The wild card

As the Wilderness Act nears its 40th anniversary, protecting wild lands requires a new kind of deal-making.

  • THE FACE OF THE FUTURE: The Stratosphere casino and Las Vegas sprawl, set against the backdrop of the La Madre Mountain Wilderness. As growth in the West booms the wilderness is facing tough challenges

    R. Marsh Starks
  • STILL TO BE PROTECTED: Members of the Nevada Wilderness Coalition hike the North Pahrocs in Nevada, which they hope to get protected as wilderness

    Ron Hunter
  • "The Wilderness Act is a real example of democracy at work. It is a citizens' law." - Bart Koehler, Wilderness Support Center

    Matt Jenkins
  • SPEAKING OUT FOR WILDERNESS: Oregonians spent 20 years trying to protect Opal Creek, before finally succeeding in getting it designated as wilderness in 1996

    Elizabeth Feryl
  • "Now, with places like the Muddy Mountains Wilderness, you can point to them and say, 'That's what we're talking about.' " - Jeremy Garncarz, Friends of Nevada Wilderness

    Matt Jenkins
  • The successes in Nevada rest with "our willingness to do things incrementally." - John Wallin, Nevada Wilderness Project

    Matt Jenkins
  • HARD-EARNED: The new Lime Canyon Wilderness, an hour-and-a-half drive from Las Vegas

    Matt Jenkins

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Walking through the gaming floor of the Stratosphere casino is like navigating the inside of a pinball machine. The clang-clang-clang of slot jackpots rings in the air as grandmothers pump video poker machines full of quarters; cocktail waitresses bounce between blackjack tables with trays of Budweiser and gin and tonics. Jeremy Garncarz and I weave through the crowd and cram into an elevator full of tourists for the ride to the top of the 1,149-foot-tall Stratosphere tower.

On the way up, two coiffured women chatter about their plans for the evening: a trip to the all-male Australian strip show over at the Excalibur called "Thunder from Down Under." One of the women cracks a joke about "southern exposure" that makes her husband turn crimson.

When we pile out onto the observation deck, we’re hit with the harsh glare of the January sun and the hum of air-tour helicopters wheeling past the tower. Below us, the city spreads wide. The palm-lined Strip and its powerhouse casinos shimmer in the sun: Treasure Island, the Mirage, Caesars Palace, Bellagio, the Excalibur, the Luxor and Mandalay Bay. Beyond them, the city reaches all the way to the desert mountains that edge the Las Vegas Valley.

This has to be the most optimistic place in the nation. Vegas is a city that beats the odds: Its boosters have taken a patch of desert and built a sprawling, decadent paradise. Today, the city announces its triumph with neon casino marquees and opulent water fountains.

And it seems like the last place a public-lands wilderness advocate would make camp. But Garncarz, who wears a week’s worth of stubble and is an organizer for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, has brought me here because this is where conservationists grinded out a gutsy wilderness victory last year. The day after the 2002 elections gave Republicans control over Congress, President George W. Bush signed a bill into law protecting 452,000 acres of roadless land, much of it ringing Las Vegas like numbers on a roulette wheel.

The victory has taken on symbolic overtones for the long-suffering wilderness movement. As the Wilderness Act nears its 40th anniversary, the movement to protect the nation’s last wild lands seems to have stalled out, and the results of last November’s elections read to some like a death notice. Yet Nevada’s wilderness gain points out that even in a political desert, the heart of the wilderness movement still beats, although with a different cadence than in the glory days of the past.

I’ve come with a lot of questions. And as Garncarz begins walking me around this perch, high over the fastest-growing city in the nation, I begin to get some answers.

A people’s movement lands on the rocks

For conservationists, wilderness is the holy grail of public-lands protection. Ask one, and she’ll probably rattle off a few lines from the 1964 Wilderness Act — lines about places "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain," places where you’ll find "outstanding opportunities for solitude."

