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Be honest, environmentalists

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Dear HCN,


It is with much amusement that I read the letters about my defeats, moral decay and capitulation to the forces of the dark side. Is the environmental movement so rigid and dogmatic that it would assault character in order to quash dissent? (HCN, 9/11/00: Wilderness is the key).


To start with, who said anything about "losing one too many a battle," let alone giving up the good fight? Under my tenure, the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council twice defeated 404 permits for the AB Lateral project on the Gunnison River; we blocked two major coal leases; we shot down a proposal to reopen 100 miles of roads on the Grand Mesa National Forest; we forced the Forest Service to close 48 miles of road in Stevens Gulch; we wrote an analysis for the recent statewide appeal that torpedoed the Uncompahgre Travel Plan; and when no other environmental group in the state would help, we independently sued the Colorado Department of Corrections in federal court for building prisons in state wildlife areas purchased with federal grants - and won an important national precedent.


I belabor the point not out of honor, but to refute the notion that consensus is a philosophy of defeat. In fact, WSERC had few, if any, major defeats during this time, although as everywhere, we continued to suffer piecemeal erosion of habitat, undeveloped terrain and general environmental quality. Yet, even here, we were able to minimize that trend, largely through negotiated consensus with the alleged enemy. For example, we won major grazing reforms in the West Elk Wilderness, which then led to similar improvements in surrounding allotments.


Wilderness designation, even if we got all we are currently asking for in Colorado, will not meet the movement's expressed goal of maintaining intact ecosystems and sustainable wildlife populations. More importantly, this obsession with wilderness is greatly eroding our chances. The reasons are spelled out in the interview (HCN, 7/31/00).


What I hoped for in taking this seemingly radical stand was not for the movement's leaders to repudiate wilderness, but to anticipate these problems and to adjust. I am calling for a more visionary and comprehensive approach - e.g., "The Wildlife Habitat Security Act of 2004' - that can incorporate combined strategies of wilderness, buffer zones, migration corridors, private-land easements, seasonal use restrictions, limits on hunting license sales, etc. Such a strategy places the emphasis not on our anthropocentric concepts of wilderness (solitude, wildness, viewsheds and recreational experience) as Susan Tixier so eloquently pleads (HCN, 8/28/00), but rather on species requirements. These requirements are often rather different, and in many cases may adequately protect wildlife yet not safeguard at all our concepts of wildness.


Such a major revision of strategy, however, takes courage. It will require admitting that in many ways the opposition is also right, and that many of their goals deserve equal consideration.


I think the sacrifice people find so hard to make is to give up the moral high ground, of "speaking for the wolf." The Great Old Broads for Wilderness have done the environment and our society a fantastic service through their decades of perseverance and up-hill advocacy. But they don't speak for the wolf. The wolf only wants adequate forage, cover and water to survive. Witness Minnesota - the wolf can survive and even expand in a fairly well used and impacted environment.


Be honest, we speak only for ourselves. Wildness is not an essential component of habitat protection; it's merely us anthropomorphizing the wolf, cloaking our selfish desires and goals in a veil of sanctity.


That said, there are many situations where fighting to protect our last remnants of wilderness is indeed the right and just thing. But take a look at the map of the Central Rockies. We are talking tiny, isolated and disconnected pieces.


It is time to replace wilderness as our organizing concept with something bigger and more inclusive of both landscapes and communities. It's also time to recognize that so many people in the rural West feel the loss of our once bountiful environment just as painfully as we - and that they are ripe to join together to find common and workable solutions.





Steve Hinchman
Randolph, Vermont


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