September 11, 2004
By Holly L. Fretwell
BEAVERHEAD-DEERLODGE NATIONAL FOREST – As I sit on a knoll on South Willow Creek, the family still snug in the tent, I have a rare moment to reflect on this beautiful spot. Surely this is wilderness. The creek water runs wild and swift, swollen from last night’s rain. The brambles within are stacked, creating a bridge to the large rock in the middle an island the kids so much want to play on. The creek is so loud that only the closest squirrel or bird can be heard. We were warned of bears as we entered the campground below. Told to keep all food tucked away at night. And told there were five cow/calf pairs of moose nearby. All is peaceful.
Then a car rolls by; next, a couple of four-wheelers. They are headed to Bell Lake, a crystal mountain lake three miles away through the forest and alpine tundra. Wait a minute! This is no wilderness, not by legislative definition. This is not a place described by the Wilderness Act as "untrammeled by man." In fact, the trees have been scored with initials where tears of sap now weep.
When we arrived the fire pit was full of broken bottles and burned cans. We nearly always find that we must clean camp before settling in it as our own.
We could venture into the real wilderness. We do sometimes. But with two young boys even a three-mile hike can be grueling, and that is without the overnight gear. Indeed, there are numerous places for us to camp, but even in Montana they can be crowded.
The Wilderness Act was passed 40 years ago this month, in September 1964. Congress wanted to be sure that some federal lands would remain in a natural condition. Areas designated wilderness must remain undeveloped and without permanent improvements. No roads or structures may be built. Vehicles or mechanical equipment cannot be used, not even bicycles. Wilderness initially covered 9 million acres. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System covers 105 million acres across the nation, 35 million of which are in the national forests. With each congressional addition of wilderness acreage, there is less land for developed campgrounds.
Population seeks solitude
At first, that didn’t matter a lot, because so much land was available here in the West. But the population is growing, and a lot of people want to enjoy the forests as I and my family do.
Four years ago, the Clinton administration tried to set aside more land as wilderness – 58.5 million acres, to be precise. These are the "roadless" lands areas that the Forest Service studied for consideration as wilderness but left in limbo. Some had been judged unsuitable for wilderness because they were narrow and bordered by roads. Other lands have existing roads or a development such as mines, campgrounds or transmission lines and therefore don’t fit the spirit of wilderness; some are interspersed with private and state lands.
Give governors a say
It takes an act of Congress to designate wilderness, and the courts stopped implementation of Clinton’s order. Recently, President Bush proposed to give each governor a voice in how the roadless areas in their state could be used. The level of activity would be considered on a case-by-case basis. Bush was right to do this. Citizens living closest to the lands are the most greatly affected by them. They bear the biggest burden of any environmental harms and dangers such as wildfire, the sight of massive clearcuts, or sediment-filled creeks. And they reap the most immediate benefits, whether from clean water, developed campsites or harvest or recreation use.
Those citizens should have greater weight in deciding how those lands are used than legislators acting collectively in Washington, D.C. Wilderness is and should remain a place of solitude and boundless beauty, a place that wildlife can call home and humans only visit. But to set aside 50 percent more land in one fell swoop would have serious consequences for many of us in the West, especially those of us who want access to clear-running creeks and crystal mountain lakes.
Holly L. Fretwell is a research associate with PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, in Bozeman.