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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Preserving the Wilderness

Air Date: Week of

PART ONE: Declaring an area as federal wilderness can be a lengthy and partisan process, but when the original Wilderness Act became law forty years ago, it was a much different and bipartisan climate that made its passage possible. Host Steve Curwood talks with Stewart Udall, former secretary for the Interior Department under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, about what he considers the Golden Age of the environment.
PART TWO: One million acres of land in three states are now being considered for wilderness status, but these areas must meet with Congressional approval first. As Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, there’s much opposition to these proposals on Capitol Hill.
PART THREE: Idaho’s Boulder-White Cloud Mountains make up the largest unprotected roadless area in the lower 48 states. For years, conservationists have been pushing to protect this area as wilderness, with little success. Reporter Guy Hand visited the mountains and found there’s an increasingly powerful group that wilderness advocates will have to contend with.
PART FOUR: The Old English derivation for wilderness means quite literally, wild beast. As this week marks the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, Steve Curwood remembers a close encounter at summer camp that personally reinforced the very definition of wilderness.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

These days, the process of officially designating wild land as wilderness can be as rugged as the physical terrain itself. Getting a wilderness bill through Congress can spark a partisan battle between those who strive to preserve it in a natural state, and those who don’t want to see it locked up.

It’s a far different political climate compared to 40 years ago. That’s when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act - an unprecedented national policy that was meant to guarantee, quote, “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Today, nearly five percent of all the land in this nation is protected under the Wilderness Act, and as we mark its anniversary we’re taking a look at the past, present, and prospects for its future.

First, for an historical perspective we turn to Stewart Udall, former secretary for the Department of Interior under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Mr. Secretary, you were a witness to the drafting and inception of the Wilderness Act. How would you describe the political atmosphere at the time?

UDALL: Well the political atmosphere, it was just the right time for a new big idea like this, you know. No other country in the world had a wilderness policy. And it just struck a chord. It was very popular in the 1960s. Now, we had to fight, and it took four years to get it done, but it turned out there was overwhelming support in this country.

Senator Anderson, a powerful senator from New Mexico, who had known Aldo Leopold, a great conservationist – he decided to push it. And he said to the president, put it in your message to Congress, a call for a wilderness bill along the lines of my bill. And that started it. He had hearings and a vote in the summer of 1961 and it passed overwhelmingly.

And all of us – I was startled, even, at the margin by which it passed the Senate, which I think was 78 to 12. And what were the 12? Six Republicans, six Democrats. That shows you it was bipartisan, and it was across the country. We had tremendous support for it. And this was really an expression of the desires of citizens – tens of thousands of people all over the country became wilderness advocates and wrote their Congressmen and Senators and came to Washington.

CURWOOD: It seems that the Wilderness Act, and a lot of other major environmental laws that were passed at the time, weren’t seen as partisan issues. There wasn’t a particular Republican or Democratic tag to it. It sure seems very different today.

UDALL: I had so many friends, we never had arguments, we had the same values and the same beliefs. And it was a wonderful time, kind of a Golden Age of the environmental movement.

CURWOOD: Secretary Udall, when did the shift take place in American politics when conservation issues became more partisan?

UDALL: I’m afraid I have to say it took place under the Reagan administration. It was considered by the public officials of that time that we had enough national parks, we had enough wilderness, that we were interfering with the economy of the country. And the old philosophy was lost. The philosophy we developed in Republican presidents – Nixon was a good president, Ford was a good president -- this carried across party lines and we never had big partisan arguments. It’s hard to believe that today, isn’t it?

CURWOOD: Secretary Udall, what are the odds that the Wilderness Act could be written today and would pass in today’s political environment?

UDALL: My answer is a sad answer. I believe if you proposed the wilderness bill today, it would not go through Congress. The divisions are so sharp and the ideologies are so different that I doubt it would get to first base.

CURWOOD: Now, the author of the Wilderness Act was a man by the name of Howard Zahniser who I believe had worked on it actually for several years before even the Kennedy administration came into office. Could you describe the man behind the Wilderness Act, and what he was like in person?

UDALL: Well, Howard Zahniser was a small town boy over in the Allegheny Valley in Pennsylvania. I’d describe him as a sweet, patient person. We began to call him a saint because he had to face so many obstacles. And the Congressman that was holding up the bill, a powerful Congressman from Colorado, would come up with a new argument every week, it seemed at times, against the bill. He would rewrite sections of the bill if he had to make changes, and he was a very good strategist. If you had met him you wouldn’t believe that because he was very quiet and very patient. He died three months before the bill passed. Never saw it become law.