Of course, one person’s holy grail is another’s holy hell, and this is as true for wilderness areas as anyplace; there are no roads allowed in wilderness areas, or cars or four-wheelers or other forms of "mechanical transport." This makes the timber and mining industries, the off-road crowd, and even some mountain bikers a little uncomfortable.

But like it or not, the push to protect wilderness is a people’s movement. Today, there are 662 wilderness areas in the U.S., encompassing more than 106 million acres. How it came to be that way is a story of visionary Americans, hard work and thousands of unsung citizen activists in every corner of the country.

"The Wilderness Act is a real example of democracy at work. It is a citizens’ law," says Bart Koehler, a graying, robust 54-year old wilderness veteran, who stands with a logger’s pitched-forward stance. "People can come together, draw up proposals to protect their public lands, and petition their members of Congress. And they, in a very real sense, shape the future of their country."

A few weeks before my trip to Vegas, I visited Koehler at The Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Support Center in Durango, Colo. The Center, incongruously located on the fourth floor of the only high-rise in town, serves as a logistical home base for numerous local groups around the country. Maps were tacked up all over the walls, and stacks of paper overflowed from Koehler’s desk onto the floor and even his chair. It hinted at the work it takes to transform a wilderness vision into a political strategy.

Koehler worked as a field organizer for The Wilderness Society in Wyoming during the 1970s, helping to form local groups and build the confidence and skills of local leaders, and making trips to Washington, D.C., to testify in front of Congress. It was gritty, on-the-ground work.

"We all took perverse pride in how many miles we put on our beat-up cars," he said, "driving VW bugs with nothing but cheeseburger wrappers and empty beer cans in the back."

In 1972, the Lincoln-Scapegoat Wilderness in Montana became the first citizen-proposed wilderness to be officially protected. The late ’70s brought others, like Gospel Hump in Idaho and Sandia Peak outside Albuquerque. And later, the Forest Service and BLM included innumerable other citizen-proposed wilderness areas in their recommendations to Congress.

In 1994, Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act, protecting nearly 3.5 million acres of land as wilderness. It was the largest wilderness bill in the Lower 48 ever, but it was also the last major wilderness bill to see a president’s desk. Later that same year, elections brought the "Gingrich Revolution," when Republicans, led by Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, took control of the Senate and ended the Democrats’ 40-year domination of the House. The wilderness push hit a rock wall.

"When Gingrich came in, it was a rude awakening," said Koehler. "We had to devote more attention to playing hard-core defense."

Wilderness activists dug in, fighting timber, mining and energy companies that wanted to cut into roadless areas. Some groups, such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance — which had crafted a proposal to protect 9.1 million acres statewide — held their ground, trying to keep their grass roots energized and a national constituency informed, until that magical day in Congress arrived when they could actually pass a bill. Others, like The Wilderness Society, put more energy and funding into helping grassroots groups, knowing that local support was crucial in passing wilderness bills in a Republican-dominated Congress. In 1999, the society set up the Wilderness Support Center, with offices in Durango and Washington, D.C., and staffed it with Koehler and other wilderness warhorses.

By 2001, the political outlook seemed to improve slightly. Bush was in the White House, but Democrats held a slim majority in the Senate and seemed to be gaining ground in the House. Even some Republican congressmen, such as Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado, were willing to consider small wilderness bills.

In a focused push, the Pew Charitable Trusts spent more than a million dollars a year on public opinion surveys and national media campaigns to build support for wilderness. There was more money, more dedicated organizers and even a lot of ballyhoo about a "wilderness renaissance" — but the bald fact was that, although a few small bills squeaked through Congress, no major wilderness legislation passed (HCN, 3/3/03: Peaks and valleys).

