Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wilderness Strategy Questioned

Wilderness Strategy Questioned
Is the future of Wilderness simply more of the past?

By George Wuerthner, 2-18-09
The Elk River, a famous salmon and steelhead stream, in Oregon's Copper-Salmon proposed wilderness. Photo by George Wuerthner.
The Elk River, a famous salmon and steelhead stream, in Oregon's Copper-Salmon proposed wilderness. Photo by George Wuerthner.

“Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders. Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause.“‘-- David Brower

Dapine Herling, President of the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), recently submitted a guest commentary to NewWest.Net titled “Opportunity Knocks for Protection of Montana’s Forests and Water.”

In the essay Daphne suggests that the reason Montana had no new wilderness in decades is largely because environmentalists have failed to seek compromises and collaboration with wilderness opponents. I agree with Daphne that negotiation and compromise is always part of any political campaign. However, negotiating for one’s perspective and then having to accept compromised legislation as part of the political process, is different than advocating for a resource industry’s financial and other interests.

An example of recent attempts at collaboration by the MWA that goes over the line towards industry appeasement includes the Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership, which the MWA, along with other environmental groups, has endorsed. In exchange for MWA’s explicit support for logging of hundreds of thousands of acres on the forest, including in roadless areas, representatives of the timber industry have endorsed wilderness designation of lands on Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest.

The Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Proposal near Seeley Lake, Montana is another collaborative effort that the MWA supports. It is less onerous than the Beaverhead Deerlodge proposal, but still includes the MWA advocacy for a revision of the Lolo National Forest Plan to facilitate additional snowmobile use, as well as the public subsidy of millions of dollars to purchase a biomass burner for Pyramid Lumber Company that may increase logging in the local area.

What is a wilderness group doing advocating for more logging, more snowmobiling or greater taxpayer subsidies to private companies? At times it appears the MWA is spending more of its time and energy advocating for expansion of resource extraction than promoting wilderness.

Daphne implies that such quid pro quo agreements are the only way to obtain wilderness designation. Yet among the many wilderness bills in the Omnibus Public Lands Bill before Congress, none, with the exception of the Owyhee Canyonlands legislation, has any significant quid pro quo trades of public resources and/or advocacy of exploitative industries by environmental organizations.

For instance, Daphne specifically cites the Copper-Salmon proposed wilderness on Oregon’s Elk River as an example of a wilderness proposal with wide spread support. It does enjoy diverse support, but based upon its wildlands values not because some industry will garner support for resource extraction. Indeed, the Copper-Salmon Wilderness is being promoted as an antidote to the logging, which has destroyed most of the coastal salmon streams--quite a different approach than the MWA appears to envision in Montana.

Another wilderness proposal mentioned by Daphne is the Owyhee Canyonlands in Idaho. While the Owyhee Canyonlands proposal has the support of the Idaho Conservation League and Wilderness Society, it is opposed by 80 other environmental group--not exactly a rousing endorsement.

Author and Idaho wildlands advocate Ralph Maughan, expresses the dismay that many have about the Owyhee model of compromise. He recently wrote on his web page: “I’ve never been much of an enthusiast for the Owyhee Country because my picture of it is scenic, vertical-walled deep canyons with piles of manure and cheatgrass separating them. With the passage of this “unique Idaho solution,” almost everything will stay the same. Apparently the “model for the future” is more of the past.”

And that is the problem many observers find with most collaborative efforts; they tend to maintain or strengthen the social, political and financial status quo.

As a member of the MWA for decades, a former MWA board member, and current supporter, I am not comfortable criticizing the organization. I have a lot of respect for its staff and board whose motives I do not question. Some of the MWA’s current proposals such as the Scotchman’s Peak effort led by the Friends of Scotchman are good models of how to further wilderness designation by strong advocacy for the land’s wild values without compromising other public lands.

Let’s leave promotion of logging, ORVs, grazing and other traditional resource abuses to their respective industrial spokespersons. Let’s “sell” wilderness on its own merits, not as trading stock to facilitate more resource exploitation of non-wilderness lands.

As David Brower admonished, compromise should not originate with wilderness supporters. Let us be the voice for wildlands protection, always willing to articulate the many values of wildlands. If compromise is necessary, then let the politicians propose it--that is what we pay them to do. It is their job to resolve the conflicts between competing interests. It is our job as wilderness proponents to advocate for wildlands.

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