Not One More Acre

By Beacon Staff

With the economy tanking, government budgets exploding, global warming (Not!), Israel and Hamas “celebrating” Christmas – all both Wild Bill Schneider and former Congressman Pat Williams can write about is the so-called “wilderness drought,” leading everyone off on the “wilderness” tangent for what seems like the bazillionth time.

Don’t be surprised. After all, “Wilderness” is a political creation having little to do with the true, small-W “wilderness” nature of land. Being that wilderness is political, remember, politics is incremental: Boiling frogs, one degree at a time.

The pot was first filled with the 1964 Wilderness Act, passed 44 long years ago, which was basically sold as an eminently-noble “look things over, protect the goodies, and move on” law.

The heat was turned up: “Oh, you missed THIS spot, and THAT wasn’t fairly evaluated…” Which of course led to the “RARE II” process, a re-do, instigated by wilderniks when they decided the original Wilderness Act didn’t set aside enough. So, they prevailed upon Jimmy Carter to administratively re-start the program, as Pat complains, exactly 30 years ago.

Then, the heat turned up again. The original Act intended potential wilderness to be studied once, designated or not, with “the not” going back to multiple use. The two areas Bill is upset about in the lousy Beaverhead Deerlodge “partnership” illustrate the tactic. The West Pioneers and Sapphires were not included in the 1964 review, so Lee Metcalf had Congress pass a do-over in 1977, adding those parcels to wilderness “study,” which to Greens means “designate.”

And so the Wilderness Perpetual Potboiler has simmered on, and on, and on.

First, there was the Bob Marshall. Then the Scapegoat. Then the Great Bear … and people like me, who used to be proud that Montana hosts the Bob Marshall, started wondering when we could get out of the pot.

Now there’s Scotchman Peaks, the Yaak, the Flathead Preserve, and of course, the “roadless areas,” 58 million swell-foop acres of de-facto “wilderness” through Clinton Administration chicanery as a holding action until the “right” (actually left) Congress can be elected.

Congress (a different one) actually recognized, and took steps to end, the perpetual frog cook-off. For example, Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Washington Wilderness Act in 1984, which specifically “hard-released” public lands left over from RARE II and not designated wilderness back to multiple use. It further prohibited the U.S. Department of Agriculture from conducting any more “RAREs” without express congressional authorization.

Wyoming and California have wilderness laws with similar “enough is enough” language, but since Congress can change its mind any time, the wilderness issue in those states continues to fester.

In Washington, Congress just passed the Wild Sky wilderness act, signed by G.W. Bush. The cute part about Wild Sky: It big-W’ed ground that, guess what, had roads AND had been logged … in short, made “Wilderness” out of land that really isn’t.

The good faith intent of past Congresses to do a noble thing has been completely sidestepped. The problem is, wilderness fans simmered too long, the water evaporated off, us frogs dried out into leathery old desert toads, and jumped. There’s a, gee, wilderness “drought.” I’m one toad that is perfectly happy in this desert.

Still, I’d like to suggest maybe we should do what was intended 44 years ago: Do it right, and do it once. How? Maybe our esteemed Congresscritters could write and pass a law authorizing a Montana-specific, broad-based negotiation framework, in which pro-wilderness people have to offer value.

How about agreeing that any designations will be contingent on ending litigation against management and multiple use on non-wilderness lands?

How about agreeing not to lobby for more, more, more at the close of the deal? No more shifting resources to the “next campaign.”

How about agreeing to enforceable release language and explicit prohibitions against future administrative stunts and “study” without specific Congressional legislative authority?

If the environmental community can’t agree to those conditions, then there’s really nothing, not one more acre, to talk about.