Running wild, again

A reborn wilderness movement tries to save what Clinton's Forest Plan was supposed to protect, and didn't.

AMERICA’S WILDERNESS MOVEMENT is resurgent, and the first visible sign of that resurgence will descend on Seattle next weekend, May 29-31. This is the first national wilderness conference in more than a decade, reflecting growing concern about the loss of wild spaces. In this region, a growing clamor for wilderness-area designations already foretells the next phase of the Northwest timber wars.

See end of article for related links.

Wilderness protection is the holy grail of public-lands activism, permanently safeguarding large federal tracts from logging, mining, and other damaging extractive and recreational uses. As Bill Arthur, director of the Sierra Club’s Northwest office, says, “It’s a hard boundary. The protection is real. It’s not left to the whim of a government agency.”

Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, creating a 9-million-acre national wilderness system that has since expanded tenfold. In 1976 it created Washington’s ever-popular, 394,000-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness near Snoqualmie Pass. Nearly a decade later, amid a flurry of wilderness bills, Congress set aside more than a million acres of local wilderness with the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act.

Since those heady days, wilderness protection has fallen out of favor in Washington, DC, thanks in large part to the turmoil over ancient forests. The last major wilderness legislation to pass Congress was the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. Then Republicans took over both houses of Congress, stump huggers like Alaska Rep. Don Young, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, and Washington’s own Slade Gorton ascended to key leadership positions, and further wilderness proposals withered. “The likelihood of this Congress dealing with any large-scale wilderness proposal is pretty remote,” says industry representative Frank Gladics of the Independent Forest Products Association.

GLADICS SEES THE RUMBLINGS of a wilderness campaign as an extension of efforts by groups like the Sierra Club to ban logging on national forests: “It’s difficult to see their proposals as balanced when the president’s Forest Plan already sets aside 85 percent of the [westside national forests] from timber harvesting.”

Conservationists dispute that assessment. The Forest Plan fails to protect ancient forests, they say, and that’s feeding the growing sentiment for new Northwest wilderness legislation. Though the Clinton plan reduced timber harvests on Northwest national forests by more than three-quarters from the illegal levels of the 1980s, irreplaceable old growth is still being logged.

“Over 7,000 acres of ancient forest was sold for logging last year, according to the Forest Service’s own statistics,” says Indiana ex-Congressman Jim Jontz, who now heads the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. More than 1.6 million acres of ancient forest, falling outside the Forest Plan’s ancient-forest and streamside reserves, are slated for logging, according to a report released this year by the Forest- Water Alliance, a coalition of 21 Northwest environmental groups. And Forest Plan protections remain vulnerable to congressional high jinks like the 1995 “salvage rider” that opened ancient reserves to so-called “forest health” logging.

Roadless areas and unprotected wilderness in Eastern Washington’s national forests aren’t covered at all by the Northwest Forest Plan. The Long Draw timber sale proposed for a sizable roadless area in the Okanogan National Forest last year highlighted the vulnerability of Washington’s dry-side forests. Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck has proposed a logging ban for national-forest roadless areas—but excluded those in the Northwest from the ban, thanks to pressure from Northwest congressional members.

All this makes the “hard boundary” of wilderness legislation especially alluring. “Our success has been in drawing a line around a place and saying, ‘You can’t touch this. You can visit it on its own terms and enjoy it of its own accord, but you can’t exploit it,'” says Ric Bailey, executive director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, which works to protect the Hells Canyon wilderness and recreation areas.

“IT’S NOT JUST A NORTHWEST situation,” says Bob Freimark of the Wilderness Society’s Seattle office; across the country, activists are watching growth swallow up the last, best wild places. And so the conference will bring Northwest wild types together with conservationists from Wisconsin, the Appalachians, Utah, and points between. The legendary warhorses David Brower and Stewart Brandborg will be on hand to rally the troops.

Nevertheless, actual new wilderness proposals are likely to be a year or more away, and obstacles abound. First, there’s that congressional hostility. For the Northwest, in particular, Sen. Gorton’s role will be crucial; the Slippery One holds a virtual veto over any Northwest forest issue coming before Congress. Although Gorton helped pass the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act, he’s since gone south on green issues, with an environmental voting record rivaling that of Jesse Helms.

But the Sierra Club’s Arthur notes that public support of wilderness protection can trump official resistance: The Reagan/Watt 1980s were the movement’s heyday, when 26 major wilderness bills passed Congress. “When you create public demand,” says Arthur, “gel a package and get bipartisan support, Don Young isn’t going to stand in your way, just like Ronald Reagan didn’t.”

Environmentalists hope the public is already with them. Last year a poll of Northwest city dwellers by the ForestWater Alliance found that 72 percent supported protecting more federal lands as wilderness. An even higher percentage agreed that wilderness is essential to protecting salmon habitat and clean water supplies for urban residents. “I think the public’s opinion has turned in our favor,” says Jim Jontz.

Politics and public opinion aside, environmentalists’ biggest challenge may be the internal politics of choosing which lands to protect and which to sacrifice. Since the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act, the Northwest environmental community has divided over how to balance ecological urgency and political pragmatism. “It can’t be the same old, same old wilderness we did in the 1980s when we didn’t understand conservation biology,” says Bonnie Phillips, coordinator of the ForestWater Alliance.

Previous wilderness legislation (and the legislation before it that created the national forests) has tended to focus on protecting higher-elevation, less-productive timberlands that draw less resistance but less ecological value. “We’ve always recognized that protecting rocky crags and snow-capped peaks is not going to protect ecological diversity,” says Bailey of the Hells Canyon council, “but we were afraid to think big until [now].”

Thinking big will make pushing a proposal through Congress tougher. It will also make it more difficult for the oft-fractious environmental community to agree on its wilderness wish list. “It’s a lot easier to mobilize support for the places people care about,” says Bonnie Phillips. But those aren’t always the critical habitats that science says should be protected. Even its defenders can’t always agree on what “wilderness” means.

Related Links:

Sierra Club wilderness issues

Independent Forest Products Association—mission statement and info.

Forestwater Project contacts

Mt. Baker—Snoqualmie National Forest page with contacts and recreation info.

Hell’s Canyon info.

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