Why I say "no" to a regional wilderness bill


Wyoming folks are cantankerous souls, with independent notions about where they can go and what they ought to be able to do when they get there.  We love wild country, but a lot of us also love our four-wheelers, snowmobiles and four-wheel drive pickups. We don't have anything against drilling, logging or grazing on the public lands, as long as it's done right and doesn't screw up our hunting and fishing. We take a very Western "live and let live" philosophy to the management of our public lands, just as long as the activities of the few do not mess it up for the rest.

The trouble comes when someone who's not from around here challenges that live-and-let-live belief and misunderstands the nuances of how we think. Let me cite as an example the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act currently being considered in the U.S House of Representatives. This legislation is sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York City. Rep. Maloney represents the 14th District in New York, which takes in the east side of Manhattan, Astoria, a neighborhood in Queens, and Roosevelt Island.

Rep. Maloney seems passionate about wilderness in the West. She says that the Rockies are America's living national treasure, and we must do everything possible to save the pristine area for our children. She says that her bill is ecosystem-driven legislation that will preserve the Rockies by designating over 24 million acres of wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, wildland recovery areas and corridors that link biologically similar areas on public lands in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.

Those sound like pretty good things, in general. But the details are a little different. If you were to visit the Bridger-Teton National Forest along the Wind River front -- places like Scab Creek or Fremont Lake or Half Moon Lake -- you would be in a wilderness area if Maloney's bill passed. The Wyoming Range, a place that so many of us fought so hard for in the last few years, would be mostly wilderness. The Salt River Range, the Hoback, the Gros Ventre, Green River Lakes and other areas would be included as well. The bottom line is about 5 million acres of new wilderness in Wyoming.

Personally, I'm a big fan of wilderness. I hunt and fish in a wilderness area every year. I hike and ride horses (and sometimes get bucked off mules) in wilderness areas in Wyoming every year. My children and grandchildren do the same. The organization I work for supports wilderness designation for some places. Our members value the solitude and the freedom and the beauty of Wyoming's wilderness areas. Many of us have worked hard to establish those areas and taken good care of them for many years. But neither I nor my organization supports the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.

Why? We think it's a bad bill. It fails to consider the wants and needs of the people who live, work and play in the areas it affects. And it's a bad bill because it paints western Wyoming's national forests with a broad brush, saying essentially that if it's inside the forest boundary it should be wilderness. No reasonable person in Wyoming would consider Fremont Lake a wilderness area. No reasonable person in Wyoming would create a wilderness area in the Salt River Range that extended all the way to the forest boundary east of Afton. No reasonable person in Wyoming would take vast areas of multiple-use lands and put them into wilderness management with so little regard for the people most affected by that decision.

But perhaps more important, no reasonable person in Wyoming would take thousands of Wyoming families off the lands where they hunt, fish, camp, ride and hike. That simply isn't right. What's more, it isn't smart. At a time when we need more supporters for the future of wildlife and wild lands, it turns these families into opponents of the idea. If there was ever a time when wilderness buffs like me and folks who just want to be able to park their trailer and ride their four-wheelers need to be on the same side, it's now.

It's possible that we need more wilderness areas in some places in Wyoming. If so, we're capable of deciding where they should be. We don't need Rep. Maloney to tell us.

Walt Gasson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

"me", "mine", "not yours"
Brian Ertz
Brian Ertz
Jun 04, 2009 10:03 PM
NREPA was developed and supported by local westerners, its sponsorship involves a broader support for the bill of others who do not live here, but have just as much a right to weigh in on federal lands issues as anyone else. That local western politics is mired and largely dominated by industry at odds with true wilderness (as opposed to quid pro quo big "W"ilderness bills) just mean that advocates of wilderness need to broaden the interest & involvement - these lands belong to us all, to our kids - that's part of what makes them so great. Walt Gasson's childish opinion ("me", "mine", "not yours") gets at the heart of western natural resource issues - especially those on federal public lands. These guys believe they have a god-given, exclusive right to weigh in more heavily on landscapes that belong to us all than others, who they claim as less interested or more distant from the landscape itself.

Federal public land management benefits all when more people are involved in the conversation - not fewer.

Additionally, when "local" supremacists like Gasson say "local" - they never mean the locals that helped put NREPA together, they don't even really mean "local" at all. What they're saying is that the same extractive, uneconomical, and dying industries, industries that have been drawing huge federal subsidies - from all of us, federal dollars - to imbue & inflate artificial significance into the very commercial pursuits that they hide behind, ought have more say than you. They've been pretending that our federal lands belong exclusively to them for decades, and that they ought be the ones to have all the power over how our lands are managed (exploited) and what designation they get. These industries control the state & local government, and you can sure bet they're the ones that'll be hand-picking the participants of any "local" effort. Ironically, somehow when these "local" arrangements take place, strong conservationists who grew up on the landscape and know them as well as anyone else - never make the "local" cut.

