Monumental Decisions: What is Wilderness?

The long story of wilderness, national monuments, and how America’s public lands are going to change during the last year of the Obama Administration.

In his famed 1862 essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote: “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” That sentiment has resonated through the American consciousness ever since. The legacy of finding that sense of American individuality and deeper transcendence in the wild has been handed down through John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey, Cheryl Strayed … and now even in the release on September 2 of the Appalachian Trail film A Walk in the Woods. There has been one significant change, however—Thoreau’s original concept of “Wildness,” has morphed into the physical, and legal, idea of “wilderness.” Everyone who loves that wildness of public lands seems to think that wilderness, or at least the preservation of public land, is an essential part of the American character, if not their own personal salvation. There is a lot of disagreement about who that process should involve, however and the current pressure on the idea of wilderness, both physical and philosophical, has never been more heated.

With President Barack Obama near the close of his second term and the polarization of partisan politics at a fever pitch, the fate of public lands is in a curious position in the United States. On the one hand, the President (and even Congress) has been busy preserving and protecting wild places. On the other, a movement that would have once been unthinkable has taken hold to do away with public lands altogether. In the middle, a debate rages about how to manage wild lands that are being enjoyed by more and more people in a rapidly shrinking world.

One thing is certain, there are going to be more changes in public lands in the U.S. before Obama leaves office on January 1, 2017. The administration—which in its first term created two-million-acres of wilderness along with Congress via the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009—has already been active creating new national monuments in New Mexico, California, and Nevada in 2014 and Colorado, Hawaii, and Illinois this year. At the same time Congress created 275,665 acres of wilderness in Idaho this August thanks to Republican Congressman Mike Simpson and Republican Senator Jim Risch, who sponsored identical bills which passed unopposed in both the House and Senate, a shocker in such partisan times. But the larger question seems to be how to manage these lands once they have been preserved. With more and more outdoor recreationists focusing on everything from climbing new routes, to speed records, to mountain biking in these wild places, the debate about just how each can achieve salvation had become muddied.

One big problem is that the concept of wilderness, not just the legal definition (which we will get to in a bit) but something closer to Thoreau’s wildness, changes depending on who experiences it. Consider ultra runner Scott Jurek, who topped out on Maine’s Mount Katahdin in July, setting a speed record for the fastest supported time on the Appalachian Trail. Most casual observers cheered the determination it took to pull off the achievement. Many saw Jurek moving in almost a trance-state of determination over the roots, rocks, and often relatively lonely spaces of the Appalachians using only his feet for 46 days as an intimate connection with wilderness, the ultimate in human-powered achievement. The administration of Baxter State Park, which manages the land over which 5,267-foot Katahdin lords, however was not pleased. The park issued tickets—for alcohol consumption, littering (the bubbly hitting the ground), and too large of a group (more than 12 people)—to Jurek over his champagne celebration with friends and fans at the top of the peak that serves as the northern terminus for the world’s most famous long-distance trail. The littering and group size tickets were dismissed, and Jurek, a vociferous advocate of Leave No Trace principles accepted the alcohol fine.

Park director Jensen Bissell, who has invoked Katahdin’s importance as a Native American sacred site, also publicly lambasted Jurek and the Appalachian Trail itself on Facebook, arguing that speed records and too many people flocking to the park, where Thoreau himself had found a sublime resonance of the divine, threaten to destroy it. “The Appalachian Trail provided the challenge and backdrop for this event and consequently, provided the conduit for this event to land in Baxter Park. The profile of the AT is large enough to attract the corporate sponsorship necessary to support and carry such an event. The AT is apparently comfortable with the fit of this type of event in its mission. The formal federal designation and authority of the Appalachian Trial does not extend into Baxter State Park. The AT within the Park is hosted at the consideration of the Baxter State Park Authority. The Authority is currently considering the increasing pressures, impacts and conflicts that the Appalachian Trail brings to the Park and if a continued relationship is in the best interests of Baxter State Park,” he wrote.

