George Ochenski on the true freedom of wilderness

Happy 4th of July, everyone! George Ochenski, the Monday morning columnist for the Missoulian (and a tremendous mountaineer, backcountry adventurer, hunter and fisherman), has this piece in today’s paper.

There will be a lot of blustering about freedom by politicians today, but you can bet there won’t be any talking about one of the greatest opportunities for true freedom in the United States today. Namely, our incredible system of designated wilderness areas where anyone can roam free under the open sky and take in what’s left of nature “untrammeled” by mankind.

It’s been more than half a century since Congress passed the 1964 Wilderness Act and President Johnson signed it into law. Much like Yellowstone National Park, the preservation of large blocks of public land as wilderness is an American idea of which each and every American should be proud. These are not the king’s hunting reserves, these are public lands open to all to enjoy, but not destroy.

While many individuals and organizations were involved in the passage of the original Wilderness Act, Montana enjoys the distinction of being home to one of the main movers – Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg, who was the head of the Wilderness Society when the act was signed into law. Born and raised in Montana, his father the forest supervisor for the Bitterroot National Forest for 20 years, Brandy’s dedication to the preservation of wilderness for future generations has never flagged and continues to this day with tremendous energy, despite heading into his nineties while still living surrounded by the beauty of his beloved Bitterroot Valley.

What Brandborg and his cohorts understood then – and what is even more evident now – is the tendency of human beings to overrun the natural world in their seemingly never-ending quest for wealth and resources. But those very activities that have taken mankind to unheard of heights of civilization have not been kind to our fellow creatures on the planet.

Road-building, massive clearcuts, damming rivers and dewatering them for irrigation, mines, gas and oil wells, fencing, extensive overgrazing, and development have all seriously reduced the once continent-wide wildlands to a mere fraction of their former size. Now, thanks to mankind’s intrusion into the natural world, species hover on the brink of extinction, migratory routes used by wildlife for millennia have vanished under concrete and steel. Meanwhile, the spawning runs for anadromous fish such as salmon that provided vital streams of life to both man and wildlife are now disrupted by enormous dams that turn cold, clean, flowing waters into still, warm and often stagnant reservoirs.

These are are all very real, very well-documented impacts and easily observable to anyone who will take the time to look. The one place you will not find these harsh intrusions on the natural world is in wilderness, which is why it is the only true solution to the problems now facing so many species.

Unfortunately, although Brandborg and his fellow wilderness advocates stood strong and proud to support wilderness for wilderness’ sake, that’s not the case with many of today’s wilderness groups. Having largely abandoned championing wilderness as the last bastion of the world that once was, many of today’s large and well-funded wilderness groups have turned to justifying wilderness designation by lauding the economic benefits rather than the preservation of still-existing ecosystems and the plethora of natural life they contain.

But pandering to the interests of resource extractors under the rubric of collaboration is a losing game. Nothing illustrates that more clearly than the recent announcement by Weyerhaeuser to shut down the former Plum Creek mills in Columbia Falls and then plead a “log shortage” as the cause. That Montana’s highest elected officials bought that line without doing any research is shameful.

The truth is Weyerhaeuser hasn’t bid on timber sales since its takeover of Plum Creek. Instead, the mega-corporation found it more convenient to blame environmentalists for trying to preserve what’s left of Montana’s forest ecosystems. And if anyone doubts the condition in which Plum Creek left its lands, a quick trip up Gold Creek off the Blackfoot will reveal the miles of weed-infested stumpfields that remain as Plum Creek’s rapacious legacy.

On this Independence Day, we should be proud of the freedom wilderness provides us. Free to hike, camp, fish, hunt and wander in the mystery, beauty and silence of the natural world without intrusion from today’s hectic, mechanized society. Wilderness needs no justification – and it would do a world of good for our politicians and their collaborator pals to understand that. As wilderness hero Brandy Brandborg still espouses, we need more, not less, wilderness in which we can all be free for generations to come.

