Outside magazine, September 1999
POLITICS | VIRGIN LAND: A HISTORY | FRONT LINES | CONTENDERS
The Wild Bunch
A dozen threatened Edens, peaceable kingdoms, and unspoiled Nirvanas: Outside's roster of great places that deserve the ultimate protection—wilderness designation
Our first thought on researching wilderness for this issue was to get hold of an expertly ranked, nationwide roster of protection proposals. But when we called advocacy groups, environmental institutes, land agencies, and the U.S. Congress and asked them for a list, we got the same answer: There isn't one.
OK, then, our mission is clear. It's up to us. Herewith, Outside's pick of areas that should be given full federal status as forever wild and free. We've started our list. Get working on yours.
Digging the Deep
THE LAND: Nearly all of Grand Canyon National Park, not including the Colorado River.
Last year the National Park Service proposed wilderness status for 94 percent of Grand Canyon National Park—more than a million acres. Some 130 miles of road would become trail, and the clamor for development—More helipads! More lodges! More Imax screens!—would stop.
Hard-core wilderness aficionados openly hope that designation will eventually lead to bans on flyovers and on the gas-powered craft that make up almost two-thirds of the Colorado's flotilla. But oars and paddles would expand the weeklong canyon float to two weeks—too long, outfitters say, for high-rolling clients who chopper in from Vegas. An intriguing
debate, but one that shouldn't be allowed to hold up long-overdue protection for America's most glorious ditch.
WHO'S FOR: The Clinton administration.
WHO'S AGAINST: You'd have a hard time finding anyone. But Congressional inaction is enemy enough.
THE ODDS: Be patient. The Park Service made its wilderness proposal back in—are you ready for this?—1980.
CONTACT: Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, 520-556-9306.
Smoky Mountain Breakdown
THE LAND: Most of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 430,000 acres evenly divided between Tennessee and North Carolina.
The Great Smoky Mountains wilderness imbroglio is a peculiarly southern tale about a park, a cemetery, a flood, and the spirit of a road. First, the park: The National Park Service originally proposed wilderness designation for most of this classic piece of Appalachia in 1974. But the recommendation has languished ever since, because there was this matter of a road,
or rather the promise of one, made to 1,200 residents of Swain County, North Carolina, in 1943, when the feds flooded their valley and created Fontana Lake. Road-building was stopped when runoff fouled prime trout streams. Area residents still want it for access to a cemetery now sitting across the lake. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina introduced a bill to
complete all 34 miles, but environmentalist and Park Service lobbying stymied it. Since then the dauntless senator has practiced his own brand of conservation: No road, no wilderness. He blocked two Great Smoky Mountains bills introduced in 1987 and '96.
WHO'S FOR: The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, along with the president of the United States.
WHO'S AGAINST: Besides Helms, the flooded families, who have put up a sign at road's end: "Another broken government promise."
THE ODDS: Early this year, President Clinton urged Congress to act on wildernesses proposed by the Park Service for 17 of its charges, including Great Smoky Mountains. The local politics have been lifted into a national debate, say advocates, which gives the park a chance.
CONTACT: National Parks and Conservation Association, 423-457-7775.
THE LAND: 1.5 million acres of Coastal Plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
When wildlife biologists see the Arctic Refuge, their eyes mist over. America's largest animal preserve, this 19-million-acre chunk of northeast Alaska epitomizes Big Nature, offering up musk oxen, arctic foxes, wolves, polar bears, and more than 180 bird species. Oilmen's eyes mist over too, only they're looking down. An estimated 3.2 billion barrels of crude lie
below, much of it locked up by the feds. Eighty-four percent of the refuge is managed as unexploitable wilderness, but one slice could go to the drillers: a 125-mile stretch of Arctic Ocean coastline, calving grounds for the famous Porcupine caribou herd. A bill to protect the area has 143 cosponsors in the House, more than any other current wilderness legislation. But
it needs a total of 218 to avoid annihilation in committee. And then there's the other legislation, the Arctic Coastal Plain Domestic Energy Security Act, recently introduced by Representative Don Young of Alaska to open the area to the oilmen. This bill did just fine in its first round with the House Committee on Resources. Its chairman:
WHO'S FOR: Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, along with the Alaska Coalition, a welter of groups rallying under the slogan "Remember the Valdez."
