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Wilderness redefined

Wild Sky in Washington's Cascades is just one of a number of areas designated for protection that are not, in the strictest sense, primeval environment. But they are wild, and in modern times they're worth preserving, say environmentalists — even if unprecedented compromise is necessary.
The North Fork of the Skykomish River in the Wild Sky wilderness.

The North Fork of the Skykomish River in the Wild Sky wilderness. None


There is a new wilderness in the West. Not just Wild Sky, the newly designated 106,000 acres of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest that are tucked next to the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, by the South Fork of the Skykomish River and the headwaters of the Sultan River. While Wild Sky's new status is a spectacular accomplishment through an act of Congress this year, it is even more interesting as an example of a new notion of wilderness, of land that is not primeval, not untouched. This new kind of wilderness defies the 1964 Wilderness Act, encompassing areas that are altered by man or even are man-made.

Within Wild Sky's boundaries are foothills covered in second- and even third-growth Douglas firs, hills which had been logging parcels and fed mills in nearby Monroe, Index, Sultan, and Skykomish. Until the official wilderness designation, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles challenged many of the hills. They will still. Advocates for Wild Sky carefully drew boundaries that permitted off-road vehicles to use favorite areas. Within Wild Sky, the imprint of our hands is substantially noticeable. But it is still wild.

New wilderness is about two things unimaginable to wilderness advocates decades ago: It is about wild acreage, not primeval land. And its protection cannot happen without collaboration with people who normally are foes of environmentalists.

Throughout the West, this new ethic is bearing fruit. Late in May, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon proposed an Oregon Badlands wilderness, 30,000 acres of desert shrub land east of Bend, Ore. Nearby residents could not stop shaking their heads in agreement that the wilderness designation would help the economy. A few years ago, such agreement would be unimaginable. Grazers, recreationists, and wilderness advocates would be arguing with each other.

In Idaho, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, responding to Ketchum and Sun Valley constituents, hopes to protect areas of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains. He put together a coalition of wilderness advocates, mountain bikers, off-road-vehicle users, local governments, and sheep and cattle grazers, resulting in the writing of a proposed Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act. CIEDRA would create the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness Area and cede lands to the town of Stanley for affordable housing; it would provide recreation areas for mountain bikers and off road vehicles; and it would confirm grazing allotments for sheep and cattle ranchers. While the legislation has stalled several times, it is significant that a number of interests which generally oppose each other on wilderness designation agree that this compromise can work.

Wild Sky, too, is a designated wilderness because there were significant compromises.

Similar collaborations are happening in Montana, where the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership seeks to designate eight separate parcels in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest as wilderness. The partnership was developed between strong wilderness advocates and several logging companies.

And, of course, there is Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert's proposal to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington to include the Pratt River drainage and acres of previously logged foothill forests.

The idea of a broader concept of wilderness came, perhaps, from academia. In the mid-1990s environmental historians such as William Cronon suggested that wilderness was not biological but rather a figment of our imaginations. Cronon wrote that from James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo to John Muir's rhapsodic writings about his beloved Yosemite, the primeval natural wild was more in our collective minds than on the landscape. Cooper's characters and Muir's poetic essays were representations of a collective national imagination.

This idea that wilderness was not "real" in some biological sense caused enormous discord among wilderness advocates. Part of their sales pitch had been that they were saving something. If the something didn't exist except in our imaginations, how could The Wilderness Society or Washington Wilderness Coalition protect it? And while this idea of wilderness as part of a collective imagination was not necessarily new, the fact it came from a "friend" of wilderness – Cronon was, at the time, a board member of The Wilderness Society – made it even more controversial.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Jun 21, 12:39 a.m. Inappropriate

A new template consistent with the 1964 Wilderness Act: Good analysis, Kim. Wild Sky represents a more inclusive wilderness model that should (and will) be replicated.

A point of friendly disagreement, however: There's nothing inconsistent with second growth in a federally designated wilderness area. As you know, the "these lands aren't pure enough" canard was used unsuccessfully by wilderness opponents to try and eliminate Wild Sky's low-elevation forests and salmon habitat.

Thankfully, the purity theory was refuted more than thirty years ago during debate over the 1975 Eastern Wilderness Areas Act. On the Senate floor, one of the bill's sponsors (who was also a co-sponsor of the 1964 Wilderness Act) observed, that, "this false so-called 'purity theory' ... threatens the strength and broad application of the Wilderness Act."

It was a watershed moment that should have settled the historical argument. Wish I could say it was sufficient to quiet opponents.

Posted Sat, Jun 21, 7:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Too Bad Democrats like Inslee tried to make it a political "gotcha" moment.: Now that the hypocrisy and myopic thought process of Representative Inslee has been exposed in his earlier statement to Reichert that he would not sign on the Pratt Wilderness Bill because "We ( The Democrats, Darcy Burner) are going to kick your A%# this fall". Perhaps the citizens of the State should start looking for Representatives that are more concerned with doing the right thing instead of scoring political points. Reichert had signed on to Wild Sky immediately after it's introduction

Inslee and Dicks have now signed on to the Pratt Bill. Inslee probabaly because of the heat in the press he took for being such a partisan jerk.
Cameron

Posted Sun, Jun 22, 1:07 a.m. Inappropriate

A Few More Details: Thank you, Kim, for an interesting essay, I very much like the tone and substance of most of what you say.

However....... please allow me to make a few comments, which I hope will be taken positively.