13 Comments

  1. It isn’t only corporate interests and “gang green” groups that have been seduced and corrupted by the economic benefits of Wilderness. The Forest Service and BLM are equally guilty when they charge access and parking fees at Wilderness trailheads, turning what should be an escape from the relentless commercialization of modern life into just another market transaction.
    As G.O. so eloquently puts it, we should be “Free to hike, camp, fish, hunt and wander in the mystery, beauty and silence of the natural world without intrusion from today’s hectic, mechanized society.” Having to whip out your wallet before taking that first step spoils the whole experience.

  2. “Continent-wide wildlands” and “mankind’s intrusion into the natural world” makes me think this columnist does not regard our Native Americans as human! Either that or the writer feels these people had the intellect of a fence post and were incapable of managing their environment to better meet their needs. Or maybe he thinks they were just part of the landscape’s “natural” flora and fauna.

    That this seems to be the thinking is unfortunate because there is ample evidence of these people burning prairies to improve bison hunting and, prior to the arrival of the horse, to drive bison herds over a cliff, into rivers to drown, or towards hunters lying in wait. In an effort to subjugate the Indians, Kit Carson is known to have destroyed peach orchards in the Southwest. Hernando de Soto described fields of four square miles in the southeastern US. De Soto also described sophisticated settlements of the Cahokians in Illinois and Arkansas. See — https://www.britannica.com/place/Cahokia-Mounds — for a rendering of a settlement and then reconsider the notion of “wildlands” or “intrusion”.

    Mankind intruded into these “wildlands” many thousands of years ago!

    • Hi Dick,

      Regarding this comment, “makes me think this columnist does not regard our Native Americans as human!”

      You of course realize that for decades George Ochenski served as a lobbyist for numerous Native American tribes in the Montana State legislature on a variety of important issues, and was widely considered a trusted friend and advocate.

      I also think it’s a fairly wide stretch to assume that every corner of the rugged U.S. Northern Rockies region was “managed” by the hand of man (or woman), be they Native American, or not.

      • Thanks for telling me about the columnist’s background which it makes it all the more surprising that he’d make such a broad generalization. By the same token, I can’t make a broad generalization and say that every square inch of the N. American continent was heavily impacted by human use as parts certainly had little impact from humans either pre- or post-settlement. That we’ve consciously chosen to set aside portions of the landscape for specific purposes is, in fact, a management decision, even if the intent of that decision means human impact will be fairly benign. Pre-settlement, I highly doubt that such a management decision was made and the minimal impact was more a consequence of geography while more accessible lands were used (some were very heavily used).

  3. I tried to experience this ‘freedom’ the author spoke of, but failed to enter the lottery early enough to have a chance at a permit. Not really; I can enter my local wilderness at will as long as I’m on foot (or hitch a ride with a wild horse), stay on designated trails, camp in a designated area, and never use a camp fire. This comes across as a poor attempt to tie wilderness advocacy to a popular holiday; I wonder what advice the author would give mountain bikers looking to celebrate their freedom?

    • Hi Kevin, I suspect the author would advise mountain bikers that they have the ‘freedom’ to enjoy America’s Wilderness system without their bicycles, or the ‘freedom’ to enjoy riding their bicycle over tens of thousands of miles of trails, roads, etc around the country. I enjoy mountain biking too, but I don’t feel a need to ride my bike in Wilderness.

      Hey, have you heard that the electronic mountain bike has “finally come of age?” If bikes are allowed into Wilderness anyone see an enforcement problem with this? How about in 10 years? 25 years?

      • As an occasional cyclist and regular bike-dodger, I enjoy freedom from mountain bikers as much as anyone. In no way was I trying to advocate for bikes in wilderness, although this freedom thing helps explain cyclist opposition to new wilderness designations.

        My point was to highlight the author’s interesting take on freedom. Comparatively speaking, I have the most freedom on the BLM land in my immediate backyard. When I reach Forest Service land my freedom is somewhat restricted, then further restricted when I cross the wilderness boundary. IMO, the author could have better made his point touting our freedom to enjoy our widespread, diverse public lands in a multitude of designated ways. The whole bit about Weyerhauser should have been saved for his next column.

