Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act: Some places are as good as gold

Posted: Nov 12, 2019

"Wilderness, wilderness . . . We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination.”

Ah, nothing like a little Ed Abbey to get the blood pumping.

I was drawn to my battered copy of Desert Solitaire by the recent news that H.R. 1581, the “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011,” and its companion measure S.1087, passed their first legislative hurdles and are headed to committee. It’s still early in the process, but there’s no time like the present to nip these in the bud.

H.R. 1581 was sponsored by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and has 31 co-sponsors in the House, including three Colorado congressmen. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) introduced S. 1087 with the backing of five senators from Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and Alaska. Why not? Wasn’t it Abbey who said, “One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain't nothin' can beat teamwork.”

The legislation—dubbed the “Great Outdoors Giveaway” by opponents—seeks to strip some roadless tracts and other Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) of their current federal protection. The exact amount of land in question is debatable—estimates range from 42 million to more than 55 million acres—but it’s clearly a big chunk of our now-restricted public lands. 

To understand the danger this legislation poses, consider that only about five percent of the U.S. is presently protected as wilderness, and roughly half of that is in Alaska. What’s left in the lower 48 is a smattering of smaller areas that add up to an area about the size of Minnesota. (No offense to the fine state of Minnesota), but that’s wilderness lite. 

Of the total amount of wilderness in the nation, the new legislation is targeting nearly 13.8 million acres of WSAs. There are 585 WSAs around the West, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as roadless areas that have wilderness characteristics, as described in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the Wilderness Act of 1964. BLM is required to protect them as wilderness until Congress decides otherwise. The Pew Environment Group has a great map of the endangered areas.

The legislation is also focused on eliminating protection of 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas (about one-third of all national forest land). In 2001, the Forest Service adopted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (Roadless Rule) to prohibit road construction and reconstruction, and timber harvesting. In 2005, the Bush administration introduced the State Petitioning Rule which gave governors 18 months to create state-specific regulations for management of all or part of the inventoried roadless areas within their states. 

Colorado is one of only two states that endeavored to draft its own roadless rule (Idaho is the other). For several years the plan, which should be finalized in early 2012, has been hotly-contested. While the national rule blocks most road building on 4.4 million of the 14.5 million acres of national forest in the state, the latest proposal offers strict protection to a small fraction (about 13 percent) of the inventoried roadless acreage.

The latest criticism of the Colorado rule came from the Environmental Protection Agency which said, in a letter to the Forest Service last month, that preserving at least 2.6 million of the original proposed acres as roadless is critical. While unbelievably inadequate, even this ill-conceived plan is preferable to what the McCarthy/Barrasso legislation proposes.

While Abbey’s ‘cult of the wild’ may have been more concerned with the spiritual benefits of wilderness,  these unspoiled expanses of land serve many other purposes. Wilderness areas are watershed protectors; inventoried roadless areas alone are found within 661 of the over 2,000 major watersheds in the U.S. They’re also critical to clean air and ecological stability. And they often have, as the BLM puts it, “geological, educational, historical, scientific and scenic values.”

At the same time, these aren’t places padlocked against human uses, as Rep. McCarthy suggested in his testimony to the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. WSAs, in particular allow a mixture of uses—not just hiking, hunting, fishing and contemplating one’s navel—but many permit livestock grazing and off-highway vehicle use and they honor pre-existing water rights, mining claims, mineral leases and rights-of-way. WSAs are also open to the location of new mining claims.

Roadless areas are also far from static. In May 2010, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced that he’d greenlight 14 projects in roadless areas that required building roads in order to access pre-existing hardrock mineral claims. This is all legal under the General Mining Law of 1872 and hardly paints a picture of lands “under lock and key,” as Rep. McCarthy sees them.

Plus, the WSAs now in existence are it. The settlement of the lawsuit Utah v. Norton demanded that BLM designate no new WSAs. Considering this finite amount of land, BLM director Bob Abbey (no relation to the aforementioned author, as far as I know), recently told the New York Times that, instead of releasing these lands, they should be resurveyed for their suitability for wilderness designation. “These recommendations are now 20 years old, and the on-the-ground work associated with them is as much as 30 years old,” he said. “Resource conditions have changed, our understanding of mineral resources has changed and public opinion has changed. If these suitability recommendations were made today, many of them would undoubtedly be different.”

I had somehow doubted that Rep. McCarthy had, as his primary concern, my enjoyment of nature when I heard him tell the subcommittee this: “Because of the current law and regulations, these lands must be managed essentially as if they are Wilderness Areas – the most restrictive management practice, which prohibits most activities, and denies Americans the ability to fully and appropriately enjoy their public lands.”

But I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly he’d take up this cause at this moment in time. That is, until the Wall Street Journal offered this nugget last week: “Gold Fever Stirs Ghost Town: Proposal to Ease Land Protections Could Clear Path for New California Mine.” An open pit gold mine is apparently a compelling flashback for the California representative. That “ghost town” is Bodie, which was a mini-boomtown by the 1880s but ultimately abandoned by 1915, leaving behind a contaminated wasteland.

Bodie Hills now includes three WSAs near the Nevada border, with unparalleled natural and historical resources. The place is so special that Michael Kowalski, CEO of Tiffany & Co. was compelled to make a passionate plea in the San Francisco Chronicle recently saying, “There are certain places where mining simply should not occur, places that have a long-term cultural and ecological value beyond today's price of gold … so we speak out for the Bodie Hills because it is the responsible thing to do and the smart thing to do. We add our voice to those of millions of Americans in urging Congress to reject this ill-conceived legislation.”

I like to imagine Ed Abbey, who said, “There are no vacant lots in nature,” growling in agreement. 

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