CURWOOD: What is it about the language of the Wilderness Act that you find remarkable or stirring looking back at it now?

Dirt bike tracks on a muddy trail. (Photo: Guy Hand)

UDALL: Well, the language of the Wilderness Act -- which defines wilderness in that it is to be protected for all time – and the Act saying, in effect, you can go there but leave it as it is and leave your tracks, not anything else. That requires a discipline that I think this country needed then and needs now.

CURWOOD: Stewart Udall is former Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Mr. Udall, thanks for taking this time with me today.

UDALL: Glad to be with you.

CURWOOD: The Wilderness Act gives Congress the power to declare wilderness areas and protect land from logging, mining, roads and motorized transport. In this 40th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, wilderness advocates hope Congress will grant that protection to about a million more acres in three states. But there is plenty of opposition on Capitol Hill as the clock runs out for this session of Congress. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report.

YOUNG: Congress is considering wilderness proposals from Nevada, New Mexico and Washington, all with strong support from area citizens and lawmakers. Wilderness advocate Doug Scott says those are the crucial ingredients for protecting wild lands.

SCOTT: This could be a great wilderness Congress and in the 40th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act that would be a fitting thing for the Congress to do. These are solid proposals, bipartisan, supported locally. That’s the kind of wilderness protection that can pass.

YOUNG: Scott lobbies for the Campaign for America’s Wilderness and recently wrote a history of the Wilderness Act. He hears echoes of that history in the current wilderness debates. He was heartened to hear a bit of the old bipartisan spirit on wilderness when the Senate considered Nevada’s wilderness proposal. It’s the largest before Congress this session, with nearly three quarters of a million acres in the state’s southeast. Both Nevada senators, Republican John Ensign and Democrat Harry Reid, support it. Reid says that support came through compromise on tough issues, like water rights and underlying ideological differences.

REID: It’s a very good bill because Senator Ensign and I are both unhappy with it. I think that’s a good sign that the bill is good.

YOUNG: A bill from Washington state would protect about 100,000 acres in the mountains northeast of Seattle as the Wild Sky wilderness. The Republican-controlled Senate approved it but it’s a different story in the House.

POMBO (IN COMMITTEE): Are there any members who wish to make a very, very short statement about the bills which are part of this motion? Seeing none…(fades under)

YOUNG: California Republican Richard Pombo, an outspoken critic of many environmental laws, chairs the House Resources Committee. Pombo did not like the Senate’s idea for Washington’s Wild Sky and worked to reduce its boundaries by 13,000 acres. Pombo says that land does not qualify as wilderness because it bears marks of old logging, such as roads and culverts.

POMBO: I believe wilderness is a very special status of protection that we have as a tool to protect land. It is not something that anyone ever imagined that we would be including roads and bridges and dams and developed areas and try to call them wilderness.

YOUNG: Wilderness advocate Scott says he’s heard that argument before. He says the answer lies in the carefully chosen words of the Wilderness Act’s author.

SCOTT: In its ideal definition the Congress in the Wilderness Act says that a wilderness area is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man. I didn’t say untrampled. A trammel is a net. So the idea is that in these places we draw a line around ‘em and say in there as best as we can we’re gonna restrain ourselves and we’re gonna let the forces of nature shape what happens.

YOUNG: Scott says the Act focuses on what the land could become. And he says Congress has approved many wilderness areas on scarred land.

SCOTT: There’s a record of precedence and interpretations going back to the debates on the Wilderness Act itself. We are utterly sure we’re on solid ground here, and that those who are saying that, “no, no, this law has to be applied in more narrow minded way” are simply wrong.

YOUNG: Wrong or right, Congressman Pombo is still chairman of the Resources Committee. He pulled the Wild Sky proposal, leaving it unlikely to pass this session.

The committee approved Nevada’s wilderness bill after Pombo removed three areas from its protection. A third bill also passed to protect some 11,000 acres of New Mexico as the Ojito wilderness. Those bills now go to the House floor for a vote.

But wilderness advocates say there’s one more obstacle waiting at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. President Bush has signed only four wilderness bills in his term, protecting about half a million acres. That’s the least of any president in 40 years—far less, for example, than the nearly four million acres protected by his father.

Wilderness Society spokesperson Pete Rafle says the Bush administration also targeted for development places citizens wanted for wilderness by leasing those lands to oil and gas companies.

RAFLE: I think the message has come through loud and clear from the top down: this administration really isn’t interested in protecting more places forever wild.

YOUNG: This is also, of course, an election year, when conventional wisdom says politics make it even tougher to get things done in the Capitol. But wilderness advocate Doug Scott sees the election working in his favor. The three pending wilderness areas are all in battleground states in the presidential race, giving the president an opportunity to improve his environmental image.

