One of the men who made the Wilderness Act a reality implored wilderness managers not to lose sight of their top priority: keeping wilderness wild.
“Let’s take wildness for what it is,” said former Wilderness Society executive director Stewart Brandborg. “Right now, we’re facing a crisis in wilderness. A lot of people at this meeting are discussing degrees and varieties of wilderness. Let’s take the word “wild” and live by it as the initial sponsor intended.”
Brandborg presented his argument in a panel discussion Thursday at the 2015 National Wilderness Workshop at the University of Montana. About 240 people represented the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and numerous advocacy organizations from across the nation.
As part of an endeavor called Vision 2020, they came together to exchange ideas on what to do over the next five years to improve management of and support for the National Wilderness System.
A couple studies have revealed that the differing agency missions cause managers to develop different opinions about how to manage public uses or promote additional wilderness. Also, groups that are pushing for transfer of public lands to the states are exerting political pressure on federal land agencies from the outside.
As other land managers turn to collaborative efforts, some wilderness managers toy with using collaboration on wilderness issues. Some newer wilderness proposals, including the recently created Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness in Idaho, include sections of land carved out for different uses, such as mountain biking or logging.
In the panel on preserving wilderness principles, Brandborg warned against further watering down wilderness with collaboration.
The 90-year-old reminded agency managers, some in their 30s, that the Wilderness Act is already a compromise that took eight years to pass. The bill’s author, Howard Zahniser, had to make many concessions, including allowing Congress, not the agencies, to designate wilderness areas. Brandborg should know because he was there for part of the struggle.
Panelist George Nickas of Wilderness Watch said the result is that with each new bill to create a wilderness area, Congress tries to rewrite the Wilderness Act and allow more human activity.
“Had we not had John Kennedy the few weeks before his passing, had we not had Zahniser, we would not have the law we have today,” Brandborg said. “Resist the fuzzy neverland of collaboration.”
The two-day conference was for agencies to come together and become more cohesive in how they manage wilderness. One of the sessions on agency regulations made clear just how differently the agencies think about what the Wilderness Act intended.
Each agency writes its own regulations to carry out the Wilderness Act, so for some sections of the law, there are four slightly different interpretations. That leads to inconsistent enforcement, which can be bad where oversight is shared such as along trans-continental trails.
For example, the Wilderness Act prohibits installations in wilderness, but neither the USFS nor the BLM defines what an installation is. That creates a problem.
Tim Devine of the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center told the story of a ranger that couldn’t cite a hunter for installing a water guzzler in a BLM wilderness but was able to cite the hunter for using an ATV to install it.
“Anything that isn’t in the regulations is hard to enforce,” Devine said.
A lack of definitions or poorly written regulations can cause a wilderness to become less wild. By the end of the session, participants agreed that a good first step would be ensuring that all four agencies use the same definitions of the 10 public uses prohibited by the Wilderness Act.
Another thing that leads to wilderness becoming less wild is overuse. While that’s not much of a problem in Montana, it’s become a constant issue for managers of wilderness near metropolitan areas or some back East.
Linda Merigliano has to manage popular areas near Jackson Hole, Wyo., and told attendees that while Vision 2020 intends to reconnect visitors to their wilderness heritage, sometimes the number of visitors should be limited.
In larger numbers, visitors can reduce the wild character of a place by beating down campsites, creating additional trails, increasing noise and affecting wildlife. Other managers noted that some newer visitors, particularly younger ones, have never been taught "Leave No Trace" practices.
The question of when and how to curtail that can’t be answered well until managers decide what they are trying to protect and at what point an area becomes too degraded to provide a wilderness experience.
Here, too, the agencies are inconsistent in their approaches. The NPS with its public-centered mandate tends to welcome all comers while the USFWS has a few more limits.
Merigliano presented the case study of hikers on Mount Whitney in California. Since the Mount Whitney trail is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, it gets a lot of use. As a result, it also gets a lot of human poop.
Hikers could smell designated campsites before they came to them. Managers finally required hikers to use waste bags, but then people left the bags along the trail.
Merigliano said managers don’t know what else to do.
“The hard part is crafting the story that will get people to buy-in. Why should people care? What’s the consequence of doing nothing?” Meriglaino said.
Back at the panel on wilderness principles, Brandborg praised wilderness managers for the hard work they do and encouraged them to make tough decisions and reach out to the public.
“Your roles as leaders, knowledgable of these forks in the trail that are so important to maintaining the wild, is essential for the public. If I had one admonishment, I would say go forth and enlist citizens who care about the wilderness. Who will spend time and energy in seeing that it’s preserved in a wild state. But you are the emissaries,” Brandborg said.