As Population Increases, More Wilderness is Needed?

Thanks to Earthjustice for this photo of the Sunset Roadless Area.

The Denver Post reports on efforts to get more wilderness in Colorado, and it’s picked up by the AP.. interesting to take a look at this article and compare it to the Gold Standard of Journalism here. I am a fan of interior West newspapers, but please Denver Post, don’t have annoying music and videos when we simply want to read a story!

Here’s an excerpt:

Population growth and the development boom in the West are propelling the efforts to establish wilderness protection while it’s still possible. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials found, in a 2013 survey, that 70 percent of Coloradans consider wilderness or undeveloped open lands offering solitude very important or extremely important. And 72 percent ranked protection of more land as wilderness as “high-priority” or “essential” — an even higher proportion of residents than the high percentages favoring more forest campgrounds, community trails, urban greenways and parks.

But Congress consistently has failed to deliver on most wilderness proposals.

“We need to set aside land and protect it as much as we can,” said San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier, who went to Washington recently as part of a delegation of elected officials.

The locals extolled “economic values” of preserving nature — fellow San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman has said that, with the demise of mining, wilderness that enables recreation is Colorado’s new gold.

My question is what “development” is wilderness preserving “nature” from? I’d think, as a person who spent time making comparison tables of “things allowed in wilderness” and “things allowed in roadless areas,” that you could be more specific about the benefits of a wilderness designation. Perhaps your thinking would be “no mountain bikes”- it’s impossible to tell exactly from this article. But since the population in Colorado is growing, it’s likely to be more crowded in the backcountry whether it’s a designated wilderness or not. In fact, the CPW study cited in the story says “undeveloped open land” into which roadless areas, as well as other designations, would also fit.

Colorado ranks sixth among states for its amount of federally designated wilderness areas but has had few new designations recently. The state’s population is meanwhile growing at nearly twice the national rate.

What on earth does the state’s population growth have to do with designation of wilderness? This article seems to assume that these two concepts are related. It almost sounds as if the person who wrote this, or the group that spoke to them is thinking that houses will be built unless the area is designated wilderness. Maybe the lack of new designations means simply that enough was already designated? It seems to me like this article seems to simply accept the logic presented in (a press release? an interview with TWS?) without asking reasonable questions about the assertions made.

From the Gold Standard piece by Vince Byzdek here:

This method involves a kind of triangulation – seeking out multiple authoritative sources, vetting them thoroughly, disclosing as much as possible about the sources, and allowing people who are accused or challenged in our stories to have the chance to comment before we publish the stories. That means always including opposing views.<

23 Comments

  1. You can criticize the reporting, but aren’t you really disagreeing with the county commissioners who the article is quoting? Local voices are good if they support logging and mining, but not recreation and wilderness?

    “What on earth does the state’s population growth have to do with designation of wilderness?” I always cringe when I hear about legislation “creating” wilderness. What “designation” of wilderness does is maintain the current supply in the face of increasing demand. It provides a greater wilderness experience for these greater numbers in the long run.

    Yes, there are other designations that may provide comparable protection, but for the local interests in monetizing recreation it probably does help to put a capital “W” on it. (However, many wilderness advocates would point out that wilderness should not be designated for the purpose of recreation.) As for designated roadless areas, they are only as certain as one administration’s respect for a prior administration’s regulations.

    • Criticism of the reporting in this case is warranted. The “news” may be all true, but it is one one-sided. As Sharon pointed out, it doesn’t meet the “Gold Standard.” Are there no other valid views? I reckon there are some folks in Colorado who might say that there is already enough wilderness in the state, regardless of the population increase, or that adding wilderness disregards the public’s desire for other types of recreation, or that some areas proposed for wilderness ought to be managed to reduce the chances of large, intense wildfires.

      • Steve — How does wilderness designation affect management “to reduce the chances of large, intense wildfires?” The Wilderness Act allows for “such measures [may be taken] as may be necessary in the control of fire, insects, and diseases, subject to such conditions as the Secretary deems desirable.” Pretty much a blank check. However, I’ll tell you why that check is almost never cashed. There’s damn little anyone can do to “reduce the chances of large intense wildfires” in wilderness areas. And, for the most part, the fires that do occur in wilderness are benign, if not helpful ecologically. Wilderness fires also rarely threaten homes or communities, particularly when compared to fires that ignite in developed areas that are near homes and communities.

        • “Pretty much a blank check.”

          Come on, Andy. A black check for management in wilderness areas? Including chainsaws? Feller-bunchers? In any case, I said “areas proposed for wilderness” — not designated wilderness.