SCOTT: If the timing worked out so that before the election President Bush were having a signing ceremony to add that area to the wilderness system, the wilderness movement will be there cheering.

YOUNG: With just a few weeks left for action in Congress, it’s unclear which wilderness bills, if any, might reach the president’s desk. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

[MUSIC: David Grier “King Wilkie’s Run” PANORAMA (Rounder – 1997)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: the politics of preserving a special place in Idaho. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: David Grier “The Skeleton” PANORAMA (Rounder – 1997)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. As we've heard so far in this program, getting Congress to designate land as official wilderness can be difficult. It's hard enough to create a national park or monument where paths and boats and buildings are allowed. Wilderness is far more restricted, or protected.

In Idaho, conservationists have been trying and failing, for 20 years, to preserve the largest unprotected roadless area in the lower 48 states: the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains. Now a Republican Congressman is trying again.

Producer Guy Hand visited the Boulder-White Cloud and found that 40 years after the passage of the Wilderness Act, power is slowly shifting away from traditional opponents – like ranchers, miners and loggers —in favor of another, increasingly powerful group.


The Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in Central Idaho is an area that some believe should have wilderness protection. (Photo: Guy Hand)

HAND: It's not surprising that everyone up here loves the remote Boulder-White Clouds of Central Idaho. Between these spectacular jagged peaks, the headwaters of several major rivers flow, from high alpine meadows, through pine and aspen, down to dry sagebrush. It's varied enough for mountain goats, big horn sheep, wolverines, and wolves. So, people are united by why they come here, but divided by how they get here.


WILLS: We're all members of the Magic Valley Trail Machine Association from Twin Falls.

Top: Jamey Wills of the Magic Valley Trail Association is against more wilderness. Bottom: Members of the Magic Valley Trail Association. (Photos: Guy Hand)

HAND: Jamey Wills and nine other dirt bikers gather at a trailhead open to motorized use in the White Clouds. With his protective shoulder pads, chest plate, and helmet, Wills looks like a back-country gladiator. And he figures 60 miles of trail will be closed to dirt bikers if Representative Mike Simpson's wilderness proposal makes it through Congress.

WILLS: I think it's a bad idea mainly because there's already almost two and a half million acres of wilderness area in the surrounding areas here already. And adding more wilderness just cuts out more areas for an ever expanding off-road vehicle population.

HAND: Over a million new dirt bikes and four-wheelers are projected to hit the trail this year. When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, excluding mechanized vehicles from wilderness areas, most legislators probably had never seen a snowmobile, never heard the words “mountain bike” or “all terrain vehicle,” and never imagined their explosive growth.

WILLS: If the environmental groups are really interested in conservation, it's a bad idea to coalesce growing numbers of people into a smaller area. It's just not good land practice.

MOYLE: Yeah, you're just closing it to certain user groups.

HAND: Alan Moyle:

MOYLE: What kind of America is that? I mean, that ain't America. Leave it open to everybody. Leave it open or close it off totally.

HAND: Wilderness advocates feel they've compromised a lot. They say nearly 200,000 acres of roadless land that should be included in the Boulder-White Clouds proposal is being left out to accommodate the motorized lobby. In addition, this trail would stay open to dirt bikes even though it runs right through the wilderness. But that doesn't satisfy Wills and his friends.

WILLS: It's been proven time and again when we, in the past, as motorized recreationists, have made concessions to land closures, it's never enough. There's a time to draw a line in the sand and say that you can't have any more. And that's why all the motorized community is against his proposal.

There already are 4 million acres of designated wilderness in Idaho. This is our backyard. I grew up here. I spent my whole life with my dad and he's dead now (voice cracking). So, this is a special spot to me.

HAND: Several people interviewed for this story echo Will's depth of feeling for the Boulder-White Clouds and the memories they conjure, both bikers and hikers. But that depth of feeling doesn't unite them.


A White Cloud aspen grove, one of the proposed wilderness’s varied habitats. (Photo: Guy Hand)

LAGANDE: Soon as you have the roar of motorcycles, particularly in groups, you're inflicted with . . . an anti-wilderness experience.

HAND: Ed LaGrande loves the possibility of hiking in a wilderness free of dirt bikes.

LAGRANDE: They have this huge cocoon of noise and kicked up dirt. They're being wild in their own recreation, but they're destroying the wilderness for everyone else.

HAND: It's not just the noise that bothers him.