WHO'S AGAINST: Big Oil and the Alaska congressional delegation.
THE ODDS: If gasoline stays cheap and Congress gets more pro-environment, the Coastal Plain has a shot at staying wild.
CONTACT: Alaska Wilderness League, 202-544-5205.
THE LAND: 18.4 million acres spread across Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
No current environmental proposal matches the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act for size, sweep, and sheer brassy political nerve. The bill would create a patchwork of protected lands throughout the Northern Rockies and all the way to Canada. The proposal is not a luxury, argues Mike Bader, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Without it,
"We'll lose the grizzly."
That's because we're talking not one griz ecosystem but five, all looking much the way Lewis and Clark saw them when they passed through in 1805. But logging and mining are beginning to fragment these ecosystems, hemming in the grizzly along with woodland caribou and America's last wild bison herd. A consortium of conservation groups is pushing an ambitious bill
that would offer smooth travel for wildlife.
WHO'S FOR: Fifty-two members of Congress, backed by the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and a grassroots group called Republicans for Environmental Protection.
WHO'S AGAINST: Most of the region's congressional delegations, along with GOP heavyweight (and former Idaho senator) Steve Symms, who judiciously described passage of the bill as "the end of Western Civilization as we know it."
THE ODDS: Lots of political toes are getting squashed. The longest of long shots.
CONTACT: Alliance for the Wild Rockies, 406-721-5420.
THE LAND: 9.1 million acres of redrock canyons, desert, and mountains covering 15 percent of the state of Utah.
Wilderness activists in Utah are tired of making short yardage from modest (and largely unsuccessful) wilderness proposals. So now they've thrown the long bomb—the American Redrock Wilderness Act—which covers a region so vast that you can't describe it so much as catalog it: the bleak West Desert; ruddy Painted Rock; dry and rugged Wah Wah, Cedar, and
Canaan Mountains; ancient burial grounds of the Anasazi and the Ute. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is going long by lobbying for a 9.1-million-acre bill introduced in May by Representative Maurice Hinchey of New York. Hinchey's bill has 142 cosponsors, but it could face competition from a deal being cut between Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Utah Governor
Mike Leavitt that would lock up a mere one million acres of the West Desert. The SUWA people are used to losing, but a tepid compromise like that one would really piss them off.
WHO'S FOR: An aggressive band of young environmentalists.
WHO'S AGAINST: "Every rural county commissioner in southern Utah," reports one of those young enviros, Tom Price, communications coordinator of SUWA.
THE ODDS: Expect the wilderness side to score—maybe not all 9.1 mil, but something big—within a few years.
CONTACT: SUWA, 801-486-7639.
Crazy Horse's True Monument
THE LAND: The Powder River Country, 24,000 acres along an undammed river in northeast Wyoming.
What better memorial for the great Oglala warrior Crazy Horse (let's not bring up the likeness being dynamited out of a mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota) than wilderness designation for part of the sharp-ridged shortgrass prairie where he rode his ponies and counted coup? The Bureau of Land Management is assessing the area for wilderness, and federal law
requires that it be kept wild until Congress makes up its mind about permanent protection. The environmentalists' strategy: wait an election or two until Congress softens to wilderness, then do Crazy Horse justice at last.
WHO'S FOR: The Wyoming Wilderness Coalition, made up of 17 conservation and bait-and-bullet groups.
WHO'S AGAINST: The Wyoming congressional delegation, which is solidly pro-exploitation.
