Friday, November 5, 2010

Wilderness - the intent, the reality

This is an excellent essay by Geoff Baker, an avid backcountry recreationist from the great state of Idaho. I post it here because I think that the movement to create more "capital-W Wilderness" is practical ONLY if the agencies responsible for administering it get back to the intent of the people who wrote the 1964 Wilderness Act.

In truth, they've abandoned that intent by barring mountain bikes from using Wilderness trails. And because of that, people like me who would otherwise be strong advocates of wilderness are instead put in the position of fighting against it.

As a rancher, I don't howl with outrage when cattle graze in our wilderness mountains - although I do see opportunities for improved management practices. But other than that small point of contention, I think Mr. Baker is right on.


Here's what Geoff Baker said:

"I wholeheartedly support the preservation of "wild" places, so that they remain free from the intrusion of the factors that lead to environmental degredation - resource extraction, permanent, semi-permanent or temporary "development" (including, but not limited to, cattle grazing, ranching, farming, and residential or commerical facilities construction), and any sort of motorized use. I further wholeheartedly support the preservation of "wild" places to be used for recreation by man, but as long as those recreational activities do not require or depend on any sort of motorized power source or other non-living power source.

"However, I cannot and do not support the imposition of formal "capital-W Wilderness" designation. Capital W "Wilderness" advocates and their financial supporters either ignore, forget, or don't know/understand the dual intent behind the Wilderness Act of 1964 - preservation and protection of the environment AND it's recreational use by as many people in a non-motorized method as possible. "Wilderness" advocates overly focus on the former, while typically either ignoring or reducing the importance of the latter. Such focus is myopic and disregards Congressional intent behind the Wilderness Act, as well as its primary sponsor, Senator Frank Church of Idaho.

"The Congressional record and legislative history behind the 1964 Act clearly reveals that Congress did not intend for "Wilderness" to be exclusionary and enjoyed only by those on horseback or on foot. The historical era of the late 1950's and early 1960's had seen a rise in motorized recreation, which was seen by many as leading to the "softening" of America's youth and greater population. Preserving "wild" places in which people could quietly recreate in "solitude" in a "primative" environment under their own power - ie, without motorized assistance - was one of the co-equal driving forces behind the 1964 Act.

"This intent was followed in 1966, when the USFS promulgated a new regulation that interpreted the meaning of the term "mechanical transport" and how that applied to recreational use in "Wilderness." This regulation - which exists today - defines "mechanical transport" to include "any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels, tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a non-living power source contained or carried on or within the device." This interpretation stood for many years, and allowed for the use of bicycles, backcountry skis, snowshoes, climbing gear, and boats and rafts with oarlocks and other mechanical parts to be used and enjoyed in "Wilderness."

"In 1980, Congress' intent to permit human-powered and non-motorized recreation was confirmed in its statement of intent in the creation of the Rattlesnake Wilderness in Montana. This is the law of the United States, and it reads as follows:

"16 USC §460ll(a)
(a) The Congress finds that—
(1) certain lands on the Lolo National Forest in Montana have high value for watershed, water storage, wildlife habitat, primitive recreation, historical, scientific, ecological, and educational purposes. This national forest area has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation who value it as a source of solitude, wildlife, clean, free-flowing waters stored and used for municipal purposes for over a century, and primitive recreation, to include such activities as hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, horse riding, and bicycling; and
(2) certain other lands on the Lolo National Forest, while not predominantly of wilderness quality, have high value for municipal watershed, recreation, wildlife habitat, and ecological and educational purposes.
(b) Therefore, it is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress that, to further the purposes of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (16 U.S.C. 1131) and the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (16 U.S.C. 1600), the people of the Nation and Montana would best be served by national recreation area designation of the Rattlesnake area to include the permanent preservation of certain of these lands under established statutory designation as wilderness, and to promote the watershed, recreational, wildlife, and educational values of the remainder of these lands.

"The activities listed in subsection (a)(1) were found by Congress to be consistent with the ethos and recreational purpose of Wilderness designation. One rule of statutory construction is that all words of a statute are to be considered and provided equal weight when determining the meaning and application of the statute. However, one of the words in subsection (a)(1) of this law has been and continues to be ignored by "Wilderness" advocates and the Federal government - and that word is "bicycling."

"In 1984, in a quick and hurried rulemaking process, the Forest Service arbitrarily and capriciously banned bicycles from captial W "Wilderness." While true "mountain biking" in the United States was in its relative infancy at the time, the modern "saftey" bicycles (which was invented in its current form in 1885) had been used to explore and recreate in "wild" places since its invention. Disregarding this historical use - as well as Congressional intent, legislative history, its own 1966 regulation, and Congress' express statement in 1980 that bicycling is a recreational activity consistent with capital W "Wilderness" designation, the Forest Service hurriedly banned bikes from the Wilderness. That ban stands today, barring millions of recreationalists from millions of acres of "wild' places from enjoying quiet, non-motorized use in "solitude" simply because they'd rather ride a bicycle than use another non-motorized form of transport such as skis, a horse, modern snowshoes, or a raft or rowboat.

