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Wilderness Act at 50: The Real Reason it Matters

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The Mecca Hills Wilderness in California | Photo: BLM/Flickr/Creative Commons License

On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964 into law. The 50th anniversary of that signing is generating a lot of discussion this week. That discussion is justified. The 50-year-old law is one of our strongest environmental protection laws. Since LBJ signed it, the law has protected nearly 170 thousand square miles of wild land in 44 states and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Those singing praises of the law this week are talking about what protected wilderness offers us: solitude, personal growth, a chance to play and learn from wild places. That's about what supporters of the Wilderness Act said 50 years ago. Wallace Stegner put it best in his 1960 "Wilderness Letter," when he said wilderness "can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."

Solitude, communion with the non-human world, and our sanity as creatures are all important things. But the real benefit of the Wilderness Act lies in a point made inadvertently by its fiercest critics. And another anniversary taking place this week provides one of the best examples of why we need the act.

On September 1, 1914, 100 years ago Monday, the passenger pigeon "Martha" died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo. The last of her species, Ectopistes migratorius, Martha's death provided an early object example, sadly unheeded, of the damage we humans can do to the non-human world.

Just 50 years before Martha's death, her kin flew the North American skies in incomprehensible numbers. Estimates of the passenger pigeon population in North America before European colonization range as high as five billion birds. They flew in massive flocks that could take days to pass. They roosted communally in numbers that would break branches and cover the forest floor in droppings. In the middle of the 18th Century, scientists estimate, one in four North American birds was a passenger pigeon.

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There's disagreement over whether the pigeons' overwhelming numbers back in the day were a long-standing phenomenon, or whether they were a temporary response to some other environmental factor. Some suggest that the epidemics that wiped out most of the Native American population starting in the 16th century might have played a role: people and pigeons had competed for the acorns, chestnuts, and other tree crops the birds loved.

Regardless of the dispute over the origins of those massive flocks, there's little disagreement over the birds' history from the 1700s on. They were there in unbelievable numbers. Those numbers slowly declined over the 19th Century. Around 1870, they started to plummet. And then the passenger pigeon's story ended on September 1, 1914.

There's also little dispute about what did the pigeons in. They were a cheap source of meat for an expanding colonial society. Their survival strategy against predators had been to assemble in such numbers that predators could only take a tiny percentage of the flock. That strategy turned out to be a disadvantage when two-legged predators started using shotguns. Meat hunting, and shooting the birds solely for what contemporary observers described as "pleasure," was a major factor in the pigeons' extinction.

But the other major factor is what's relevant here. As soon as the first metal axes and saw blades arrived on the North American continent, people started destroying the forest habitat the passenger pigeon needed to survive and reproduce. We cut down trees for lumber and fuel. We cut them down and burned the stumps to plow the fields on which the trees had stood. We cut them down to sell for cash on the barrelhead, which barrelhead was made of trees we had cut down. We cut them for railroad ties to build railroads on which we then transported the remains of cut trees to the eastern cities that had run out of forests nearby.

By the 1870s, when we first started to get a glimmer of the passenger pigeon's ultimate fate, we'd cut more than half of the forests in the Eastern United States. By 1914, the total forest cover in the U.S. had dropped to about 33 percent, down from 46 or so when Columbus landed. That 33 percent included the then largely untouched forests of the West, meaning that deforestation in the East was dire indeed.

Before the saws, the story goes, a squirrel could have traveled from Maine to the Mississippi River without once setting a paw on the ground, so extensive and thick were the continent's forests. That was the world the passenger pigeons thrived in.

When we cut those forests, we deprived the passenger pigeons of their habitat. Same goes for the now-extinct Carolina parakeet and Bachman's warbler, and the now-almost-certainly-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.

Ask a wildlife biologist, "What's the biggest threat to non-human species?" and you'll likely get a two-part answer. Climate change will be one part: it's on everyone's mind. The other part will be the massive damage to habitat for wildlife we humans do in the course of carrying out our hundred million little projects.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 is the single most powerful protection wildlife has in the United States against destruction of its habitat. It's far stronger, for instance, at least on lands designated as Wilderness, than the Endangered Species Act. Under ESA, you can completely destroy many kinds of wildlife habitat as long as you don't ask for federal funds. If you do ask for federal funds, there are some hoops you'll have to jump through.