THE ODDS: You'll see a Powder River Wilderness "when palm trees start growing in Wyoming," says Liz Howell, conservation organizer for the Wyoming Sierra Club. Or when Congress changes hands.
CONTACT: Wyoming Wilderness Coalition, 307-672-0425.
THE LAND: 38 miles along the lower section of Oregon's John Day River, encompassing 27,000 acres.
Back before the Pacific Northwest became a giant playpen for the Bureau of Reclamation and the hydropower moguls, spring salmon migrations saturated rivers throughout the region. These days you'd be hard-pressed to find a spawn-addled chinook, which is why the John Day is so important. A 500-mile-long tributary of the Columbia that cuts through eastern Oregon's dry
grasslands, the John Day is second only to the Yellowstone as the longest undammed river in the continental U.S. and, unlike its big brother, hosts one of the nation's largest surviving wild salmon runs.
Everybody wants a piece of the river. Its lush bottomland offers a smorgasbord for ranching cattle and rich soil for wheat farms. Then there's the annual stampede of 2,500 boaters and the hikers who come to gawk at the American Indian pictographs on the canyon walls. Result: ecosystem overload. Response: the Oregon Natural Resources Council has included the river in
its High Desert Protection Act, which seeks to create 6.2 million wilderness acres across the southeast of the state. But several enviro groups won't get behind the plan—mainly because they can't agree over whether to allow cows to remain in wilderness.
WHO'S FOR: The Oregon Natural Resources Council and a handful of other preservationists.
WHO'S AGAINST: The subsidized-use herd—farmers and ranchers on BLM land who don't want limits on fence construction.
THE ODDS: Dead in the water, until the environmentalists quit their internecine bickering.
CONTACT: Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club, 503-238-0442 (pro-cow); Oregon Natural Resources Council, 503-283-6343 (anti-cow).
The One Less Traveled
THE LAND: 20,000 acres of woods and brook in central Vermont.
In Ripton, a woodland village of 444 souls, you can still walk to the tiny cabin where Robert Frost spent the last 23 summers of his life. The cabin is surrounded by a forest once owned by philanthropist Joseph Battell, who willed 30,000 acres of forest to Middlebury College with the stipulation that it be left in its "virgin and primeval state." And so it remained
right up until the Great Depression, when the cash-poor college sold the land to the feds. The Forest Service allowed logging immediately; a decade later, Frost could see blackberry-tangled clear-cuts from his porch. But much of the forest has since grown back, and in 1984 Congress set aside 6,000 acres as part of the 21,000-acre Bread Loaf Wilderness. The remaining
Battell land continues to be logged; preservationists say it belongs with the rest of the protected area, where it can renew the cycle Frost once observed: "Thus foresight does it and laissez-faire, / A virtue in which we all may share / Unless a government interferes."
WHO'S FOR: The philanthropic community, which has a stake in seeing wills carried out.
WHO'S AGAINST: The Forest Service has argued that the area is not roadless enough to meet official wilderness criteria.
THE ODDS: Local surveys show strong support for wilderness, and the feds are beginning to defrost.
CONTACT: Forest Watch, 802-223-3216.
THE LAND: The King Range, 34,000 acres of California coast 175 miles north of San Francisco.
Highway engineers call it the Lost Coast, because this seven-mile strip of mountains and black-sand beach is the one that got away from Highway 1. Wildland lovers hope to keep it that way. The 22-mile Lost Coast Trail winds through here, offering 4,000-foot summit views of sea lions and old-growth Douglas fir forests. It's ripe for permanent protection—so
ripe, in fact, that the California Wilderness Coalition wants to use the King Range as the poster child for its statewide Wildlands 2000 proposal, a two- or three-million-acre omnibus bill contemplated by Representative Mike Thompson of California.
WHO'S FOR: The California environmental community—but only if the King Range is included to help boost the mega-package.
WHO'S AGAINST: Hardly anyone, but the area is lumped in with more controversial areas.
