“W” in 2004: Taking stock of wilderness at 40

  • The White River proposed wilderness in northeast Utah

    Steve Mulligan photo courtesy Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

As the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approaches, this Sept. 3, there is an overwhelming temptation to talk about iconic places like the John Muir Wilderness in California or the Bob Marshall in Montana. But out in the middle of a worked-over oil and gas patch south of Vernal, Utah, lies a place that serves as a better emblem of the wilderness movement today.

In 1985, a local doctor named Will Durant, an oil and gas driller named Doug Hatch, and a machinist named Clay Johnson gathered around Hatch’s kitchen table to work out a wilderness proposal for the White River. The three wrote out a plan that covered 9,700 acres of spectacular river canyon that the landlord, the federal Bureau of Land Management, had never leased for oil and gas development (HCN, 1/19/04: Two decades of hard work, plowed under).

But the proposal has led a star-crossed life. By the 1990s, with Utah politicians becoming increasingly anti-wilderness, the local Uintah Mountain Club turned for help to the Salt Lake City-based heavyweight Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. SUWA expanded the White River proposal to about 19,000 acres and inserted it deep into the 9.1-million-acre statewide wilderness proposal it was trying to sell to a national constituency over the heads of the Utah congressional delegation.

Much of the newly added land was already leased for drilling by a consortium of oil and gas companies. But for a few years, the White River and millions of acres of citizen-proposed wilderness throughout the West enjoyed interim protection provided by the Clinton administration’s Department of the Interior.

Then, in March 2003, the state of Utah resurrected a six-year old lawsuit challenging the federal government’s authority to protect citizen-proposed wilderness lands. Just two weeks later, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, R, settled the case (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit). Suddenly, millions of acres of proposed wilderness lands — not just in Utah, but across the entire West — were open for drilling and other resource development. In the White River, that opened the door for the oil and gas consortium to begin the permitting process for 15 wells. Within months, the Bureau of Land Management began auctioning off leases in other citizen-proposed wilderness areas throughout the West.

By the end of 2003, there was a palpable sense that these places were disappearing fast. So on a cold and clear day last December, I met Uintah Mountain Club members Nancy Bostick-Ebbert, Paul Ebbert and Tom Elder in Vernal, and we set out in search of the White River proposed wilderness. For hours we ground away in four-wheel drive through axle-deep mud, lost in the maze of oil and gas service roads, blindly turning down various forks, trying to find a way to the White River. Finally, we abandoned our vehicle at a well pad and walked down a rock-threaded dry wash.

Winding down into the depths of the river canyon, we entered a different world. Sphinx-like sandstone spires rose over a fringe of cottonwoods. The languid, ice-dappled glide of the White River’s water, under a blanket of early winter light, mesmerized us as it flowed toward the Green River. There was no need to explain why this small piece of the vast federal estate deserved formal wilderness protection — and why it was much, much more than a couple of pages in a wilderness proposal.

The idea of "vision" comes up a lot in discussions of wilderness. But 40 years after the Wilderness Act, it’s clear that vision isn’t enough. Places like the White River have disappeared inside gigantic schemes for wilderness that exist only in ringbound, three-inch-thick, four-and-a-half pound citizens’ proposals. And while they wait, they’re being gnawed away at until they’re not even wilderness anymore.

We’ve been here before. Beginning in 1929 — 35 years before the Wilderness Act — the Forest Service began designating "primitive" and then "wilderness" areas on the national forests. But because the designations were — like the Clinton-Babbitt interim-protection policy — merely administrative, they could easily be reversed by succeeding presidential administrations. In 1950, for example, the Forest Service carved off a part of New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness — created in 1924 at the urging of Aldo Leopold, and generally considered the first wilderness area in the United States — for logging.

That was exactly the scenario that led early wilderness champions like Bob Marshall and Howard Zahniser to campaign for the Wilderness Act, to ensure that Congress, rather than the land-management agencies, would have the sole authority to designate wilderness. In the years since the Wilderness Act, Congress has never de-designated a single wilderness area. There is no substitute for real, capital "W" wilderness.

It’s time again to treat each proposed wilderness area as a real, solvable problem. Instead of talking about keeping 15 wells out of a proposed wilderness area on Utah’s White River, we need to be talking about making that area official, honest-to-god wilderness. There’s no reason why the White River can’t join the list of smaller, stand-alone proposals that are moving forward: Wild Sky in Washington, Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho (HCN, 12/8/03: In Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, another wilderness compromise), Ojito in New Mexico (HCN, 1/19/04), and Tumacacori Highlands in Arizona (HCN, 5/10/04: Small steps for wilderness).

None of the 15 wells being proposed is in the original 9,700-acre wilderness. Why not break the original White River proposal out of the 9.1-million acre SUWA megaproposal and take it to Rep. Jim Matheson, D, the congressional representative for the area? That would be one way to rebuild local politics and begin gaining traction again — and to see if, after all the years of entrenched bitterness, real wilderness can still have a place in Utah.

This could be the last chance to negotiate back to a reasonable middle, and finally protect a tiny, still-wild place in the middle of a pumped-out landscape. Doing that would accomplish nothing less than exactly what Will Durant, Doug Hatch and Clay Johnson dreamt up around the kitchen table all the way back in 1985.

The author is associate editor of High Country News. This essay is excerpted from A People’s History of Wilderness, an anthology of 34 years of High Country News’ coverage of the wilderness movement’s evolution, and its path into the 21st century. The book will be available in November.

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