Then came the election of 2002, which solidified Republican control of Congress just as the Bush administration stormed into the third year of an aggressive offensive against the environment. A huge cloud rolled over the prospects for more wilderness, and I rolled into Durango with a stack of questions. After I talked with Koehler, I headed down the hill to the Durango office of Campaign for America’s Wilderness. There, I found executive director Mike Matz, the intense former director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Last summer, the group, primarily funded by Pew, announced a crusade to get 50 million acres of wilderness designated over the next 10 years, focusing primarily on Alaska, California, Idaho, Nevada and Utah.

But two weeks after the election, an obviously dispirited Matz sat in a nearly empty room with a TV propped up in one corner, keeping a desultory eye on C-SPAN the entire time I was there. Talking to him felt like poking a dead cat with a stick.

"When we initially designed the list of (wilderness protection) priorities, it was under a much different set of assumptions," he said, explaining that he’d hoped the Democrats would hold onto the Senate and gain ground in the House. "We thought, if anything, the (political) lay of the land would get better. Now, everything’s on the table."

Compromise ties wilderness to its antithesis

On the national level, things have rarely looked so grim for wilderness, but on the ground, people are getting creative. And that’s why Jeremy Garncarz, the Friends of Nevada Wilderness organizer, has brought me to the top of the Stratosphere.

Garncarz walks me around the observation platform, past vacationing twenty-something couples posing for snapshots, and points beyond the city skyline to the new Rainbow Mountain Wilderness, the La Madre, the Muddies, the North and South McCulloughs, and the Mount Charleston wilderness expansion.

"The majority of people (who come to Vegas) put their quarters in the slot machines and stick to the city," says Garncarz, a compact 32-year-old, who seems to be fueled solely by coffee. "But now, with places like the Muddy Mountains Wilderness, you can point to them and say, ‘That’s what we’re talking about.’ " The new areas are puny compared to giants such as the million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana and the 558,000-acre Gila in New Mexico, but they’re a symbolic advance in a city — and state — where wilderness has long been something of a pariah. Nevada — which has more federally managed land than any other state except Alaska — ranks ninth of the 11 Western states in percentage of designated wilderness, with only about 3 percent, compared to California’s 13.3 percent.

These new wilderness areas are even more remarkable, because Nevada has the fastest-growing population in the nation. In 2000-2001, the state grew by 5.4 percent; Clark County, home of Las Vegas, grew by 6.6 percent. The demographics are incredibly unstable: For every three people who move to Las Vegas each month, one moves out. "Most of the folks who live here don’t get involved (in environmental issues)," laughs Garncarz. "It’s Las Vegas: They have a lot of other things on their minds."

So how, in this atmosphere, did Nevada wilderness groups get a bill passed? In many ways, the story followed the traditional trajectory of many other citizens’ wilderness proposals. Formed in 1999, the grassroots Nevada Wilderness Project began scouring the Mojave Desert of southern Nevada, using volunteers and paid field teams to identify 4.1 million acres of roadless land. Then, the Project and the Friends of Nevada Wilderness banded with five other conservation groups to form the Nevada Wilderness Coalition, and set out to build support for wilderness protection.

Most of the support came from urban areas such as Las Vegas and Reno. They also found some unlikely allies, such as the last public-lands rancher in Clark County, a straight-talking guy named Cal Baird, who wears a black hat and runs 150 head of Mexican corriente roping cattle about 30 miles south of Las Vegas.

The support of locals like Baird helped the cause, but they still needed political help from on high. "And in Nevada," says John Wallin, a former Patagonia mail-order manager who directs the nonprofit Wilderness Project, "it begins and ends with Senator (Harry) Reid."

Reid, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate and the anchor of the Nevada delegation, is a staunch wilderness supporter (HCN, 9/28/98: A senator for the New West in the race of his life). But he understood better than anyone that in wilderness, as in Nevada, you can’t win big without some wheeling and dealing. Getting the proposal through Congress would require a tactical departure from the classic wilderness formula. It would require tying wilderness protection to its antithesis: urban growth.