It’s no surprise that Bissell’s concerns over the conflict between the park’s desire to retain its wilderness quality and the hordes of thru-hikers making their pilgrimages to the top of Katahdin coincides not just with Jurek’s well-publicized record but also with the release of A Walk in the Woods. Based on the book by Bill Bryson and harnessing the star power of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, the film is sure to boost numbers on the Appalachian Trail, though no one is sure by exactly how much. Traffic on the trail, which included a record number of about 2,000 thru-hikers in 2015, increased 60 percent in the two years after the book was published in 1998. But the film has only received mixed reviews so far, with a 51 score on Metacritic. Bissell’s desire to move the northern terminus of the AT out of the park predates Jurek’s hike, however. He sent a letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), which manages the trail, in November 2014, complaining about the problems thru-hikers, who he pointed out are only three percent of the park’s visitors, cause the management of the park and suggesting the park had no obligation to host the trail.

For its part, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which does not recognize any records on the trail, has a different philosophy when it comes to people and wilderness. It has embraced A Walk in the Woods and sees both the film and the AT as conduits to broader wilderness protection and appreciation. “We are always encouraging different types of users to get out there,” says Javier Folgar, ATC director of marketing and communications. “What Scott Jurek did was wonderful. It really raised the profile of the AT to the running community and other, larger communities. He really garnered a lot of attention and introduced a new audience to the trail. As far as the controversy on Katahdin goes, it helped raise a much larger issue and start a dialogue. We are planning for more hikers and for means to lessen their impacts.”

Baxter is a special case in public lands, a state park not managed so much by the state but instead under the guidelines of the man who gave the park to the people, former Maine governor Percival Baxter. That mandate does make it different than federally managed wilderness areas or even national parks. Still, Bissell’s vision of wilderness, while noble in that it attempts to keep the experience of Baxter as one that gives sovereignty, a unique experience of exploration, and connection to the land, seems to be incongruent with the way more and more Americans want to experience wilderness. It also could threaten to further polarize the debate over preservation of public lands and isolate many lovers of the wild who could become advocates for the expansion of wilderness.

“In many circumstances, agencies can become their worst representatives,” says Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League (ICL), who worked and lobbied over the past two decades to make the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness a reality. “They can take things to extremes, and I think, in the end, it’s about heart more than law, values and ethics more than being picky. Was he [Jurek] wrong under the letter of the law? Yeah. But were the values and ethics different? No.”

Herein lies the biggest conundrum facing lovers of the outdoors in the 21st century: Can we live with more crowded wilderness? The truth is that as political polarization increases in the U.S. there may be no choice. Either deal with more people, or lose the land.

What Is Wilderness?

The case of Jurek’s champagne has been talked into the ground at this point, but conservationists still face age-old paradoxes when it comes to wilderness protection: Can wilderness be loved to death? Is protection for natural resources and wilderness values simply locking land away from those who would otherwise come to love and protect it? How to balance protection of the values of wilderness against the threat of too many people enjoying it on one hand and the complete loss of wilderness character to development, resource extraction, and even sale to private landowners? To understand the complexity of these issues requires a deeper look at both the current political situation and the history of legal wilderness protection itself.

Passed in 1964, the Wilderness Act is a poetic piece of legislation, which though visionary, also makes it difficult at times to interpret exactly. According to the act—which was written by The Wilderness Society’s executive director, and trained journalist, Howard Zahniser over the course of eight years—federally protected Wilderness, which must be designated by Congress is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This is the legal definition. To date, over 109 million acres of public lands (half of that in Alaska) have been protected as legal wilderness, an area that makes up five percent of the land of the U.S., though only 2.7 percent in the Lower 48. The act bans roads, commercial enterprises, motor vehicles, motorized equipment, and even “mechanical transport” in areas designated as Wilderness (often cited as “Big-W Wilderness, or legal Wilderness, as opposed to “Small-w” wilderness, simply places that are wild, protected or not). And while everyone seems to agree that roads and cars do not belong in Wilderness, federal land managers have been the ones to set the on-the-ground rules for managing it.

