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
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.
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.
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.