Walt, you're wrong - and what you are doing is trying to diminish other peoples' voice - people who have just as much a right over federal issues. We ought be encouraging more people to weight in on our common natural heritage - a public landscape that is an American treasure, not just a Wyoming, Idaho, or Montana treasure. Kids in Vermont, Florida, California, and Stanley Idaho all look to our common public lands with awe - and it'll be a better world when they all speak to it with common interest.

Brian Ertz
Idaho Native (though I'd never wear it on the cuff so much as to claim supremacy of federal land issues)
Jim Thurber
Jim Thurber
Jun 09, 2009 09:04 AM
Brian Ertz, thanks for your cogent and pointed comment on Mr. Gassion's views that Federal lands really belong to him and his ilk, and them alone, to do with as they may and damn the consequences for the resource itself.
these are 'public' lands, so get in line
Mike Kirkpatrick
Mike Kirkpatrick
Jun 09, 2009 08:31 PM

We take a very Western 'live and let live' philosophy to the management of our public lands, just as long as the activities of the few do not mess it up for the rest.


Polluting the air with ATV exhaust is a pretty fair way to 'mess it up for the rest', don't you think? And exactly how many constitute 'the few' these days?

Walt's 'live and let live' philosophy apparently extends only to others of his kind - people who ride snowmobiles or ATV's (or ... really? are 4x4's going be outlawed too? guess i'll have to sell mine) - not to people who visit the national forests for tranquility, non-motorized recreation, or god forbid those second-class nonhuman species that live there. Those squatters will just have to settle for something less than 'let live' so Walt can shoot his guns in the woods with impunity.

I confess that I don't know the areas that Walt is referencing. Maybe they don't deserve protection. I live in a state adjacent to WY, and I know many of these areas well. The argument that out-of-staters (or not-from-around-here'ers) can't introduce legislation to impact public lands is parochial and wrong. Had it not been for outsiders, there would be no public lands at all.

Instead of opposing an entire bill because it was not written by (you), why not contact your representatives and let them know how you'd like it instead? Those reps probably are from around here, and it's their business to advocate for you.

Of course that would require getting your hands dirty.
Read Paul Richards
Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Jun 09, 2009 08:48 PM
Don't know about Wyoming, but it's clear the majority, the VAST majority, of Montanans want this bill.

Per Richards, if big extractive businesses hadn't overused so many of these lands in the first place, maybe this bill wouldn't be needed. But, before the foxes raid the last of the henhouse, some individual nests can still be protected.
Maloney represents this Montanan
Rick Meis
Rick Meis
Jun 09, 2009 10:02 PM
I was a member of the Ranger Rick Club when I was a kid, reading Field and Stream and Outdoor Life. My father was an active member of the local hook and bullet group, and represented Montana hunters and fisherfolk when he testified in favor of the Wilderness Act starting back in the 50's.

Lots has changed, and mostly it is the loss and damage to our public lands, wildlife habitat and fisheries caused by resource extraction and more recently the rampant and well documented abuse of off road vehicle riders. The list of studies and papers on the subject is longer than that trip up the hill dragging the winter's meat.

