Wilderness Watch upholds the law

  Dear HCN,
I am deeply disappointed in HCN’s misrepresentation of the mission and efforts of Wilderness Watch (HCN, 3/3/03: The Wild Card). Contrary to what was reported, Wilderness Watch does not work to undo any special provisions that were "grandfathered" by Congress into wilderness legislation. The Wilderness Act itself allows a number of special exceptions to occur in wilderness — we don’t lobby to change those. The truth is that our focus is on preventing degradation of existing wilderness qualities and challenging numerous illegal activities and construction projects in wilderness nationwide. As just one example, the article says that "Wilderness Watch fights to remove cabins grandfathered into wilderness areas around the West." We did fight to remove three lodges illegally built along the Wild Salmon River in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. They weren’t "grandfathered" in legislation as the article states, and a federal judge agreed.

Wilderness Watch strongly encourages the agencies to comply with the law in managing the public’s wilderness, not circumvent it behind closed doors based on verbal "deals." Such closed-door deals are undemocratic and often result in illegal and incompatible activities taking place within wilderness.

For example, it has never been legal for citizens — including ranchers — to drive motor vehicles in wilderness based on a "handshake" with some bureaucrat. Wilderness is intended to be a place that is free of motor vehicles. The only exceptions to this are if it is absolutely necessary in order to protect some aspect of the wilderness resource, or if an entity holds a valid existing right for motorized access, but in every case the environmental impacts of that access must be disclosed and the public allowed an opportunity to comment.

Turning a blind eye to ranchers, miners and loggers on public lands was supposed to have ended a generation or two ago. Decades of scientific research reveal that, system-wide, our wildernesses are less wild and more degraded than they were 20 years ago. Bills that call for new developments in wilderness or permit incompatible activities — like routine vehicle use — to continue will accelerate this downward trend.

George Nickas
Missoula, Montana

The writer is executive director of Wilderness Watch.
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