          • Steve: The case-on-point is Sierra Club v. Lyng. The case’s key teaching is that the Forest Service must demonstrate that the activities, which would otherwise be antithetical to the Wilderness Act’s preservation mandate, are “necessary to control the presence of that pest in neighboring pine forests or that it has in any way been more than marginally effective in doing so.” If so, then the Act allows for chainsaws, feller-butchers (sic), herbicides, and anything else that the Forest Service can demonstrate are necessary and effective in controlling the pests. However, as I pointed out previously, the facts rarely support doing so. Of course, the Wilderness Act does not apply to “areas proposed for wilderness,” but the Forest Service often chooses administratively to act as if it does.

    • But I would argue that if the population of Colorado is growing you would not want to paint the W on it, because the area becomes a a target that can lead to overcrowding and negative environmental impacts of recreation. One could also argue that tourism of all kinds, and skiing, are major contributors to carbon from transportation, and increased demands for scarce water for drinking and sewage. Visitors from out of state could be dangerous as they might have a tendency to light up with some recreational marijuana and accidentally start a fire…or with plain old cigarettes or a campfire and that could have negative impacts on wildlife, water and fish.

      And Jon, your point about roadless being a regulation is absolutely true in a sense- a different administration could rewrite them. But all the states were happy with the 2001 rule except for Colorado and Idaho- and with great trouble, they did get their own. Someone would have to want to change them in a new administration, and be willing to spend the political capital. Very ,very unlikely that a new administration would want to change something that’s working for everyone.

      • So you ARE disagreeing with the county commissioners because of possible environmental effects. Does that mean that county commissioners supporting extractive industries should also not do so because of their environmental effects?

        Wilderness supporters could have a different assessment of the political risk to roadless areas under this administration. There’s also the off-road mechanized and motorized uses that could occur under roadless rules (including possibly oil and gas development).

        • Jon, my point was simply that there are more sides to the story. I’m sure that different people could assess the political risk differently- especially when they may be promoting unreasonable fears in order to raise money. I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I do have quite a bit of experience with R and D administrations and roadless rules.

          If in fact, these people who want wilderness in Colorado want “mountain bikes and ATV’s outta here” that’s a different thing than worrying about “development.” They’re either careless about the English language, or intentionally not clear to leave an impression.

          And the Colorado Roadless oil and gas is all about pre-existing leases. Again I have sat in many meetings, with many excellent government attorneys ,about how legal it would be to pull existing leases. I think some administration folks at the State or Feds even wanted to talk to the lease owners about trading or buying them out… but that was above my pay grade and I don’t think it worked.

    • Jon wrote:
      What “designation” of wilderness does is maintain the current supply in the face of increasing demand.
      This is true only where there is no “non confirming” uses that are authorized under the current management plan.
      Very rare.

      • You are right to point out that I was oversimplifying things by only talking about the physical condition of an area rather than its ongoing uses. I think an argument that we could “create” wilderness by kicking out ongoing non-conforming uses would play into the argument that those uses should be allowed to continue pending wilderness designation because they don’t preclude wilderness designation (when in fact a tradition of use makes it politically harder to eliminate that use). The new Planning Handbook includes a requirement in §24.2 for revised plans that nonconforming uses would not be allowed in areas recommended for wilderness in a forest plan, which I think would make this situation more common than “very rare.” (Current plans may be more variable.)

  2. I appreciate Jon and Andy’s comments here.

    I also look forward to Sharon in the near future using one of the many articles that appear in western newspapers, which only feature voices from industry or anti-Wilderness politicians, for her next “Gold Standard” analysis.

    Perhaps this snip from the actual article is one of the reason other voices aren’t included: “Gardner couldn’t be reached this week to confirm this, and staffers declined to comment on his position. Tipton also could not be reached for comment.”

    • Not good enough, Matthew. Yes, journalists are on a perpetual deadline cycle, but this story wasn’t “breaking” news and the reporter may have had time to wait — AND seek out other sources.

      All of us on this forum need to reflect: Are we more tolerant of slipshod journalism when an article aligns with our views? And journalists must ask themselves the same question.

      • “All of us on this forum need to reflect: Are we more tolerant of slipshod journalism when an article aligns with our views? And journalists must ask themselves the same question.”

        Sure, Steve. That’s sort of what I was getting at also. FWIW, I have noticed and had direct experience with politicians simply refusing to offer any comment in order to kill a story. I had that happen numerous times just this winter concerning Ryan Zinke’s Interior appointment and the fact that Trump told Zinke to stop voting in Congress right after he voted to make it easier to sell off public lands.

  3. Sharon, Asking about the difference between roadless and wilderness, you seem to assume that only inventoried roadless areas are eligible for wilderness. This is not correct. Congress can designate anything they want, and we all know that the RARE inventories were exclusionary and not done consistently or accurately.