When Reid first proposed this, conservationists balked. In 2000, Congress was considering a bill that transferred 6,500 acres of BLM land to Clark County for the planned Ivanpah Airport, about 30 miles south of the city. Reid approached the Wilderness Coalition about using the airport bill as a vehicle for a wilderness designation for the North and South McCullough mountains. They turned up their noses, saying they didn’t want wilderness tied to the massive airport bill.

A year later, however, Vegas was running up against the public lands surrounding the city. The BLM had been steadily auctioning off land to accommodate spreading suburbs, but the city was fast approaching a congressionally established growth boundary. So in 2001, the Nevada delegation drew up a bill for Clark County which, among other things, would expand the BLM "disposal boundary," allowing Vegas to sprawl across another 22,000 acres.

Once again, Reid made it known to wilderness activists that he could get something done for them — if they were willing to cut a deal. And this time, wilderness activists saw the writing on the wall. "We have to be realistic and admit that a lot of these (development bills) are inevitable," says Brian O’Donnell, one of Koehler’s compatriots at the Wilderness Support Center, who worked closely with the Nevada wilderness activists. "Can we (take advantage of them to) make protections for threatened land, or do we say ‘no’ and get rolled?"

The Nevada Wilderness Coalition pared down its 4.1 million-acre proposal to just over a tenth of its original size and polished it up, proposing 17 new BLM, Forest Service and Park Service wilderness areas, and one wilderness expansion, totaling 452,000 acres. It then took its message to farmers’ markets, the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus, and music and beer festivals, ultimately generating 5,000 letters to Nevada’s congressmen. Garncarz and Wallin even made a tongue-in-cheek attempt to get the local brothels to sign on.

Campaign for America’s Wilderness helped with organizing and public outreach, and the Wilderness Support Center’s O’Donnell and Koehler shuttled back and forth between Durango and Vegas to offer guidance through legislative tangles, crash-ing out at night at Garncarz’s apartment.

"The all-time record was 13 people," says Wallin. "The last person was sleeping on the kitchen floor with his head against the stove."

But even with this relatively small proposal, getting the cooperation of Nevada’s congressional delegation required compromise. As a concession to the hunting community, the bill included a condition allowing the Nevada Division of Wildlife to use trucks and helicopters in the wilderness to survey and capture wildlife and to maintain "guzzlers" — artificial watering holes.

The state’s other senator, Republican John Ensign, co-sponsored Reid’s bill, but Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons added language to his House version that would have "hard released" 180,000 acres of roadless land not included in the wilderness areas — making them permanently ineligible for subsequent consideration as wilderness.

It would have been the first wilderness bill ever passed with hard-release language, and that, says O’Donnell, "is not something that we would have compromised on."

Gibbons finally dumped the hard-release provision, but insisted that the bill not assign the new wilderness areas a federal water right. The bill passed the House on Oct. 17 and was approved by the Senate the following day. And on the day after the November elections, President Bush signed it into law.

"If I were the king, I would have lots of wilderness," says Reid. "(But) I had to compromise."

"Galactic" differences within the movement

The Nevada wilderness bill was a hard-won bargain that tempered idealism with realism — and it’s a sign of the times for the wilderness movement, which can either move forward incrementally, or risk grinding to a complete standstill. Among the groups that have been successful in getting wilderness passed recently, there’s been a return to the movement’s local, democratic roots. There is also a growing skepticism of the huge wilderness proposals that some critics believe have seen their day. Wallin says there’s a "galactic" difference between the mega-wilderness approach and the go-local style that ultimately worked in Nevada.

Jeff Widen, the associate director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, who worked on the massive 1994 California Desert Protection Act, says big-ticket bills are good "because (they) hold out the bigger vision of things. But the political realities dictate that the packages we’re going to move are going to be smaller ones.

"We can pass wilderness bills forever, as long as we talk about places and not acres," says Widen. "If you have a whole bunch of areas together, it makes it harder to talk about the specifics of individual areas and work out compromises."