The decisions of those land managers—from the Forest Service, National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—about how to best interpret the Wilderness Act, while keeping wild lands more solitary and pristine have also isolated people interested in recreation. In no case has that been more severe than when the Forest Service interpreted “mechanized travel” to include mountain bikes, and officially banned them from Wilderness areas in 1984, creating a schism when it comes to bringing cyclists, and other groups focused more on recreation than preservation, into the fight to protect Wilderness.

“Mountain bikers are very committed to conservation,” says Mark Eller, communications director for the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), who points to the organization’s work with the Outdoor Alliance to advocate for conservation while encouraging recreation in wild places. “The Wilderness Act never mentions if it is for or against bikes. Recreation is just as much a part of its mandate as conservation.”

Exactly how the Wilderness Act is interpreted has not been as important to big conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, however. For them there is only one goal: Protect as much of the roadless land that is left as from threats far bigger than bicycles. That effort has been bolstered by the recreation industry itself, too. Groups such as The Conservation Alliance (CA) have allowed outdoor industry brands to participate in wilderness conservation. The CA raises funds from member businesses in the outdoor industry, including famed outdoor gear manufacturers like The North Face, Patagonia, and Keen, to fund not the big conservation groups but, instead, hard-put grassroots organizations, such as Idaho Conservation League (ICL), to protect the land for recreation and habitat. (And on a deeper level, the commitment of many of the people who run those corporate brands, such as Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard or former North Face and Mountain Hardwear president Topher Gaylord, represents as much of a passion for wilderness and land-preservation ethic as it does their business.) The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which represents the interests of players in what it claims as a $646 billion industry in the U.S., has also been adamant in its commitment to protecting public lands, to sustain the outdoor playground as well as a wider sense of the world that brought its constituents into the business.

“OIA believes that public lands and waters are the infrastructure, the backbone, of a healthy recreation economy both nationally, and in states and communities across the country. We believe that certain land should be valued and conserved for its recreational assets and managed for recreational use, providing certainty for our businesses and the communities who rely on these places for jobs, solace, and clean water,” says Amy Roberts, OIA executive director.

That message has certainly resonated with Democrats in Congress and the White House. But despite the support of of that party and the combined will of the recreation economy, Wilderness is not an easy thing to create. “It’s the gold-standard of protection,” points out Johnson, “so it’s a good thing that it’s hard to create.” Wilderness must pass through both houses of Congress and the President to become protected and that is not been an easy prospect outside of years like 2009 when Democrats had the seats to push through bills. And the designation of Wilderness itself often stands in stark contrast to a conservative philosophy that not only should public land be used for the greatest financial profit, but that it should also be managed locally, instead of by federal laws and at the behest of the distant members of conservation groups. That’s not to say that Republicans will not support Wilderness. Indeed, speaking of “wilderness and its inhabitants” Richard Nixon said “we need them as places of quiet refuge and reflection” and Ronald Reagan signed 43 Wilderness bills into law. But it does take intense work and compromise over exactly how preservation and recreation will work together.

Take the recent case of Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds: The bill that finally passed and created those 275,000 acres of Wilderness, after close to 30 years of proposals, was the vision of Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, who spent 12 years trying to sponsor legislation that balanced the desires of conservationists while also respecting motorized users, including snowmobilers and a heliski operation, in the unspoiled mountains north of Sun Valley. Not all traditionally green groups were happy however, mountain bikers were particularly put out that their stipulations were not considered in Simpson’s bill.

So, how exactly did conservation groups convince Simpson to advocate for Wilderness in one of the reddest states in the U.S.? According to ICL’s Johnson, all it took was bringing him out to experience the untrammeled place. “Idaho’s conservative base asked him how he could justify this bill and his response was simply that it needs no justification. He said that all you need to do is spend a couple nights out there.” Johnson sees this universal draw of the solace of wilderness that can go beyond politics as being far more important than how particular land managers choose to interpret the letter of the law or even how user groups enjoy it. “What wilderness is is very different to people of different cultures different generation, but in the end it’s all about the place,” he says.

