The New Wilderness Land Grab

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, September 1999

The New Wilderness Land Grab
Armed with serious money, a young cadre of green activists is about to put naked nature back on the national agenda

By Elizabeth Arnold


Brian O'Donnell and Melyssa Watson

In a closet-size office with a sloping floor in downtown Durango, Colorado, a phone rings off the hook. But Brian O'Donnell and Melyssa Watson, codirectors of the ten-month-old Wilderness Support Center, are long gone. O'Donnell is in New Mexico, where he's just wrapped up the first Southwestern Wilderness Workshop, teaching recruits the finer points of a new-style eco-activism. With his ever-present laptop and cell phone, the 28-year-old veteran lobbyist simultaneously rounds up a slide projector for his next conference, in Reno; downloads the latest from Washington, where the House is mired in debate over the Interior Appropriations Bill, the only legislation moving in Congress these days that affects environmental policy; and reads off which members voted yea or nay to the director of the Friends of Nevada Wilderness. Meanwhile Watson, his wife, another 28-year-old longtime activist, is speeding across California toward Reno in a Greyhound bus, having just helped pull together a new strategy for cataloging threatened wildlands at a meeting of the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend.

What's new about a couple of true believers spreading the wilderness gospel? For one thing, a growing congregation of followers—but most of all, money. Groups like the Wilderness Support Center are poised to take their grassroots fight to Capitol Hill armed with the kind of cash and clout that make politicians sit up and take notice. The most startling injection of money is coming from a new environmental program directed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a $4.5 billion endowment fund based in Philadelphia (the Pews made their fortune as owners of the Sun Oil Company). Fired by the enthusiasm of young wilderness revivalists like O'Donnell and Watson, Pew is on the verge of becoming a major player in the movement and plans to commit upward of $20 million a year, starting in 2000, to speed up the pace of new wilderness designation—the largest amount of private money ever targeted for this single issue, and five times what Pew has been spending on environmental concerns.

Activists like O'Donnell and Watson are used to sleeping on floors. That won't change, they say. In their case, the money will buy fax machines, cell phones, and plane tickets, giving them the ability to export their strategy across state lines. They see themselves as green smokejumpers, parachuting in to train small armies of like-minded activists hell-bent on "locking up the land," a phrase co-opted from their opponents.

"Smaller is better, closer is better," says O'Donnell. "We do wilderness, period." After starting up late last year with $300,000 largely provided by the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Wilderness Support Center is a traveling triage unit for an exploding number of new state-based groups. O'Donnell and Watson come through with advice on how to court big donors, where to find allies in the GOP-controlled Congress, and how to inventory roadless areas with satellite mapping programs and digital cameras. "What we do is unglamorous," says Watson. "Sometimes it's just missionary work," O'Donnell adds, "spreading the wilderness word."

Two summers ago, camping with friends amid the redrock spires of Canyonlands National Park and reading Edward Abbey aloud by headlamp, O'Donnell and Watson decided that some kind of SWAT team was needed to pull together the dozen or so fledgling wilderness groups in the West. A year later, in May 1998, at a "wilderness mentoring conference" at the Rex Ranch near Tucson, plans for the Support Center were drawn up. Between panel discussions and campfire sing-alongs, the torch was passed from the previous generation of Earth Day crusaders and Earth First! radicals to the new activists.

O'Donnell remembers thinking, "I guess it's up to us now"—a realization that came back to him two months later, when he learned that 87-year-old Ernie Dickerman, a veteran lobbyist who was present at the creation of the Wilderness Society in 1935, and a prominent participant at the Rex Ranch summit—had shot himself behind his cabin in Buffalo Gap, Virginia. He left a note that said his failing health made it impossible for him to "master my own fate in the wilds of this wild country."


Steven Kallick, an environmental program officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts, was also at the Rex Ranch, taking notes. He was there as a mentor, having spent a decade in rubber boots while mapping old-growth forests in Southeast Alaska. Kallick went back to Philadelphia determined to overhaul Pew's diverse environmental activities, and came up with an eye-popping goal: creating 50 million acres of additional wilderness, double the amount now set aside by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service combined. The Pew money will be earmarked almost exclusively for cash-strapped little guys.

Kallick says that Pew is setting a new trend with its dedication to wilderness, and that other charitable foundations are already following suit. Tom Price, communications coordinator of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), argues that socking away a special place is tangible, straightforward, and attractive to donors. "How hot and bothered can you get over stream siltation rates?" Price asks. "Protecting a million acres has a direct appeal."

Thinking big also means looking for more creative methods of "locking it up" than the holy grail of Congressional designation. In Washington State, environmentalists raised eyebrows and $13.1 million to protect 25,000 acres in the Loomis Forest, one of the last patches of old growth on state land. Working with the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Jeff Stewart, a 34-year-old retired Microsoft programmer, hit up his former colleagues in Redmond with a compelling lunchtime slide show featuring threatened wildlife, ancient lodgepole pine and spruce stands, and maps showing planned clear-cuts and roads. Stewart told his Microsoft comrades that $524 would save an acre and that they could contribute stock options—and avoid a hit from the IRS. Save a lynx, get a tax break. Microsoft millionaires gave millions; entry-level software designers gave hundreds; the cafeteria workers gave $10 bills. "I bet 90 percent of them have never seen the place and maybe never will," says Stewart. "They just like the idea that it's there."