First off, thank you for acknowledging that Wilderness is no longer just about protecting "pristine" places, i.e., places totally untouched by man. But Wild Sky does not "defy" the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act defines Wilderness as a place where the hand of man is "substantially" unnoticeable - not totally undetectable. If undetectability were a necessary precondition, then no place on Earth would qualify. And other Wilderness areas have been established long ago, primarily in eastern states, that were previously logged 100%, from border to border. There is even a Wilderness area in New Jersey that has a once-paved road. Wilderness lost its innocence long ago, if it ever had any.

But your broader point about this being a significant departure from the way Wilderness has been previously done in Washington state is well taken. Wild Sky does contain vastly more "less-than-pristine" land than any other Wilderness area in the NW, at least to my knowledge. As someone who was closely involved in the Wild Sky campaign from the beginning, I believe I can probably take some credit for having pushed earlier and harder than anyone to include those less-than-pristine areas. Most of the initial resistance to including them came not from Wilderness opponents or political sponsors, but from some within the conservation community, probably because they thought that including such areas in the bill would greatly increase the difficulties in getting it enacted.

They had a point, and it may even be true that the bill might have gotten past Richard Pombo had those areas not been included. But for myself, and many others, the whole point of the Wild Sky effort was to protect ecosystems, including salmon spawning areas. We already have plenty of high country Wilderness, and what would have been the point of protecting more unthreatened rock and ice? Well, OK, just about anyplace wild or semi-wild is worth protecting, low or high. But with Wild Sky there was a real opportunity to do things differently than they had been done in the past, not just with low elevation forests but with salmon streams, something almost entirely missing from other Cascades Wilderness areas. Nearly 25 miles of these were protected in Wild Sky, none of which could have been included had we stuck to the old model of protecting only completely untouched places.

To their everlasting credit, Patty Murray and Rick Larsen realized from the outset (even more so than some in the conservation community,) that if Wild Sky was worth doing, it was worth doing right. And although it took far longer than anyone thought, they largely stuck to their original proposal. There were times when it looked as though the bill might get past Pombo if most of the low elevation, less-than-pristine country were removed from it. No one could have blamed them one bit had they decided to do that, and take those areas out, get the bill passed and move on to deal with some of the thousand other demands on their time and efforts - indeed, even some in the conservation movement urged them to do so. But, displaying a level of resolve and committment all too rare in politics, they didn't give in. They kept the "good stuff" in, and thanks to their tenacity, we now have in Wild Sky a Wilderness unlike any other in the Cascades.

(more below...)

Posted Sun, Jun 22, 1:13 a.m. Inappropriate

and......: A note about what that "good stuff" is: mostly 70 to 90 year old formerly railroad logged forest in the lower North Fork Skykomish watershed. Forests that grew back naturally after logging, and that occupy the lowest and most productive sites - which is why they were the first to be logged. Forests with many trees now 3 feet in diameter and over 150 feet tall, well on their way to becoming old growth. These forests, of which the Wild Sky Wilderness includes about 6000 acres, line almost all of the salmon streams. As far as I know, there is no "third growth" forest in the Wild Sky Wilderness.

Another final note: you depict the Wild Sky effort as some sort of "collaboration" between conservationists and resource extraction and motorized recreation interests. It was nothing of the sort. It has nothing at all in common with examples from other states that you cite.

Yes, there were some areas which were excluded from Wild Sky because of competing interests, or technical problems. But boundary adjustments to a proposed Wilderness is far different than carving up a National Forest with the trees going to the timber industry. To portray Wild Sky in the same light as the "Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership" in Montana is wildly off the mark, and has no basis in reality.

Wild Sky is a stand-alone Wilderness bill, with compromises resulting in what became the final boundaries. Beaverhead Deerlodge is an entirely different animal, where some conservationists propose to legislatively trade away 700,000 acres of lower elevation forest land in exchange for timber industry support for 570,000 acres of high country Wilderness, a deal which would take the cut level on that National Forest to triple that of what even the Forest Service proposed. Beaverhead Deerlodge is a quid pro quo deal utterly unlike Wild Sky. Many in the conservation movement see it as a very bad deal, notably George Wuerthner, who has written about the area extensively. See: http://www.lowbagger.org/icecreamwilderness.html

We all make deals and compromises every day of our lives, and it's hard to think of any piece of legislation - or anything else, for that matter - that can't be thought of as a "deal." The real question is: is it a good deal for the environment or a bad deal? There are many in the conservation movement who view the Beaverhead Deerlodge as a very bad deal. Wilderness protection has become a "big deal" in recent years, far different from the kitchen table volunteer effort it started as, (and still is in at least some places,) and there are some very big organizations, with big payrolls, out there wanting to show their funders that they can "get Wilderness." In their quest to do so, the larger questions of real ecosystem protection easily get lost - what matters is "getting Wilderness," whatever the costs. In the case of Beaverhead Deerlodge, the forests and wildlife habitats are being traded away for the rocks and ice. But, no matter, they will "get Wilderness."

Wild Sky is the antithesis of the "collaborative" Beaverhead Deelodge approach. Wild Sky was started by volunteers and it was mainly volunteers who took it across the finish line. Wild Sky did not come about because other areas were offered up for sacrifice in exchange. Everything in life is a deal, and deals can be good, bad, or indifferent. Wild Sky was a good one in my opinion, Beaverhead Deerlodge is a bad one in the opinion of many. Opinions will differ, naturally, but please do not conflate Wild Sky with such quid pro quo "collaborations."

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