"One of the purposes of the Sierra Club," David Brower, its one-time Executive Director wrote in 1964, is to "gather together people who know how important it is that there should always be some land wild and free."
These activists' central mission was clear: to "counter the rationalizations of the highway builders, and dam and logging road builders, who would slice through and dismember the Sierra Wilderness, all for a variety of reasons that may apply someplace else but that ought not be allied here."
After all, Brower concluded, neither "California nor the rest of America is rich enough to lose any more of the Gentle Wilderness, nor poor enough to need to."
His maxim still holds true, and I can only imagine how riled up Brower, who died in November 2000, would be by the latest attacks on wilderness -- as place and idea -- emanating out of Congress.
In mid-April, the GOP-dominated House of Representatives passed, largely along party lines, the cynically titled Sportsmen's Heritage Act (HR 4089). It has kicked up a storm of protest with the broad environmental movement, who see it as an ill-disguised assault on the wildlands and the Wilderness Act that Brower and early generations fought so hard to protect and secure.
What has led them to conclude with Wilderness Watch that the "Sportsmen's Heritage Act Will Essentially Repeal the 1964 Wilderness Act"?
The legislation's language initially seems banal; one of its provisions, the Congressional Research Service summarizes in this way:
Requires that Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service lands, excluding lands on the Outer Continental Shelf, be open to recreational fishing, hunting, and shooting unless the managing agency acts to close lands to such activity for specified purposes, including resource conservation, public safety, energy production, water supply facilities, or national security.
Note the word "require": it appears that its compulsory meaning is offset by subsequent terminology indicating that these federal land-management agencies can "close lands to such activity for specified purposes...." Yet the list of the acceptable purposes is striking for what it says and does not say.
It makes sense that the BLM should be empowered to limit hunting if rifle fire would interfere with oil-and-gas production or wind farms or solar facilities. It cannot stop hunting, however, if it chose to do so because it judged that this form of recreation to be inconsistent with (and inimical to the purposes of) wilderness, as defined in the 1964 Act that banned hunting within designated wildlands.
Moreover, HR 4089 tightly constrains the capacity of these federal agencies to act on behalf of wilderness. As the Congressional Research Service notes, the bill "sets forth requirements for a withdrawal, change of classification, or change of management status that effectively closes or significantly restricts 640 or more contiguous acres of federal public lands or waters for fishing or hunting or related activities."
The key phrase here is "640 or more contiguous acres": That's a minimal amount of land. Beginning with Aldo Leopold, the first president of the Wilderness Society, who argued that to be of any significance, wilderness must consistent of at least 5000 acres, all subsequent advocates have pressed for substantial swaths of land to be set aside to preserve what Leopold knew to be its greatest virtue:
No idea is significant except in the presence of its opposite. This country has been swinging the hammer of development for so long and so hard that it has forgotten the anvil of wilderness which gave value and significance to its labors. The momentum of our blows is so unprecedented that the remaining remnant of wilderness will be pounded into road-dust long before we find out its values.
In this context, 640 acres is meaningless; and that's exactly why Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), the bill's sponsor, established this minimum -- it makes it impossible to designate additional wilderness on our public lands.
And just in case those wily Democrats might consider a backdoor maneuver to bring forth public lands that already have been vetted within the Agriculture and Interior departments as legitimate candidates for wilderness designation but which have not yet received Congressional sanction, HR 4089 contained this preemptive counter: it prohibits "the issuance of closures or restrictions on such land that are substantially similar to those that were previously issued and not approved by federal law."
Then there are the other gaming strategies embedded in the legislative text. The NRA has been gunning for the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 for a long time, and to take it out, at least partially, its collaborators on the Hill tucked a key provision into HR 4089:
"Amends the Toxic Substances Control Act to exclude from the definition of 'chemical substance' for purposes of such Act: (1) any component of any pistol, revolver, firearm, shell, or cartridge the sale of which is subject to federal excise tax, including shot, bullets and other projectiles, propellants, and primers."
What this means is that Federal land stewards cannot prohibit the use of lead shot on public lands, even though scientists have demonstrated time and again the deleterious impact it has on public health; and, as the Center for Biological Diversity notes in a recent petition to the EPA, on preventing the "widespread poisoning of eagles, California condors and other wildlife. Up to 20 million birds die each year from lead poisoning after consuming spent lead shot and bullet fragments left in the wild from hunting."
Analysts at Wilderness Watch caught another deliberate attempt to bulldoze the wilderness experience, a result of section 104(e)(1) of the bill, which
strips away the Wilderness Act's prohibitions on the use of motorized and mechanized vehicles, motorboats and aircraft, other motorized equipment, and structures and installations for any activity related to hunting, angling, recreational shooting, or wildlife conservation. For example, this would allow for any hunter, angler, or recreational shooter to drive their ATV in Wilderness as long as they were engaged in one of these activities. While the sponsors of the bill have stated this isn't the law's intent, an amendment to the bill to make certain this wasn't the result was opposed by the bill's supporters and defeated in a House vote.
Along the way, HR 4089 also guts segments of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), directing the Secretary of the Interior "to issue a permit for the importation of any polar bear part (other than an internal organ) from a polar bear taken in a sport hunt in Canada to any person: (1) who submits proof that the polar bear was legally harvested before February 18, 1997; or (2) who has submitted, in support of an application submitted before May 15, 2008, proof that the bear was legally harvested before such date from a polar bear population from which a sport-hunted trophy could be imported before such date."
The list of such predations goes on and on.
Why this intense animus toward wilderness? It seems too obvious that this attack is simply campaign politics at its worst, but then no one has ever accused the GOP of being subtle. And there are two political drivers behind this legislative initiative. It is designed to energize the Republican Party's base across the country in such battleground states as Florida, where the bill's sponsor hails from.
Relatedly, it targets those Democratic representatives and senators running in districts or states that are projected to be closely contested. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is thought to be quite vulnerable, for example, and the Columbus Dispatch in mid-May speculated that how he casts his vote on the senate version of HR 4089, which the "U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, a Columbus-based hunting advocacy group, describes as 'the most important legislation protecting hunters, anglers and shooters in the past 15 years,'" may have an impact on his electoral chances come November.
Farther west, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) is under fire, and has been since first elected in 2006. So tenuous is his position, as I wrote last year, President Obama signed off on one of Tester's pet projects, to take wolf management out of federal hands and give it to the more pliable states; and stripped wolves of their endangered-species status.
This move, I indicated then, "has emboldened Republicans in Congress further to challenge the Obama administration's legislative agenda." Nothing makes this aggressive push-back as clear as the Sportsmen's Heritage Act of 2012.
The crucial near-term issue is whether a senate version of this bill will make it through that Democratic-controlled body. It's unlikely given the power of those environmental warhorses from California, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein. Even the wonks who follow GovTrack.US -- the nonprofit watchdog that offers a "free legislative tracking tool and [is] the data source for many other congressional transparency websites" -- are doubtful: on the HR 4089 tracking page there is a poll indicating that but 25% of its users think this legislation will secure passage.
That informal data provides only so much relief. For the long-term prognosis for wilderness, its protection and expansion; and on its life-affirming qualities, is every bit as unsettled as Aldo Leopold thought it was in the 1920s; and that concerned David Brower forty years later.
Which is why it is tempting to conclude as Brower did, that unless we figure out how to embrace and promote the intensely human values of wilderness, our species -- all species -- will be in jeopardy. "There is no business to be done on a dead planet."
Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here