Lost in the wilderness of power politics

  It’s easy enough to get lost in one of the West’s wilderness areas. Just hike off the trail for a half hour, close your eyes and spin around a few times, and you may have no idea where you parked your car. A similar disorientation afflicts anyone trying to navigate the complex thicket of wilderness policy in the early 21st century.

When the Wilderness Act was first passed with bipartisan support in 1964, it seemed a relatively simple affair. The public lands were immense, and cordoning off a small percentage of them from energy development and motorized recreation seemed a small sacrifice.

But over the years, the struggle intensified: After Congress signed off on the most likely wilderness areas, the fight began over the remaining, ever-shrinking roadless lands — especially those unsung lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. In the past decade, precious few BLM wilderness bills have passed. And in the face of increasingly anti-environmental Western delegations, wilderness advocates have found themselves stymied; their large, statewide wilderness bills go nowhere, and in Utah, at least, they’ve been unwilling to broker deals on smaller pieces of the pie.

So they’ve focused on the most visible path still available, pushing the BLM to protect its own roadless lands, using its administrative authority until that joyous day when Congress finally sees the light.

This strategy seemed rock-solid during the Clinton years, when the BLM protected millions of acres identified by citizen activists. Then George W. Bush walked into office. Now, as associate editor Matt Jenkins writes in this issue’s cover story, an administration-orchestrated court settlement has stripped those lands of protection, and the oil and gas industry, spurred on by a politicized BLM, is moving in.

So what’s a wilderness warrior to do? Well, for starters, reflect on some hard truths: Any protection short of a signed wilderness bill is uncertain and ephemeral. At the same time, employing an all-or-nothing strategy means you could get stuck with nothing.

Others should be doing some hard thinking, too. If the BLM had done a thorough job inventorying its lands in the 1980s, as it was directed to do by law, most of the areas now up for grabs would have enough protection to survive until Congress acts. And if the Bush administration truly believes in consensus and collaboration efforts, as assistant Interior secretaries Lynn Scarlett and Rebecca Watson say in their letter to HCN on page 16, then it should abandon its attempt to snatch the BLM lands for industry, and encourage all of the players to work with Congress to come up with viable wilderness proposals. Congress is, after all, supposed to have the final say on wilderness.

But the kind of democratic dialogue that leads to real legislative solutions will never take place as long as we are still lost in the wilderness of power politics.