LAGRANDE: I've been up and I have photographs of two motorcyclists who took to this beautiful, alpine meadow in the Boulder-White Clouds. And just for fun, these guys went out and rutted out 18-inch gouges in this meadow. I was able to put my canteen fully down in one of these gouges and it only filled half the raw cut.

HAND: And LaGrande worries about the future.

LAGRANDE: Well, the motorization of the wilderness is only now starting, and the real problems on that are going to be five, ten, 20 years down the road. If it’s acceptable now, believe me, with the way sales of these vehicles are going, it will not be acceptable in the very near future.


HAND: Another Ed, Ed Cannady, is pounding a sign into the ground. The Forest Service’s back country recreation manager spends a lot of time replacing signs that say “No Motor Vehicles Allowed.”

Ed Cannady, the Forest Service’s back country manager, on top of a peak in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountain. (Photo: Guy Hand)

CANNADY: I’ve come up here on opening morning of hunting season and have my signs all be up, go on down into French Creek, check over there, come back, and my signs will all be gone.

HAND: Even though motorized users make up only five percent of those who explore the Boulder-White Clouds, they are now the region’s most powerful wilderness opponents. Lumber companies aren’t interested in the area’s low-value timber, mining was banned in the ‘70s, and ranching is fading, so opposition is passing to dirt bikers, snowmobilers, and even mountain bikers. The International Mountain Bike Association is against the wilderness proposal because bicycles are also excluded from designated wilderness. Ed Cannady understands their position but thinks that much of what these mountains offer is missed on two wheels.


CANNADY: I mountain bike a lot. I’ve ridden every mile of trail in the Boulder-White Clouds, but, you know, it’s a completely different experience. When you are rolling you focus on this little piece of ground a few feet out in front of your tire and the faster you go the more you have to focus. That’s a completely different experience than saying, “Wow, I went to that place and was amazed at the quiet and saw 13 mountain goats and passed by a grazing moose.” If you’re on a mountain bike, it’s pretty likely you’re not even going to see that moose.

HAND: From the bank of a forested river, Cannady points to a light spot in the gravels where Chinook salmon have recently spawned. It’s so easy to miss. Sometimes, even walking is too fast.

CANNADY: Oh, that is a Cooper’s Hawk it looks like from the back.

HAND: A small hawk glides through the trees, then silently lands on a stump right in front of us.

CANNADY: Oh wow, he’s 20 feet away. Look at him. He doesn’t know we’re here (LAUGHING).

HAND: Beautiful.

CANNADY: Yeah, he is.

HAND: Cannady’s admiration for this place is obvious. And so is his desire for visitors to have moments like this. He says his job is not only to help people recreate, but to re-create a connection to nature.

CANNADY: I’m wanting to, as the back country recreation manager, wanting to give as many people as possible the opportunity to re-create that connection. And I believe it’s a lot easier to do when you do slow your pace, when you find that not just moment of peace, but days of peace. I think once you slow your pace and start to see things differently, it’s easier for you to reconnect to the natural world and re-realize that dependency that we all have and we cannot escape it.

HAND: A fast pace, it turns out, isn’t limited to the motorized and mountain bike crowd. Leise Dean, program director for the Sawtooth Wilderness area, just west of the Boulder-White Clouds, says over the last few years she’s noticed people rushing, even as they head into the woods on foot.

DEAN: The way people are using the wilderness has changed. They’re going in for shorter trips. No longer are we seeing the people going in for ten days – that would be very rare. What they want to do is they want to go on a river trip for a day, they want to hike to the most beautiful lake, and they want to go horseback riding for two days, maybe an overnight. So, in a way, that makes wilderness ever so much more important, because, hopefully, when they do get in there, some of that settles down a little bit.

HAND: Motorized users say they like to settle down, too, in those still moments when the motors are off. Or in Sandra Mitchell’s case, the moment she and her husband got stuck in the snow.

MITCHELL: And so we were off our sleds, working on ‘em, and it was absolutely the quietest scene I have ever experienced in my life. There was no noise, there was no wind, there was nothing. It was just sheer quiet. It was a stunning moment, one of those moments when you just stop and you look around and you think, wow, God had such incredible taste when he created this world.

HAND: Mitchell, public lands director for the Idaho Snowmobile Association, says there’s plenty of public land out there for motorized and non-motorized users to find peace and quiet.

MITCHELL: There is a place for snowmobiles. And for folks who don’t want to even have the opportunity to come in contact with a motor, we’ve set aside in Idaho four million acres of wilderness where they can go.

DEAN: How many symphonies are enough? You’ve heard that quote before.

HAND: Again, Liese Dean, program director for the Sawtooth Wilderness. Dean thinks it’s a mistake to measure wilderness only in terms of recreation, ignoring its scientific and ecological value.

