Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, The Great Basin: America's wasteland seeks a new identity.
"The Great Basin is a landscape that has always called to my soul," says Dave Foreman. "Nowhere do we see better classic wilderness than in the Great Basin."
A founder and leader of Earth First! in the 1980s, Foreman has been "dreaming big wilderness' for a long time. He was a southwest field representative and lobbyist for The Wilderness Society in the 1970s. But he traces his passion for the Great Basin back to the year he spent in kindergarten at Stead Air Force Base near Reno.
In The Big Outside, his 1989 catalog of roadless areas in the United States, Foreman chastised Nevada's "homegrown wilderness preservationists' for being a "timid lot." But last summer, when he returned to the Great Basin as chairman of the Wildlands Project, an effort to expand wilderness throughout North America, Foreman found regional wilderness advocates eager for action. Together they mapped a "wilderness vision" for the Great Basin that would put most of the region within wilderness areas.
"It's difficult to see what not to include," says Roger Scholl, a Reno resident and longtime proponent of wilderness in Nevada. "It could all be wilderness, excluding Reno, Las Vegas, the gold mines, the I-80 corridor."
Marge Sill, federal lands coordinator for the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club in Reno, concurs. "I like the idea of taking it all and making people corridors. We need to think big."
The Wildlands Project tries to link the quest for wilderness with conservation biology, the science of preserving biological diversity. "Present reserves - parks, wildernesses, refuges - exist as discrete islands of nature in a sea of human modified landscape," says the group's statement of purpose. "The mission of the Wildlands Project is to help protect and restore the ecological richness and native biodiversity of North America through the establishment of a connected system of reserves."
"I don't think we can protect the whole range of biodiversity except with big wilderness," says Foreman.
This view is fiercely opposed by ranchers, miners and off-road vehicle users. But it is also quietly criticized by some conservation biologists. They say the project's vision of core areas of wilderness connected by wildlife corridors doesn't fit a region where each valley and mountain range is a separate island ecosystem.
The wildlands model is "one solution applied to the whole country," says Dick Tracy, a biologist with the Nevada Biodiversity Initiative. We need many, he says.
Others argue that the battle over wilderness designations has polarized the region and resulted in a stalemate. Dick Carter, coordinator of the Utah Wilderness Association, says reliance on the "silver bullet" of wilderness designation is a "last gasp" strategy. "Designation of wilderness is almost counterproductive to the long-term issues of ecosystem integrity," he says. Acknowledging that it may "scare the hell out of most environmentalists," Carter says he favors "ecosystem management in the context of regional or local community-based efforts."