'Paying for wilderness' undermines environmental goals

  In covering wilderness campaigns, HCN has invited us to party with Nevada "wilderness warriors" (HCN, 3/3/03: Wild Card); watch a rancher in Owyhee County, Idaho, kill a rattlesnake (HCN, 12/8/03: Riding the middle path); and learn the personal philosophies of the central players in Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds proposal (HCN, 11/22/04: Conservationist in a Conservative Land). The stories offer testimonials to "common ground" found between conservationists and their traditional foes, and painstakingly describe the calculations of a new breed of wilderness negotiators. But in choosing to personalize the story, you largely fail to discuss what is at stake for the public lands.

The new proposals mark a huge shift in wilderness protection strategy and carry far-reaching implications. In the new paradigm, wilderness is "paid for" through the sacrifice (sale, trade, disposal) of other, supposedly less desirable public lands; relinquishment of federal water rights; myriad development schemes; and new mechanisms for local control over federal lands. To speed land giveaways and development, the new bills waive environmental laws that activists — including the wilderness groups — are fighting to uphold elsewhere.

Whenever "we" go along with a waiver of this or that formerly precious environmental statute; whenever we go along with the disposal of just a bit more public land as a quid pro quo to save aesthetically superior wilderness; whenever we engage in backslapping with politicians like Rep. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Rep. James Gibbons, R-Nev., we are sanctioning more of the same and helping them raise the threshold (and political price) for public lands protection. We are undermining our own goals — or at least the goals that we used to share before rampant pragmatism took over.

Janine Blaeloch
Seattle, Washington