DEAN: Primarily, when the Wilderness Act was first in place, the areas that were designated were the classic rock and ice they’re called. They were incredible scenic areas, beautiful for the landscape, but ecologically not very diverse. And I think that that’s something that in the past 20 years we’ve recognized, and an effort has been made to have more diversity within the wilderness preservation system.

HAND: Dean says the Boulder-White Clouds – with its unique range of high and low elevation, it’s varied habitats, it’s profusion of animals – has the kind of diversity the system needs, ecologically. She gets three or four requests a year from scientists wanting to do frog research or temperature and water cycle studies, work that can only be done in pristine environments.

DEAN: Wilderness is a kind of our baseline in this country, where we can see how things actually take place and the consequences of things without human interference.

HAND: Yet, when it comes to creating a wilderness bill, it’s strictly a human endeavor, and increasingly complex. Representative Mike Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds proposal would not only make concessions to off-roaders. It would pay local ranchers to retire their grazing rights. And give land to Custer County, the tax-starved county that holds much of the proposed wilderness. Mike Simpson:

SIMPSON: We’ve broadened this proposal to include many of the other things about how are we going to handle the ORV use, how are we going to handle the ranchers that are in the area that are being driven out because of lawsuits and so forth? How are we going to handle a county that is 94 percent federal land so they don’t have a tax base to actually provide the services? But I will tell you that it’s one of those things that nobody is going to like in the end.

HAND: The Sierra Club currently opposes the plan and other environmental groups are undecided. So here you have a wilderness proposal championed by a Republican and looked at warily by nearly every other interest group. Democrat Lin Whitworth, who is challenging Simpson in November, is also against it.

WHITWORTH: I don’t know that we need to make any more wilderness. We got plenty. If you was to make your goal to visit every area that we have in wilderness that we have now it would take you a lifetime.

HAND: So what made Simpson put three years of effort into just getting the locals on board? The same thing, he says, that drives most wilderness advocates.

SIMPSON: When I was young we used to go up to Red Fish Lake and the Sawtooth Mountains. And, of course, we’ve been into the White Clouds and just this past week, me and several of my staff backpacked into Castle Peak and spent a few days there. It really brings home the value of solitude.

HAND: So, can you describe what we’re looking at?

CANNADY: Oh, what we’re looking at is one of the finest slices of country on Earth, in my opinion.

HAND: Recreation Manager Ed Cannady has taken me to one final place: up a steep, talus slope to an astounding vista, way above tree line and political compromise.

CANNADY: This is O’Calkin’s Peak, David O’Lee Peak or Alabaster Peak in the distance, and, of course, Castle Peak on the skyline. These are the main White Cloud Peaks.

HAND: Surrounded by endless mountains and high above lakes that look like turquoise stones, it’s hard to imagine that the future of the Boulder-White Clouds could ultimately rest in Washington, D.C.

CANNADY: If they could have their hearing right here, I think we would get a lot more favorable outcome for this place. There’s a line in an old Eagles song that goes, “Oh, it seemed like a holy place protected by amazing grace,” and to a large degree, that’s what will protect this place, is amazing grace, the grace of the politicians who had the foresight in 1964 to pass the Wilderness Act. Who had the foresight to say these places are worth preserving in their current state. That was amazingly thoughtful. It was incredible foresight.

HAND: The passage of a wilderness bill is far from certain. Neither of Idaho’s Senators say yet that he supports it. In a recent poll, 61 percent of Idahoans do, but without the backing of the motorized lobby, mountain bike associations, and conservation groups, the fate of the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains will remain, as it has for over 20 years, unresolved. For Living on Earth, I’m Guy Hand.

CURWOOD: As an environmental journalist I have visited a fair amount of wilderness from Africa to Alaska, to the Amazon and the Adirondacks. And while I now look forward to being in the wild, it wasn’t always that way.

Many years ago, before there even was a Wilderness Act, my family packed me off to what is called the Farm and Wilderness Camps in Vermont to live in the woods for as much as a week at a time. I was not thrilled to trade in radio, television, cars, baseball, bathrooms and ice cream for a heavy pack filled with rations and survival gear. Nor did I appreciate the soaking downpour and a bloodthirsty swarm of mosquitoes on my first day on the trail. My body was worn out, so sleep came easy that first night. But when a heavy snuffling and grunting and scratching began out behind our lean-to, my eyes popped open and my throat went dry.



Wilderness Act of 1964

Stewart Udall

“The Enduring Wilderness” by Doug Scott

Congressman Mike Simpson’s White Cloud Mountains plan


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