But any talk of compromise bothers some wilderness advocates. "We’re glad that the wilderness system is growing and that people are able to get new areas added," says George Nickas, the head of the Missoula, Mont.-based Wilderness Watch. "The concern is that there were also a lot of special provisions added to the bill that make it so (the new areas in Nevada) are managed as something less than wilderness as it’s defined under the Wilderness Act."

Nickas fears that concessions in the Clark County bill — such as those made for hunters — are the small end of a wedge: "Every time we make another (exception to the rules), we diminish what wilderness is."

Nickas’ broader agenda is to push wilderness to its purest ideal. Wilderness Watch fights to remove cabins and airstrips grandfathered into wilderness areas around the West — and to generally undo many of the concessions made in the process of designating wilderness.

But Widen says that compromise has been a constant theme in the wilderness movement: "It’s always been about really working with people and coming up with something that is less than perfect, but is awfully damn good."

Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness and Montana’s Great Bear, for example, have active backcountry airstrips, while other wilderness areas hold installations such as microwave towers. The boundaries of the proposed Wild Sky Wilderness in Washington State have been adjusted to allow snowmobiles in some areas, and the proposal would allow float-plane landings, as well.Concessions like these have long been used to get locals to back wilderness protection, and some activists argue that Nickas’ hard-line approach could undermine the chance to protect areas in the future. Right now, for example, Wilderness Watch is trying to force the BLM to crack down on ranchers who run cattle in the Steens Mountain Wilderness in Oregon, designated in 2000. In return for supporting wilderness protection, ranchers were permitted to graze cattle in parts of the wilderness, and they’re allowed to drive into the area to check fences and stock tanks. Wilderness Watch forced the BLM to conduct an environmental assessment on the impacts of the occasional trips.

"Wilderness Watch wants to formalize what’s always been done on a handshake," says Andy Wiessner, a Vail, Colo., attorney — and member of the HCN board of directors — who has helped Steens ranchers swap land inside the wilderness for BLM land outside. "Some compromise has to be made with ranchers so their life isn’t going to be micromanaged."

Bart Koehler agrees that, occasionally, concessions have to be made to protect wild places. He rings a theme of considered pragmatism. "The way we approach this stuff is what I half-jokingly call ‘coyote planning.’ You’re on the ridgeline looking at the big picture, but you’ve got your eyes and ears open looking for opportunities — and if a rabbit runs in front of you, you pounce on it."

The spirit lives

And even in these dark political days, opportunities do come along. Last year, Coloradans got the James Peak Wilderness near Rocky Mountain National Park, Californians got 56,880 acres of wilderness expansion along the Pacific Coast at Big Sur, and South Dakotans saw the Black Elk Wilderness expanded (HCN, 8/19/02: Bikers waffle on wilderness). The common theme: Each of these areas was small, and came with strong local support.

And as the new Congress gets to work, there are prospects for moving forward. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has reintroduced her bill for the 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness. The bill passed the Senate last year, but the clock ran out on it in the House. An hour’s drive east of Seattle, the proposed wilderness is notable for including lowland forest as well as the traditional high-elevation terrain (HCN, 1/20/03: Wild Sky Wilderness could be downsized).

Another bill with some legs is the California Wild Heritage Act, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., which proposes 2.5 million acres of new wilderness. Boxer will introduce it for the second time this year, but she still has yet to pass a crucial hurdle: getting support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who sponsored the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. Feinstein is still gathering feedback from locals who could be affected by the wide-ranging bill.

And around the West, grassroots activists continue to scour the landscape. In Nevada, the wilderness movement’s old VW-driving esprit lives on. Last year, Jeremy Garncarz put 30,000 miles on his 4Runner — mapping potential wilderness, attending meetings, delivering slide shows at local garden clubs — and occasionally, even getting out to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

While I’m in Vegas, Garncarz and John Wallin take me out for a night at the new Lime Canyon Wilderness north of Lake Mead. On the way out of town, we stop for food, and two cases of beer and a bottle of gin. As we wait in the checkout line, Garncarz quips over his shoulder about "keeping Nevada wild."