  4. Well, the following video isn’t wilderness, but it is in designated wilderness, and I think falls into the “freedom” to enjoy theme of Ochenski’s article. The film is made by a friend of mine (Scott Rulander) and features crew members of the trail crew I led for about 5 years. I post it to highlight the burdens that the USFS is able to carry off when working collaboratively with outside resources in an effort to provide access to the public. Many thanks to Pat Hart and Steve Petesch, my long time bosses who pour their heart and sole into this rec program — and who will also be fundamental in implementing the section of the newly sited National Pacific Northwest Trail that will run through the Northern most section of the IPNF).

    • So, the trail crew had the ‘freedom’ to violate the letter of the Wilderness Act by using mechanized transport to bring mechanized chainsaws into wilderness, to improve public access?

      Seriously, awesome video. Great work by a committed trail crew. I hope Providence gives me the opportunity to one day enjoy their hard work by hiking that trail. But it plays into my original premise that Ochenski made a lousy attempt to package his wilderness advocacy in trendy Independence Day wrapping.

      • For whatever it’s worth….

        I don’t believe the video above was shot in designated Wilderness, or anywhere near Wilderness. Perhaps Eric meant “recommended Wilderness?”

        Therefore Kevin’s comment “So, the trail crew had the ‘freedom’ to violate the letter of the Wilderness Act by using mechanized transport to bring mechanized chainsaws into wilderness, to improve public access?” doesn’t apply, because it appears as if the trail crew wasn’t in Wilderness at all.

        The only Wilderness areas near Bonners Ferry, Idaho are the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in Montana and the Salmo-Priest Wilderness in far Northeastern Washington (see image below).

        I also think that folks have been using Independence Day to celebrate a variety of our ‘freedoms’ for a good 200+ years now, so I fail to see how Ochenski was being ‘trendy” in his supposed “lousy attempt.”

        • Thanks Matt, correct you are.
          Readers may notice the distinct lack of Wilderness in the Idaho Panhandle. Thus, for those that are interested, I will add that there is currently a pretty strong push, with some support among Idaho Congressmen to set aside the Scotchman’s Peak area (located just west of Sandpoint in the Cabinet Mtns) as designated wilderness. It can use all the support it can get and if you’d like to help out the following link is a good place to start.
          https://www.idahoconservation.org/issues/land/wilderness/scotchman-peaks-proposed-wilderness/

        • While browsing some Aldo Leopold this morning, I came across this in his essay on The Land Ethic: “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.” Individually, we must sacrifice some degree of personal freedom in order to enjoy wilderness. Collectively, one can convincingly argue these sacrifices make us all more free, especially if one abandons their anthropocentric world view to consider the freedom of all flora and fauna in wilderness.

          Ochenski could have effectively tied American wilderness philosophy and policy to our Declaration of Independence from the Old World. He started strongly on that path. Then he wandered off into the weeds, randomly swiping at other wilderness advocates, Weyerhauser, politicians, etc. He makes a halfhearted attempt to return to his original point in the final paragraph, but comes up short with “wilderness needs no justification.” No matter how noble the endeavor, anything the government does needs justification (“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” and all). He would have done better to quote Ed Abbey: “wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.”

          Trendy or not, this is why I called Ochenski’s effort lousy. He wrapped what I assume to be his standard talking points into ‘freedom’ bookends, and tried to feed us a ‘freedom’ sandwich.

      • Sorry Kevin, I recognized my error as soon as I read your reply. The area they are working is not in “designated wilderness.” It is in a designated roadless area. Thus, no wilderness act violation. If you’d ever like to hike it, the trail they are working on is called the Parker Ridge trail and it’s located in the Selkirk’s on the North Zone of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. It forms part of a great loop that can be done in 2-3 days. It initially climbs about 5000 ft to ridge amazing granite ridge walk where multiple alpine lakes can be found. Then you can hook into the Long Canyon Trail, which drops down in to some of the best old growth Hemlock, Larch, and White Pine stands I’ve ever seen. Eventually, the Long Canyon trails dumps out back at the valley floor only about a mile from the Parker Ridge trail. Good stuff, I hope you can enjoy it some day.

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