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Know the West

A Wilderness Act skeptic comes out of the closet


Westerners celebrated two birthdays worth noting toward the end of summer, but most paid attention to only one, the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The other was the 50th anniversary of the start of construction of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project in Colorado, which eventually moved a lot of water from the Colorado River Basin to the Arkansas River Basin.

I mention them together because it fits my sense of irony. The Fry-Ark Project, a heavy-duty tampering with natural hydrology in Colorado’s wild headwaters, was about as antithetical to the spirit of the Wilderness Act as one could imagine. Yet had the U.S. Congress not passed the 1962 act creating the project, a Wilderness Act would almost certainly not have been passed as early as 1964. And the West Slope headwaters of the Colorado River tributaries might not have today’s black-and-white division: official designated wildernesses cheek-and-jowl with the intrusive water-collection systems designed for East Slope cities.

I mention this to counter the triumphalist history we heard this summer about what a slam-dunk the “wilderness revolution” was 50 years ago, somehow expressing the will of the vast majority of the people as it gained nearly unanimous votes in Congress, et cetera. That’s is true enough on the surface, but it sweeps under the rug the half-decade of contentious horse-trading that went on inside Congress, and between Congress and the executive departments, as the nation began to negotiate a transition from an “Old West” of aggressive public-land resource development, to an urbanized and industrialized “New West” that would preserve for posterity and recreation the remaining public areas still “untrammeled” by human development and use.

That half-decade leading up to a successful wilderness bill was American democracy at possibly its sausage-making best. It was Congress and executive leaders doing what Congress and executive leaders today seem to have forgotten how to do: After all the bloviating and harrumphing and bullying, they sat down to arm-wrestle their way to compromises that were acceptable enough to all parties. The full story of that process in the early 1960s is too large and complex to relate here; but at the end of it the Old West got more water projects, and the New West got a Wilderness Act.

By the time all that negotiating was completed, the wilderness bill that passed was no longer really “revolutionary”; it was a reasonable evolution of existing public-land law. A new public-land designation was created, but the Old West extractive industries (on which the New West was built) were given 25 years to explore for developable resources in proposed wilderness areas, historic grazing rights were grandfathered in, and the president had executive authority to permit water projects in wilderness areas.

The hardcore wilderness advocates screamed that these compromises would kill the wilderness ideal, but this is hard to substantiate today. That quarter-century of development is long finished, and more than a hundred million acres of the nation’s land are now under wilderness protection. Of course, that’s not enough for some and too much for others. New wilderness will probably be added incrementally, but only if Congress relearns the lost art of working through conflicts to acceptable compromises.

I find that, 50 years later, my own ambivalence about the Wilderness Act is unchanged. On the one hand, I favor almost anything that makes us slow down and think about our presence on our public lands. But I remain bothered by the “First World” piety that infused the wilderness movement from the start -- saving what’s left of Nature from ourselves (and everyone else). How is it not a class movement, by and for the beneficiaries of the richest, most resource-intensive “lifestyles” ever?

Now we’re learning, sadly, that our wilderness areas are as “trammeled” as the rest of the planet by problems that have no respect for boundaries, like air pollution and climate change. Now, voices within the movement are being raised in favor of intervening to “save” the wilderness areas from those unnatural interventions, planting drought- or disease-resistant trees, helping soon-to-be-endangered species by moving them uphill to new habitats, et cetera.

But if Nature is truly better at the planet’s life project than we humans are, as most wilderness advocates claim, why would they dare to propose meddling with ecosystems already adapting naturally? It sounds more than a little Old Westish to me.

George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes about the politics and history of Western water in Gunnison, Colorado.