With fewer deep pockets to pick, and more ground to cover, SUWA has become a model for these close-to-the-dirt campaigns that are opening doors on Capitol Hill and causing a prickling sensation among the Goliaths lined up against wilderness. There isn't a canyon or hoodoo in Democratic Representative Maurice Hinchey's Upstate New York district, yet he's the primary sponsor of H.R.1732, America's Redrock Wilderness Bill, a SUWA initiative that would protect 9.1 million acres of Utah backcountry. The bill is the result of years of legwork. Starting in 1995, 500 SUWA volunteers logged 70,000 hours in the field, taking photographs of every wash, cactus, and slab of slickrock—50,000 shots in all—to compile a wilderness inventory five times the size of what the Bureau of Land Management had recommended for designation after supposedly doing the same thing.

SUWA's bulletproof list set the standard for similar efforts in almost every western state. Friends of Nevada Wilderness is sizing up some 14 million acres of sand and mesquite; the Washington Wilderness Coalition is scrutinizing three million acres of alpine lakes and old growth. The combined aim of these local groups is to present Congress with an unprecedented 40 million cataloged acres for wilderness designation.


But it only takes one senator to stop a wilderness bill. Even the most detailed inventory compiled by home-state constituents isn't likely to sway the opposition in the venue that really matters—the U.S. Congress. "The western state delegations are still wedded to yesterday's industry kingpins—miners and loggers," says a Democratic committee staffer. "The resurgence of this grassroots movement and the political reality are still light-years apart."

Take Alaska's Republican anti-wilderness duo, Senate Energy Committee chairman Frank Murkowski and House Resources Committee chairman Don Young. With a nod, they can ban wilderness bills from their committee rooms. And they have. In the world according to Murkowski and Young, caribou still like pipelines, deer still like clear-cuts, and rich elites are still the only ones who like wilderness.

Yet Representative Hinchey and others see some reason for optimism. In 1989, an earlier version of the Utah wilderness bill, proposed in a Democrat-controlled Congress, cataloged 5.7 million acres and lined up 106 cosponsors. Now, with the GOP at the helm, the acreage has nearly doubled, and the measure has 142 members signed on. Progress is even being made in the Senate. Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold seemed an unlikely advocate at first, but a SUWA-sponsored field trip to Zion National Park this past spring left him stunned. "Wow," he said at the time. "Are they all like this?" Now he's determined to visit every wilderness area he has to cast a vote on. More importantly, on September 3, the 35th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, Feingold plans to announce the formation of the first Senate Wilderness Caucus. He promises he won't be the only member; he even hopes to win over some moderate Republicans from back East.

Presidential politics could help the cause as well. With a shove from the man who hopes to succeed him and an eye on his legacy, President Bill Clinton has proposed wilderness designation for some five million acres in existing national parks and wildlife areas. Vice President Al Gore tends to be more interested in global warming than wilderness, but he's looking forward to sparring over the environment with his Republican rival. During a recent campaign swing through Seattle, Gore courted international trade interests, which are still skittish about his penchant for clean air and clean water. But in an interview with Outside, the vice-president grew animated as he
expounded on the "win-win that wilderness represents for the Democrats in 2000." (His challenger, former Senator Bill Bradley, is already prodding him on the issue, boasting of his own efforts to save forests in New Jersey and watersheds in California.)

On the GOP side, there's little reason for activists to be hopeful. The "W." between "George" and "Bush" doesn't stand for "Wilderness." The annointed front-runner with oil-patch roots has had nothing to say on the subject. Only Arizona Senator John McCain, who has also declared his candidacy, seems to have wilderness on his radar screen.

The wilderness movement has nowhere to go but up. The pace of wilderness designation has been uneven since the Act was first passed, subject more to the moods of Congress than the desires of the White House. More land was set aside during 12 years of Reagan and Bush, when the Hill was dominated by Democrats, than in seven years of the Clinton-Gore administration. And 1999 isn't likely to be any kind of milestone. "It's been pretty dry lately," says Bart Koehler, a warhorse in the fight to protect Alaskan forest. He's packing up his office and heading to Durango to join O'Donnell and Watson as director of their Wilderness Support Center.

"There's no instant gratification out here," acknowledges O'Donnell. "But it's pretty cool."

The public seems to think wilderness is pretty cool, too. Voters of all political stripes put Yosemite and a swatch of snake-infested swampland under the same heading. "It's all wilderness to them, and they want more of it," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. The numbers hold true even when people are given a point-blank definition: no roads, no mountain biking, no trace of climbers' bolts. "People want to protect it no matter what it means," says Lake. "It's about heritage; it's about their kids." Ken Rait, who cut his teeth with SUWA and now heads the Oregon Natural Resources Council, cites a recent survey that found a majority of Americans rank protecting wild forests just below Medicare and Social Security, on a par with education, and above peace in the Middle East and improving race relations.

But it's one thing to find an amorphous pro-wilderness sentiment among the voters, and another to turn that into a constituency for the protection of wild places. The new recruits face the same old enemy: the powerful economic interests allied against wilderness. After all, wilderness is widely perceived as something that makes money for no one. The revival faces the tough challenge of mobilizing a committed coalition of voters who respond to high-minded incentives. "It's just good to know that it's there," argues Pew's Kallick. "Part of what makes us American is having a place that isn't conquered."

In the bowels of the House of Representatives, Christopher Arthur, a senior counsel to Representative Hinchey, agrees wholeheartedly, though he won't be hiking through the wilderness anytime soon. "I'm handicapped, and I don't get out in it," he says, joking that he's fought all these years for wilderness so everyone will go enjoy it and get off his back. "But it's not about being out in it," he adds. "These new kids out there, all fired up, ready to do battle for their special places—they don't get it. It's not about them. It's about us. All of us."

Elizabeth Arnold is a political correspondent for National Public Radio.

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