A Good and Noble Idea Gone Bad

The Wilderness Act was almost immediately pretzeled beyond recognition by both litigation and politics

By Dave Skinner

Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, a good and noble thing. Then, the Wilderness Act made sense. To start, it permanently affirmed all the places Forest Service experts had already administratively decided should be wilderness, such as the Bob Marshall.

To catch other worthy places, the Act also set up a 10-year phased review program studying existing “areas classified as primitive” in the National Forest system, to be completed by September 1974. And there was a parallel review, of “every roadless area of five thousand contiguous acres” in the National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges – again, with the process phased and a 10-year deadline.

Once the reviews were done, and recommendations made, Congress would vote final approval on permanent preservation. Eminently fair and reasonable, right? If national parks are “America’s best idea” – after our Constitution, mind you – wilderness could be the second-best, or maybe a new best? Sure!

However, the Wilderness Act was almost immediately pretzeled beyond recognition by both litigation and politics.

According to Forest Service historian Dennis M. Roth, during the 1964 sausage-making, Congressman John Saylor (R-Pennsylvania) inserted a “minor” amendment in the Forest Service review portion of the Act. It reads: “Nothing herein [would prevent recommending] the addition of any contiguous area of national forest lands predominantly of wilderness value.” As Roth put it, “Saylor introduced this amendment because he knew environmentalists were interested in some” lands “contiguous” to primitive areas. But Roth writes neither Saylor nor House Interior Committee chairman Wayne Aspinall (D-Colorado) “could have suspected the full consequences of its seemingly innocuous language – a national forest portion of the Wilderness System much larger than 14 million acres.”

Gosh, I wish they had …

In 1969, the Wilderness Society’s Clif Merritt (who also co-founded the Montana Wilderness Association), persuaded the Sierra Club and 12 residents of Vail, Colorado to sue based on Saylor’s clause. They won, and the Forest Service then decided it would be best if the Wilderness Act’s Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE) mandate was expanded to review “every roadless area” – not just contiguous or those in the parks and refuges.

The lawsuit in Vail further birthed the concept of “de-facto wilderness” – basically all National Forest lands not yet developed, not merely those in primitive areas. What was the first de-facto wilderness made de-jure big-W Wilderness by Congress, regardless of original intent? The Scapegoat, right here in Montana.

Even so, the expanded RARE review and recommendations wound up in court, mainly because RARE didn’t comply with NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act, a nice, simple little law passed in 1968).

The Carter Administration initiated a second review (RARE II) on 56 million acres, recommending 15 million acres of wilderness, plus another 11 million acres for further study, in January 1979. But RARE II was also blown out of the water when California sued, arguing that Environmental Impact Statements would have to be filed on each of all the non-recommended study areas before they could be released back to multiple-use. Yep, NEPA again – the judge (a Carter appointee and ACLU alumnus with six months on the bench) agreed.

By 1980, where Mr. Roth’s fascinating history wraps up, matters obviously had moved far past Congress’s original intent. Further, as long as a single scrap of federal lands conceivable as wilderness remained, it was clear extremists intended to hold everything, even activities on non-wilderness lands, hostage to that possibility – possibly forever.

Today, the original 15-some million acres of wilderness envisioned by the 1964 Congress includes not only 109 million acres of designated lands, but another 58 million acres made wilderness-in-fact by administrative fiat late in the Clinton Administration – you know, that good old de-facto wilderness that was never the intent of the law in the first place?

So here we are, 50 years later, with multiple-use policy on hundreds of millions of acres paralyzed and no end in sight. Tell me, did anyone imagine that such a great and noble cause could be twisted into the source of such controversy and anger? Apparently not – so please excuse me if I won’t be celebrating today.

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