness is supposed to be wild, wildness is not supposed to be managed, and managing resources is what the Forest Service does. The REAL resource, the value of beauty, wildness, a pine marten staring at you from an old spruce trunk, cougar stalking a deer, wolves launching an attack on an elk, grizzly bear reminding us we are just visitors, a place where you truly stand alone in the deep hummmm of quiet, maybe praying to the Earth about this quiet and beauty or praying to your particular God that you survive the thunderstorm that has descended upon you in such quick fierceness that your tent with you in it seems like it will either take off or invite in the next lightning bolt! This is as meaningful as the cherished family outing on a snowmobile or the need to maintain a ranching tradition. But it is dismissed because it deals with wilderness or wildness or roadlessness.
It is frustrating and maybe we are nowadays only talking and providing input to bear witness on these places we love for the myriad invaluable reasons for which we love them (the places themselves prove to be invaluable—the REAL resource). Maybe all of this matters because when we talk about loving our country—a horribly mutilated and disfigured context in these self-righteous days—we are really talking about the country we love, not the overblown political or economic context of country, but literally Spread Eagle Peak, Cataract Basin, Bluebell Pass, Weeping Ledge Lake, Hells Kitchen, Three Divide Basin or Lightning Park. Will that love save these places? Or will these places— the REAL resource—save us?
Thanks, old friend! And thank all of you good HUPC friends and supporters for being so generous, so good- hearted, for caring so much, for howling with us at our rendezvous, and for letting us in your door. Keep trekking, keep searching. We are distinctly honored and humbled by your kindness.