The Land Grab

Not all conservatives have experienced Simpson’s Thoreau-esque conversion out in the wilderness, however. In fact, in 2012, the state legislature of Utah actually passed the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act, which declared that the state would take control of 31.2 million acres of public land from the federal Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The bill, whose proponents claim the state can more efficiently manage the land, has no real teeth—yet—and the federal government has refused to recognize Utah’s claims, so for now it’s simply posturing. That could possibly change with a radically different administration in the White House, however. What’s more, every Western state except California has looked at studies on the feasibility of taking over public lands, and while a state takeover bill failed in Colorado this year, and other states such as Nevada have found cost studies politically motivated, the pressure continues to build from conservative state lawmakers to make these takeovers a reality.

While these demands for more local control may seem to make sense when it comes to giving the people who live closest to the land more of a say in how they are used, the reality is that the states just don’t have the income to foot the bill of managing them, including the nonnegotiable cost of fighting wildfires on them. To that end the Utah State Legislature also passed a bill in 2012 that called for a study to determine exactly how much it would cost to take over management of the lands it has claimed. The resulting 784-page report estimated that cost at about $280 million per year, a figure the state could only reach if it drilled more oil wells and if the price of oil was at over $90 per barrel (and could not take into true account the unpredictability of fire costs). To even think about making it work, the state would have to put a system in place similar to those of airlines that would hedge against the volatility of the commodities market. Furthermore, while that study did consider non-market values such as recreation, it was primarily focused on the land as an income earner, leaving out the value of wilderness and how the solace of wild places draws skilled and educated employees to forward-thinking companies based in the state. And that extractive-based analysis has actually ruffled some elected officials in Utah, a state that relies heavily on recreation and quality of life as draws for visitors and skilled transplant workers.

“Forty percent of our jobs are in recreation and only two percent in extractive industries,” responded Chris Baird, vice chair of eastern Utah’s Grand County Council, which includes the outdoor playground of Moab, when the report’s results were discussed at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City last January. “It’s upsetting to call recreation a non-market value. The recreation economy does not have a direct tie-in like oil and gas.”

The biggest worry is that state control would allow for the loosening of strong federal environmental restrictions, prioritizing logging, mining, road-building and energy extraction over recreation and wildlife and resource conservation. Worse, when the states come up short for the cost of land management, they will have to make drastic choices like selling off land. In an ironic twist, not only would locals who supported the idea of state control find themselves locked out when the big machinery rolled in, they would soon be fenced out forever from lands their families have enjoyed for generations. It’s that frightening endgame that has groups like the Conservation Alliance and Outdoor Industry Association speaking out against what they are calling a “state land grab” (a clever switch of memes, since state’s rights advocates have long damned Wilderness areas and national monuments as “federal land grabs”).

“The various proposals to transfer federal lands to states is bad news,” says John Sterling, executive director of the Conservation Alliance. “It undermines the consistent management of federal lands we have all grown accustomed to and the businesses that base their operations on them. If we start to transfer those lands to states a whole new management regime will come into place. The states will be in a position to lease lands for extractive industries and that would fly in the face of more sustainable economies. In many cases, the states won’t be able to afford the price tag, so they may end up selling lands off to highest bidder.”

One positive for conservationists when it comes to state land takeover bills, is that they have created a greater sense of urgency when it comes to protecting land. It also, surprisingly, offers up the opportunity for people who love wild lands and recreation to actually work together—more federal legislation may get passed because of the shadow of public land takeover. The only trouble is that gross political ideology may stand in the way of people of all different political bents finding common ground out in the wild.

“That there is a serious conversation with very smart people about taking over public lands is sad,’ says ICL’s Johnson. “America is better than that. I think the public land discussion right now has become captive to a bigger ideological conflict in the country that is well funded. That conflict includes people on the left and the right. Look, there have always been gripes about controls on public lands from the people who live closest to them, but in the end, these people love and care about these places. Now we are seeing a bigger fan being put to small embers of dissatisfaction, but it is for nothing more than basic partisan wedge politics. It’s kind of pathetic really.”

Monumental Decisions

The upside for conservationists and recreationists, and for the land and habitat itself, is that partisan deadlock in Congress has emboldened the Obama administration in the final years of its second term. It has also electrified the outdoor industry itself, and no matter who takes over in the White House in 2017, many vulnerable public lands will have been protected. While Barack Obama may be at the forefront of this wave of conservation, cementing his legacy as he leaves office, the real credit goes back to a Republican president—Teddy Roosevelt.