The closest piece of legislation to the coveted Wilderness Act of 1964 is NREPA. I am proud to count most of the folks who created it as friends. What I cannot understand is why someone who claims to support wilderness, and the concept of wilderness, does not support NREPA?
Why I say "no" to a regional wilderness bill
Jun 11, 2009 11:57 AM
Walt should move to Malibu. The locals there think they own all the public land around them as well. The City recently tried to ban overnight camping within the City limits, including publicly owned land. During the Coastal Commission hearing to decide the matter, one audience member summed up Malibu's (and Walt's as well) attitude as the “arrogance of self-entitlement.”
Why I say no
R. Ragan
R. Ragan
Jun 15, 2009 11:09 PM
There sure are a lot of comments about someone that people don't know. I didn't interprete that Mr. Gasson wanted unregulated extraction to happen, or that he felt that the land belonged to just him and "his Ilk" and them alone.I didn't read there was a supremacy because he knew the piece of ground he was refering to. I thought it was odd that others that comment did. I wasn't trying to read more into what he said than was written. He just doesn't see a reason for people to change how he enjoys the public lands by folks that don't even know where it is.
I do believe there is enough land for folks to find tranquility on public lands if only they take the time to look for it and not "find it" in a guide book.
To me the most arrogant attitude is the one where people tell everyone else how they should enjoy themselves. Hmmm, sounds a bit self rightous, even right wing facist to me. I wonder what people in Manhattan would think if we westerners wanted to remove bicycles and skates from Central park, because it is so beautiful there, and We think such activities support the commercialization of such beauty. Hmmm
Let me intrepret a bit
Aug 04, 2009 04:48 PM
As a Wyoming resident that is familiar with and enjoys the areas that Mr. Gasson mentions in the article. I believe the prevailing concern that people have with this bill is it paints a very broad brush across the western landscape that is not appropriate for all areas, particularly in Wyoming and the areas Mr. Gasson mentions. "Our" concern with out of staters/easterners (i.e. Maloney)/people not familiar with the area or however you want to read it, is just that, they are not familiar with the area and perhaps should have spent some additional time researching and discovering if the proposed areas fit into the categorical definition of "wilderness". Just because an area of land is designated national forest and adjacent to existing designated wilderness does not automatically make it appropriate for wilderness designation.

Wilderness areas are generally located within the middles of national forests to provide a buffer or transition zone for people and wildlife to transition from extremely wild to more developed with roads and "atvs". In an area such as Fremont Lake that is developed with summer residences, a lodge and marina and is only a handful of miles from Pinedale and provides the Town's water supply, there would be little to no buffer area potentially creating enforcement problems among other issues. Additionally it would strongly dampen the local tourism economy, while not huge, is one of only a couple of options we currently have to diversify our economy from the dominant gas industry.

Some of the other areas Mr. Gasson mentions may also directly border
communities and private property with no buffer area. Many of the areas contain substantial amounts of beetle kill which is routinely harvested by fire wood cutters, and reduces the fire probability. If these areas were wilderness obviously chainsaws would not be permitted and the fire danger would dramatically increase in these "buffer areas" and require additional fire suppression.

While I personally feel wilderness is a great resource in this country (which I have enjoyed many times myself), there is a ton of it in this area (Wind River etc), and a diversity of public land designations to match the type/quality of land and historical land uses is more appropriate for this area. (Sublette County (about the size of Connecticut) and is 80% public land).

I also believe if you read in between the lines here, that Mr. Gasson is pointing out "locals" concern about people unfamiliar with wilderness and vast public lands, really loving the concept of wilderness but perhaps not understanding the details/issues that only an individual living/working next to a wilderness would understand. The classic argument of it looks good on paper but practically doesn't work out.

The concept of "ATV's" really just means "access" in areas (like the west) of vast public land that allow differing modes of transportation so people can get out there and "recreate" according to most public lands "charter" and really foster the love of open spaces and preserved areas that a "wilderness" is and really should be. The fact is most Americans will never visit a wilderness area, because it is too difficult to access. There should be sufficient areas left where all people can access so they may come to appreciate "wilderness" because it is not for everyone.

And if your for this bill because your against extraction industries check out the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which doesn't designate wilderness but prevents extraction. There's more ways to accomplish goals here than with just wilderness designation.
Wilderness NREPA
Aug 05, 2009 11:38 AM
Huh most americans wont visit wilderness areas because they're so hard to acess. I've visited numerous wilderness areas where you can drive within 300 feet of the boundary. That may be too much walking for some people but I would call that extremly acessible. Most americans not visitng wilderness is rather a cultural issue. Americans who only watch t.v. and hate the outdoors, but also the many rural local western americans who grew up outside vast wilderness areas, yet have never visited them and hate them becuase that is the local attitude. I'm proud to say I personally know of many local westerners who hated the big W before going into these areas and came out loving their experience.
NREPA was open to compromise but ardent wing nuts like Rehrberg have made it as usual a bs outsiders messing with the west issue.
As others have already states NREPA was created in MT for MT and the rest of the northern rockies. Now we have some weak, corrupt logging bill from tester posing as a "fair compromise" yet releases roadless and WSA's for destruction. Only roulghy 10% of wilderness quality lands in MT are protected a 90-10 split is not fair.

Anyone who truly supported wilderness would've been for NREPA and would be willing to re-draw the lines over issues like fire wood cutting etc.

Wilderness NREPA
Aug 05, 2009 11:42 AM
If wilderness is not for you and your in the northern rockies then you should go somewhere less wild because this is the only wild area we have left in the lower 48.

If you cant handle yourself in wild country then go to Colorado.