    ,Problems found on all National Forests
    Our analysis of roadless area mapping available from the Forest Service revealed several problems that are present to some degree on all National Forests. The most prevalent problem was great variation in where Forest Service inventoried roadless area boundaries are drawn. In some places Forest Service roadless area boundaries come to the edge (or even cross) roads that bound the roadless areas. In other places the boundary is kept over a mile away from any bounding road. Most Forest Service roadless area boundaries were drawn in a very imprecise fashion, and often appear to wander across the landscape without any credible rationale for their location. Forest Service roadless areas were delineated without any precise and repeatable criteria and methodology. There is little consistency between roadless areas within a National Forest and even less consistency between forests. The only real consistency that we were able to find between all the National Forests in Washington State was that they all underestimated the acreage of roadless land in areas over 5000 acres in size.
    Many unroaded, unlogged and completely wild areas have been excluded from Forest Service inventoried roadless areas for no apparent reason. It appears that the boundaries of Forest Service inventoried roadless areas were often drawn to minimize their size, particularly where substantial timber is involved. There is also no consistency regarding what is included and what is excluded from Forest Service roadless areas. In some cases Forest Service roadless areas (and some designated Wilderness Areas) include old roads, bulldozer trails, logged areas and other development. But in most cases even the slightest hint of old logging appears to be an excuse for excluding an area from a Forest Service roadless area.

    Peter Morrison, Susan Snetsinger and George Wooten 1998. Unprotected Wild Lands In Washington State An Analysis of Their Current Status and Future under Current Management Direction, A report by The Pacific Biodiversity Institute, February 1998 http://www.okanogan1.com/research/roads/Roadless_Report_by_Morrison_et_al_2000.pdf

    There is also a lot of active management allowed in IRAs even under the roadless rule. I recently reviewed a project with 2900 acres of mechanical treatment in IRA.

    • Sorry 2nd, I was talking about Colorado. I know we reinventoried everything at great length while writing the roadless rule and added acres that weren’t then in IRAs, in a joint project with the State wildlife folks. I think reinventorying is a really good idea for the reasons you describe.

      Right now there are three roadless rules extant. Both Idaho and Colorado reinventoried. I am curious as to which RR the 2900 acres of mechanical treatment are in could you please share the details.

      • Here’s the inventory discussion from the preamble to the national roadless rule (1/12/01):

        “In 1972, the Forest Service initiated a review of National Forest System roadless areas generally larger than 5,000 acres to determine their suitability for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. A second review process completed in 1979, known as Roadless Area Review and Evaluation II (RARE II), resulted in another nationwide inventory of roadless areas. In the more than 20 years since the completion of RARE II, Congress has designated some of these areas as Wilderness. Additional reviews have been conducted through the land management planning process and other large-scale assessments. The 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas used as the basis for this analysis were identified from the most recent analysis for each national forest or grassland, including RARE II, land and resource management planning, or other large-scale assessments such as the Southern Appalachian Assessment.”

        • Jon, I know that that’s what the preamble says, but the inventories used in the analysis were not all terribly good. I agree with the people who worked on it, that they had to push the regulation out and didn’t have time to do a good job examining the boundaries set pre-GIS. That’s why we “found” additional acres in the Colorado Roadless review. It seems likely that that could happen elsewhere were the boundaries to be re-examined with the prodigious detail we did in Colorado. The press article, though, was about Colorado specifically. #stillaroadlessgeekafteralltheseyears

  4. For whatever it’s worth. I just went back and re-read the article in the Denver Post.

    The actual title and subtitle in the Denver Post was this:

    What about that wilderness? Colorado residents prod Congress — again — to preserve pristine mountains while it’s still possible

    Development pressures turn up the heat on wilderness proposals, some languishing since 1999

    The word “Wilderness” appears in the article 72 times. The word “population” appears in the article two times.

  5. When people say they want “wilderness,” what are they really asking for? From a resource perspective, wilderness can have a lot of drawbacks. It certainly does for managing recreation (the whole “primitive, unconfined” thing, for one). Wilderness designations of high-demand recreation areas can become lose-lose situations, for people and the resource. Do they want the actual, in law wilderness designation, or do they want an experience the FS could provide, along with other uses, if it took resource-integrated recreation planning and spectrums of recreation opportunity seriously?

    Designating more and more wilderness and not maintaining its wilderness character (or providing so many special provisions to get it through that it might as well not be wilderness) is diluting the designation, not creating more wilderness. There’s a lot wrapped up in why people want “wilderness designations,” and I think it’s not all just because they want to lock the land down. I think many jump to wilderness designations because they can’t trust the agency to regard recreation and scenery as legitimate resources to be managed professionally in a multi-use environment, despite the very obvious need.

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