Wilderness by committee

Federal land protection is all about dealmaking


Several weeks ago, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and nouveau sagebrush rebel, made public an internal Interior Department draft concerning Western places that "may be good candidates for National Monument designation under the Antiquities Act." Bishop was furious, as were many rural Western lawmakers, for in that document they heard echoes of President Bill Clinton's "War on the West," when he used his executive powers to establish new national monuments, placing big chunks of public lands off-limits to gas drilling, off-road vehicles, grazing, coal mining and all kinds of other God-given rights.

On the new list was Cedar Mesa, a big swath of canyon-carved piñon and juniper country in southeastern Utah's San Juan County. It was hardly surprising when the San Juan Record reported that the county commissioners -- who have a long tradition of warring with the feds -- were up in arms. More remarkable was one of their reasons: They didn't want any national monument designation to screw up their own land bill, which would  include new wilderness, believe it or not, right there in San Juan County.

It was enough to give wilderness-lovers hope: If San Juan County could utter the W-word, anyone could. Add to that no less than a half-dozen wilderness proposals that have been introduced or are on their way to Congress, and it seems that greens could make up for some of the time lost during the Bush years, when only about 2 million acres of wilderness were designated, compared to the 9.1 million acres protected under Clinton.

Still, that hope is tempered by some new and harsh realities. These days, if you want to protect an area as wilderness, you'd better be prepared to come to the table and deal with an increasing number of stakeholders, some of whom cynically see wilderness as nothing more than a bargaining chip. And, sadly, there's less land available to fight over. Gone are the days of grand, sweeping wilderness designations.

Take the 379,000-acre Hidden Gems proposal in central Colorado, which was formally proposed this month. In total acreage, Hidden Gems rivals Colorado's biggest wilderness, the Weminuche, which was designated in 1975. (Originally around 400,000 acres, it's now about 500,000 acres.) But the Weminuche is a single, contiguous piece of land, while Hidden Gems is a hodgepodge of 40 modest-sized chunks, surgically sliced out of the landscape to avoid offending anyone. Proponents got some ranchers on board, who asked that even more land be added, although not necessarily from selfless motives: They were hoping to bar mountain bikes and ORVs from their federal grazing allotments. Some mountain bikers oppose the plan, and the American Motorcyclist Association roused its members to protest vehemently; one Web site commenter called Hidden Gems and the like "a genocide against motorized users across America." 

Back in Utah, Republican Sen. Bob Bennett is spearheading the still-nascent San Juan County land bill. He sponsored a similar effort in Washington County that established wilderness -- much of it on already-protected national park land or in wilderness study areas -- in exchange for the selling off of public land. Conservationists were initially furious, but before the deal passed in 2009, they managed to increase the wilderness acreage and decrease the sell-off acreage.

The San Juan County commissioners admit that their newfound green-ness is mostly just an attempt to avert national monument designation. "We knew we had a big target on our backs," says County Commissioner Bruce Adams. "We figured it was better to be proactive than to take a beating." They won't give specifics on what they plan to ask for, but it's clear that it will be worlds away from what the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance proposes as part of its 9.4 million-acre Red Rocks Wilderness roads and proposal. That would cut off dozens of ORV routes --legitimate and otherwise -- something San Juan County won't accept without a fight. They're likely to offer wilderness only if it is "cherry-stemmed" by existing "roads." And some 7,700 miles of county roads criss-cross the landscape, leaving little room for wilderness.

In return, San Juan County says it just wants to be left alone. "Our hope is that once this land bill is accepted by Congress, it will lay to rest any more designations of any kind in San Juan County, Utah," says Adams. "We're not going to expand parks, not going to make any more wilderness areas, not going to close roads, not going to limit access. This is it."

Apr 27, 2010 01:53 PM
How sad will we never see another Frank Church or Bob Marshall wilderness area sized wilderness.
Big Prize
Apr 27, 2010 03:07 PM
The difference between the Hidden Gems and San Juan County is that Colorado already has significant wilderness areas, unlike Utah BLM lands. There are over 1.3 million acres of wilderness proposed in San Juan County - let's hope they get a wilderness bill worthy of this vast and iconic landscape.
Hidden Gems
Pete K
Pete K
Apr 27, 2010 05:21 PM
There is no doubt that Utah has some catching up to do, large tracks of wildlands still vulnerable and unprotected. These lands certainly deserve the statutory protection of Wilderness.

But Colorado's wilderness legacy is also incomplete, and the Hidden Gems proposal would go a long way to filling that gap. Unlike the majority of Wilderness in Colorado, and certainly of the USFS Wilderness, the Hidden Gems would protect critical mid-elevation lands--not the iconic 'rock and ice' wildernesses so familiar to visitors and residents alike. These lands are critical for wildlife. They are closer to our mountain communites--providing close-in backcountry opportunites. That also creates more conflict.

That is the reason most have not yet been designated--unlike much of the rock and ice areas, they have some big trees (coveted by the timber industry), they are closer to the gaspatch and might profit some drillers if they can get into them, they might be near a WUI or near to municipal water facilities. For these reasons the Gems Campaign has spent years negotiating with local communities, fire and water districts, wildlife agencies, and recreational users of all stripes--including those who have knee-jerk opposition to any Wilderness anywhere.