The Wilderness Act, when it's enforced, bans most of that destruction outright.

The phrases "when it's enforced" and "most of" hint at some of the flaws in the Act. Livestock grazing is allowed in many Wildernesses. So is mining and diversion of water for urban or agricultural use, if the necessary infrastructure existed before 1964.

What's more, the designation of wilderness areas is governed more by politics than by science, and Wilderness boundaries are often set by committees of legislators anxious to placate industry in their districts. Old, unused roads are "cherry-stemmed" into new Wilderness areas. Senators will try to force land managers to renew leases on destructive industrial facilities, and do so without losing their official reputations as defenders of wilderness.

Political interference in designating wilderness areas is no surprise. The Wilderness Act has deeper flaws than mere politics when it comes to protecting habitat.

Especially in the first few decades of the Act's existence, much of the land it protected was high-altitude mountain peaks, the so-called "rock and ice" wildernesses. They're visually arresting, offering abundant opportunities for that solitude and reflection and cardiovascular exercise being lauded this week. They're also, often enough, what ecologists call "depauperate": not a whole lot of wildlife lives there. Alpine species are marvelous, and they deserve every bit as much protection as do their lower-altitude colleagues. There just aren't as many of them, so protecting thousands of acres of alpine wilderness doesn't do a huge amount for wildlife in general.

The "rock and ice" emphasis, now being criticized effectively by wilderness advocates, is just an early reflection of one of the Act's main flaws: the standards by which it requires we evaluate wilderness don't map well to biological diversity. Those "Wilderness Characteristics" a place must possess to be considered for designation as wilderness are:

  • minimal human impact;
  • opportunities for appropriate recreation;
  • size of at least 5,000 acres, and;
  • educational, scientific, or historical value.

A usually unspoken "fifth Characteristic": Only public lands managed by the federal government need apply.

Biological diversity of a parcel being considered for wilderness protection might fall more or less under that fourth Characteristic. The others don't really correspond to the parcel's value as wildlife habitat. In fact, the presence of rare species on a site, if land managers were serious about protecting them, might actually curtail recreational opportunities. And as for that first criterion, there's plenty of incredibly important wildlife habitat that's within such a short visual distance of human impacts that it would never qualify as wilderness.

As a result of wilderness being designated according to those formal Wilderness Characteristics rather than by value as wildlife habitat, it's not hard to find examples of valuable wildlife habitat being given short shrift by comparison to less valuable habitat that meets the criteria better.

You can even find valuable habitat being offered up to potential development as a sacrifice, in exchange for more easily designated wildernesses elsewhere. Groups like the Western Lands Project have worked for years to oppose these "quid pro quo" wilderness deals.

And as the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility noted recently, even designated wilderness suffers the vicissitudes of politics and agency inertia. Wilderness must be protected and managed, and that takes money and the institutional will do do the work.

In other words, the Wilderness Act of 1964 is by no means a perfect tool for protecting wildlife habitat. But it's the strongest one we've got, at least for those lands that have been designated as Wilderness.

Ironically enough, it's the act's detractors that sum up the reason best: protection of wilderness "locks up" public lands from the human uses to which it would otherwise be subjected. Designate some stretch of land as wilderness, and there will be no housing developments built there to be sold quickly for short-term profits. The trees that grow in that wilderness will not be cut and sold to become a set of particleboard shelves or pellets for a European wood stove. The oil and gas there will stay in the ground, regardless of how much money there is to be made.

The anti-environmentalists have it right: the Wilderness Act of 1964 points to what they insist on calling "natural resources" and says "NOT YOURS." On Wilderness lands, short-term human interests are not paramount, or at least not those interests that extend past climbing rocks and taking photographs.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 says to us "there are some places where your little projects will not proceed. There are some places that are not to be sacrificed to your whim."

Long may it wave.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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