THE ODDS: Statewide wilderness bills take six to eight years to pass. Too early to tell, say oddsmakers.
CONTACT: California Wilderness Coalition, 530-758-0380.
THE LAND: 16,000 acres along the Sipsey Wild and Scenic River in northwest Alabama.
Descend the 200-foot canyon walls that loom above the Sipsey River and you feel as if you've entered a huge natural cellar: The hot southern sun filters weakly through old-growth bottomland forest of beech and yellow poplar, where the air is ten degrees cooler than up on the rim. Hundreds of waterfalls cascade down the cliffs and mingle with waters that support the
endangered flattened musk turtle. The area borders an existing 25,000-acre wilderness area; until recently, the Forest Service allowed clear-cuts on the remaining bottomland right up to the border, and erosion fouled the watershed. Acting Forest Supervisor Tom Darden has temporarily halted road-building and timber sales along the river. "That gives us time for a public
dialogue," he says. And for conservationists to heat up support for this cool river.
WHO'S FOR: Local grassroots groups.
WHO'S AGAINST: No one, not even the timber industry. That's because public lands provide less than two percent of Alabama's timber harvest.
THE ODDS: Senator Jeff Sessions has hinted that he may include the Sipsey proposal in an omnibus Alabama wilderness bill next year. If he rolls on the river, you'll see a wilderness.
CONTACT: Wildlaw, 334-265-6529.
A Howling Wilderness
THE LAND: Peloncillos Mountains Wilderness Complex, 195,000 acres in southern New Mexico.
Wedged deep in the remote southwest corner of New Mexico, the Peloncillos are the embodiment of lost causes and last stands. It was here, in 1884, that Geronimo surrendered to Lieutenant Colonel George Crook, and it was here that the last wild Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest was found dead in 1979. Surrounding ranches threaten a scheme close to the heart of
wildlife exponents: the Sky Islands Corridor, a proposed string of wilderness areas that could someday stretch unbroken from northern New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico.
WHO'S FOR: Representative Tom Udall of New Mexico, Democratic scion of the most environmentally respected political family in the American West.
WHO'S AGAINST: Representative Joe Skeen, a Republican whose district includes the Peloncillos. Skeen sides with local ranchers, who passionately support protection of all mammals that moo.
THE ODDS: The wilderness gang hopes Udall will submit the area to Congress as part of a 2.5-million-acre corridor bill early in 2001.
CONTACT: New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, 505-255-5966.
Land of the Burning Man
THE LAND: 684,000 acres of Nevada basin 120 miles north of Reno.
The remote Black Rock Desert is nearly devoid of unnatural light at night, except for Labor Day weekend, when 15,000 wayward, New Agey pyros congregate for the annual Burning Man festival. The only creatures skulking around during the rest of the year are bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and the more prosaic varieties of human—ORVers, rock collectors, hot-spring
dippers—some of whom move faster than others. Andy Green of Great Britain broke the sound barrier here in 1997, and Craig Breedlove plans to make yet another attempt to best Green this fall, all on the same wild stretch of playa. Nevada's Democratic senators, Richard Bryan and Harry Reid, plan to introduce a bill to make Black Rock and neighboring mountains a
National Conservation Area covering 1.1 million acres, but the 450-member Friends of Nevada Wilderness want more than half placed under stricter wilderness designation to keep the ORVs from tearing up the soil.
WHO'S FOR: A tiny band of protection diehards. ("You're talking to one of the three wilderness activists in the state of Nevada," said Tom Myers, conservation director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness.)
WHO'S AGAINST: ORV owners. Not to mention rocketeers: NASA wannabes have asked permission to hold an amateur launch of 15-foot-long missiles this fall.
THE ODDS: Advocates' hopes haven't yet flamed out, but Nevada's senators don't want to jinx the conservation area with a wilderness proposal.
CONTACT: Friends of Nevada Wilderness, 775-348-1759.