This has led to carefully crafted boundaries and broad support, while still offering a package that protects some of the most special, and ecologically important, mid-elevation lands in the Central Rockies.

The Hidden Gems proposal complements existing Wilderness and helps complete the suite of protected landscapes--from desert canyons to high tundra and majestic peaks--that make Colorado such a great place to live and visit.

Congressman Jared Polis is now considering the proposal for lands in his district (Eagle and Summit counties). It's a good time for wilderness advocates to urge him to introduce and work diligently to pass the Hidden Gems proposal.

To review and learn more about Hidden Gems and the 2nd Congressional District proposal visit www.whiteriverwild.org

Later this year the campaign will be producing similar proposals for Pitkin and Gunnison counties (in the 3rd CD) for consideration.

For disclosure sakes--I work on the Gems campaign.
wilderness vs, national monument vs people vs modes of transportation
Melodee Hallett
Melodee Hallett
Apr 27, 2010 08:06 PM
I have to wonder if all of this differentiation between the different designations is a ruse? I have never seen a wilderness person with enough wilderness. It is as though the animals are now more important than human beings.

I have a sneaking suspicion when eminent domain is implemented and the human beings are herded into the cities with little access to rural areas, commons and resources will be dealt with however the new landlord desires or pays concessions to be allowed for use them. This will be until the next predator with the most money comes along. Preservation for the good of all is the best social engineering lie to get the public off the lands whether on foot/horse/bike/or motor vehicle. Wait until Hank Paulson steps up to the plate with his affiliations with and former CEO on the Nature Conservancy board of directors/governors and ravages the largest land owning organization in the world. Then.... which group will squeal the most? I bet Hank is a hell of chess player.

Apr 27, 2010 09:58 PM
How do National Monument and Wilderness designations keep people off public land? Those designations protect natural and cultural resources, for the benefit of people and animals, and for activities such as hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, boating, and multiple other activities. You can even ride a motorhead toy of choice within many monuments, but, yes, you will have to stay on designated routes. As far as I can tell, wilderness and monument opponents want the freedom to trash FEDERAL lands, that belong to people from Florida to Alaska, without so much as a thought given to other values that exist on the landscape. Most americans don't want our wildlands crisscrossed with roads, mines, clearcuts, and oilpads so a few people can make a quick buck on a short-sighted energy boom. Wilderness and monuments are some of the best places in the nation to experience public land, and they're also very accessable. Although, in some places(wilderness especially and rightfully so) you'll have to use your legs.
reply to reply on wilderness vs monument
Melodee Hallett
Melodee Hallett
Apr 28, 2010 01:38 AM
Theoretically that is how it all should work, but many of us...... and I have been one, have been duped/played by those who use this movement/logic to get the people to do their bidding. Look how long we enjoyed what was supposed to have been put aside for the public by those who originally setup the park system. Those days may be limited. What would you think if all that has been taking place in the wilderness/environmental movement was all preplanned for a century or two and part of a Hegelian dialectic? You will see a day when walking will not be permitted to enjoy the areas you fought to preserve to enjoy on foot. You will see a day when all but the most profitable parks are closed and will be the equivalent of a crowded amusement park. You will have to plan any trips into the woods years in advance because someone else has it booked year and year and you will get what they don't take. The wilderness will be for animals only and the elites who paid for it. There are plenty of examples out there backing up what I am pointing out. What is a few will be the norm sooner than we think.
It's the water!
Felice Pace
Felice Pace
May 05, 2010 11:40 AM
One thing about wilderness (an really any) dealmaking: The results must be judged on their own individual merit. There are good deals and then there are bad deals and the judgement is a matter of the values of those making the judgement.

I find it amazing that in the West we are not yet focusing on what we need to do to protect our water supplies during a period of changing climate. Specifically, how would we mamange our forests and other uplands to maximize water yield during the dry season or, as a hydrologist would put it, how would we manage the uplands to maximize base flow?

Those who depend on increasingly short western water should be asking that question and lobbying for public land management that reflects the answer.

On the JH Andrews experimental forest in the Oregon Cascades they have been monitoring paired watersheds for decades. The monitoring has demonstrated that clearcutting and road building increase flood flow and decrease baseflow. Yet we are still building more roads in the forest and - too often - clearcutting even on public land.

Where I live in Northern California the best baseflows are in streams coming from the wilderness. These streams also have the best water quality and through the refugia they provide they are keeping our salmon runs from going extinct. Wilderness is the best way to protect baseflow and water quality. But closing dirt roads which we have no funds to maintain and protecting the soil from compaction by logging equipment have also bee shown to be effective.
National Monument designation in San Juan County
claire Sheridan
claire Sheridan
May 05, 2010 03:43 PM
As a graduate of San Juan High School, former Miss San Juan County, and a proponent of National Monument designation in SJ Co, I would hope that motorized vehicles of every sort might be limited to roads already in existence. My fondest memories of that wonderful piece of SE Utah include the quiet of the mountain/desert areas, the sound of the wind and the birds. One could hardly contemplate the ancient Anasazi with the sound of motorcycles and four-wheelers in the distance. Please keep the wonder of SJ County as it is without motorized vehicles on anything but roads.