"That the 1984 regulation banning bicycling is arbitrary and improper is supported by the words of Sen. Church. The following quote has been attributed to him (although I have not found the original source):

"'As the floor manager of the 1964 Wilderness Act, I recall quite clearly what we were trying to accomplish by setting up the National Wilderness Preservation System. It was never the intent of Congress that wilderness be managed in so 'pure' a fashion as to needlessly restrict customary public use and enjoyment. Quite the contrary, Congress fully intended that wilderness should be managed to allow its use by a wide spectrum of Americans. ... I believe . . . that the agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act too strictly and thus misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed.' If indeed these are the words of Sen. Church, then the 1966 interpretation of "mechanical transport" and the 1980 words of Congress support the concept that bicycling was never meant to be prohibited in those environments suitable for "Wilderness" designation.

"However, "Wilderness" advocates wrongly and disingenuously continue to support the ban on bicycles, which ironically works to directly hinder their own interests in achieiving as much "Wilderness" designation as possible. In doing so, they fabricate arguments that have no basis in law or fact - such as ignoring that bicycles have been used in "wild" places for over 100 years and straight-facedly contending that Congress intended that "wild" places are to be ONLY experienced "slowly" or "on foot" without any form of mechanical advantage. Such arguments are ignorant at best and dishonest at worst, as they ignore the use of skis with mechanical binding, boats with oarlocks, modern snowshoes, and pedal-driven kayaks that provide a "mechanical advantage," but which are allowed in capital W Wilderness. These devices - skis particularly - increase the speed of the user that could not be obtained on foot alone. But, somehow, with no real explanation, they are more palatable to "Wilderness" advocates than quiet, human-powered bicycling.

"Another argument that is constantly made by "Wilderness" advocates is that bicycles cause more environmental damage than other forms of recreation. These advocates, however, base this argument usually on anecdotal, personal examples and not hard reseach and science. Scientific studies have shown on multiple occasions that bicycles cause no more damage and often less damage than do hikers. And far LESS damage than pack trains and iron-shod horses - which are permitted in "Wilderness" - do to the environment. Further, because bicyclists using trails are usually "in and back out" users, they do not stay on the land or stay in the area, unlike backpackers and other foot-based recreationalists, who typically occupy the Wilderness for days, themselves creating their own human-caused damage. Conveniently, however, these facts are ignored.

"It is time for the "Wilderness" advocates to stop treating those who would choose to quietly recreate in "wild" places by the means of a bicycle as, at best, second-class citizens, or enemies at worst. That the 40,000,000 bicyclists in the United States could be powerful allies in the fight for "Wilderness" is lost on the "Wilderness" community - again, to their detriment. This is no more than blatant and hypocritical prejudice against persons who are "different" merely on the basis that they are "different." The America I love has shown that it can overcome prejudice and find commonalities among groups that are more important than these differences.

"The primary and ultimate commonality between bicyclists and "Wilderness" advocates is that we both want to see the continued and permanent preservation of "wild" places free from development and to be used for quiet recreation. We both work for the betterment of the environment AND the betterment of humanity. We SHOULD and MUST work together on this issue.

"However, this is not happening. The advocates - and paid lobbyists - of "Wilderness" do not see bicyclists as equals. They insist on pushing forward with misguided and sometimes dishonest arguments that somehow bicyclists are not privileged to experience "Wilderness" on our terms and our choice of human-powered recreation. They say "go ride elsewhere" and "you've got all you're going to get," like they somehow are in a position of authority to ultimately determine the rights of bicyclists. This negative attitude is moralistic, bombastic, and condescending, as well as without support. This attitude only serves to alienate and anger a constituency who could be an ally in the work to save "wild" places.

"I hike and I backpack. While these activities are enjoyable in their own right, the feelings I feel and the emotions I experience while doing so do not approach the joy, exhilaration and contentment I experience when riding a bicycle in a natural, "wild" environment. I feel far closer to nature and far more in touch with myself when on a bicycle than when I am forced to trudge along by foot. However, I am denied to experience these feelings when "Wilderness" is imposed.

"For these reasons, I will support the protection of "wild" places, but not "Wilderness" until and unless "Wilderness" advocates end their prejudice against bicycles and work towards permanently preserving equal footing for bicycles and bicyclists in our "wild" places."