The new wilderness is spectacular. Beyond the smog-tinged city, the Mojave Desert is a sensuous landscape of rocky desert ranges tipped toward the sky and sweeping bajadas dotted with Joshua trees, yucca and creosote bush. The sun hangs high over the rugged desert terrain.

"Jeremy and I take a weird delight that it’s f---in’ Sodom and Gomorrah surrounded by all these beautiful places," says Wallin.

As we pass the bottle that night, the two wilderness warriors tell me their next focus is eastern Nevada, where they hope to finish an inventory of potential wilderness later this spring.

Sen. Reid’s office has made it clear that there’s plenty of potential for more wilderness in Nevada — but its protection will be inextricably linked to development. In February, the state’s congressional delegation held field hearings in rural Lincoln and White Pine counties to assess the potential for development bills similar to last year’s Clark County bill.

"Eastern Nevada will be tougher," says Wallin. But he says the group’s success rests with "our willingness to do things incrementally. There are so many public-lands issues here, and we see each one as an opportunity (to include) wilderness."

As an endless stream of jetliners sail overhead on their final approach to the Las Vegas airport, I ask Garncarz and Wallin if, even in the new wilderness areas, they feel like they can really ever escape the presence of Las Vegas. Garncarz thinks for a minute and says, "Yeah, sure. But no matter where you are, you can always see the light from the Luxor." Sure enough, the southern sky is shot through with a brilliant bluish beam from the 40-billion candlepower spotlight atop the pyramid-shaped, Egyptian-themed Luxor casino.

There’s an old maxim in the wilderness movement that argues for a sense of balance: For every acre that’s sold off and developed, or opened up for oil and gas drilling, some wilderness should be protected to compensate. Now, it seems that precept has been turned on its head: Protecting an acre of wilderness means surrendering another acre — or five acres, or 10 — to development. I can’t help but wonder about this wilderness on the ragged urban fringe, hemmed in by ATV tracks and the nighttime glitter of growth pressing into the desert. It seems a world away from the classic wilderness of John Muir’s high Sierra where, he wrote, "everything in it seems equally divine — one smooth, pure, wild glow of Heaven’s love."

And a question lingers, one which hangs behind the entire wilderness movement as it pushes into the 21st century: Is this fringe wilderness really wild? An answer, of sorts, comes two nights later, back in a motel room in Las Vegas. I’m jolted awake by sudden shouting in the street outside my motel room window and a flurry of sirens screaming down Flamingo Road. Within minutes, a police helicopter takes up a tight orbit over the motel.

When the sun comes up, hours later, Vegas is sleeping off another long night. And as I drive out of town in the morning light, past the advancing edge of the city and into the wide desert, I realize that this wilderness is more important than ever. And more than ever, the movement to protect our last wild places demands the same brand of boundless optimism that lies at the heart of Vegas’ strike-it-rich allure.

I can’t help but think about what Bart Koehler had told me when I visited him in Durango. "If you’re a pessimist, you shouldn’t be working on this," he said. "You have to be a die-hard optimist."

Matt Jenkins is an assistant editor for High Country News.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Wilderness on the move

- Peaks and valleys: Protected wilderness by year

- Wilderness provides a ‘safe haven’ for this cowboy

- Off-roaders torpedo a wilderness alternative

You can contact ...

      Nevada Wilderness Project, 702/784-0622 or 775/746-7850,;
      Friends of Nevada Wilderness, 702/650-6542 or 775/324-7667,;
      Wilderness Support Center, 970/247-8788,;
      Campaign for America’s Wilderness, 202/544-3691,;
      Or, for Radio High Country News programs, log on to and select Wilderness.
    To learn more about the National Wilderness Preservation System, visit

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