Fighting for forests

 

Arthur Carhart: Wilderness Prophet
Tom Wolf
294 pages, hardcover: $34.95.
University Press of Colorado, 2008.

A fiery conservationist who came of age in the late 1910s, Arthur Carhart had a penchant for highlighting the contradictions in the environmental movement, not to mention the conflicts of interest at the U.S. Forest Service, which employed him at a young age. The disheartening part of reading Wilderness Prophet, Tom Wolf's new biography, is realizing that the problems Carhart shed light on nine decades ago are still damaging our nation's public lands.

Carhart is credited with proposing one of the nation's first wilderness areas, at Trappers Lake in northwest Colorado in 1919. The original idea didn't come to fruition, but the lake received increased protection and spurred Carhart to promote watershed-wide wilderness management to the Forest Service. He battled for sound planning throughout his Forest Service career and against the frantic road-building, timber-harvesting mindset of the agency. "The very future of the nation could fall into decadence, fail, even die, if we do not give the consideration we must to the water wealth and the soil wealth so closely linked to it," Carhart wrote in 1951.

A prolific writer and landscape architect as well, Carhart fought against pandering to special interests, whether ranchers or recreational opportunists. He also decried the failure to include "buffer zones" in wilderness designations, a problem that manifests itself today throughout the West, when wilderness abuts gated trophy homes and paved roads.

Author Tom Wolf invokes the spirit of a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist, firm in his beliefs but never afraid to change them. Carhart, for example, was willing to acknowledge that he erred in supporting the eradication of wolves from Colorado in the 1920s. To the end of his life he criticized the diluted 1964 Wilderness Act, which he believed had been compromised by special interests.

Today, in 2008, more new dams are planned to capture more Western water, and the recent drilling boom is surely not what Carhart envisioned as sound land management. But Carhart, who was never an alarmist, would be at the bargaining table anyway, fighting to save our public lands from becoming logged-out forests, drill-ravaged meadows, and dried-up river beds.