A national monument was not initially intended to be a way to preserve land and entire ecosystems similar to a national park, but Roosevelt pulled out his famed big stick via a seemingly benign act that gave the President power to step in and preserve “objects of historic and scientific interest.” Congress passed the Antiquities Act of 1906 with the initial intent of saving archaeological sites—that were fast being looted as the American West developed—through the creation of national monuments. That act specified that the size of the monument would be the smallest possible to effectively protect the resource.

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T.R. thought big, however. The first monument he created was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a unique geological formation, setting the precedent that landforms and landscapes themselves—which were fast disappearing in their natural states in the West—could be considered “objects of historic and scientific interest.” But the real designation that changed the way presidents could truly make a mark on landscape preservation was the Grand Canyon.

“I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is,” Roosevelt said when that great wonder of the American landscape faced the threat of being sullied by development. “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Roosevelt declared 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon as a national monument via the Antiquities Act in 1908, claiming the whole damn thing was indeed an object of historic and scientific interest. There has not been much argument about his action since. What’s more in following century, presidents of both parties followed Roosevelt’s lead and turned to the Antiquities Act to create 142 new national monuments and circumvent the partisan politics and deadlock of Congress. Some of those monuments, such as the Grand Canyon itself, Washington’s Mount Olympus, and Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes, were later turned into national parks by Congress. But it was bold, and sometimes locally unpopular, executive action that pulled them out of the hands of pressing threats.

While national monuments can include legal wilderness, they are more loosely managed. Decisions on how to best protect their objects of interest are left up to the managers of the agencies that oversee them. Monuments can allow mountain biking for example, while banning new roads and motorized vehicles. This important distinction has given monuments a broader appeal with people beyond wilderness advocates. To that end, a plan for a Boulder White-Clouds national monument would have allowed for mountain biking in the area, and may have enjoyed broader appeal. But it did not have the support of Rep. Simpson, however, who as a Republican was dead set against the President interfering in his state. In fact, the threat of Obama slapping the Antiquities Act onto Idaho land convinced Senator Risch, who had squashed a wilderness proposal a decade earlier, on board for wilderness designation. Monument status would not have given the area the same “gold status” protection as wilderness, either, at least according to ICL’s Johnson.

In his second term Bill Clinton, himself embroiled in scandal and the dogfight of partisan politics, saw national monuments as a way to cement a legacy of preservation on the American landscape. In 1996, he declared 1,880,461 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a move that enraged many locals who decried it as federal overreach and sent their children to school wearing black armbands in protest. Those fears have since subsided, as the monument draws in more visitors who spend money in sustainable service and tourism industries. Before he left office in 2000, Clinton created 15 more national monuments and enlarged others. Most of these were on heretofore-ignored BLM land, a plan then Sec. of Interior Bruce Babbitt incorporated into what he called the Landscape Conservation System, a sweeping new vision of how federal lands could be preserved as whole ecosystems.

Obama, who signed the Landscape Conservation System into law in that 2009 Omnibus Lands Bill, has taken up where Clinton took off, creating monuments where Congressional inaction has left public land under threat of future development. And by all accounts he is unafraid to declare more before he leaves office. While the monuments he has declared so far have not been as brash as Clinton’s action on the Grand Staircase, they could very well be when he has little to lose politically in his final months as President. The highest profile possible monument is Utah’s Bear’s Ears, a Native American sacred area full of archaeological sites threatened by looting and rampant motorized use—which actually makes it even more worthy according to the original precepts of the Antiquities Act. A rising tide of public support and the growing strength of the outdoor industry spearheaded by OIA only makes the President’s decision to make monuments easier.

“OIA believes that the appropriate first step is to introduce legislation that has local support from a variety of stakeholders and support from the Congressional delegation. If it is clear that legislation is ineffective—inaction on the bill after two consecutive Congresss for example—we support that area being added to a list of designations to be considered by the president for Executive Order under the Antiquities Act,” says Amy Roberts.

Not only has the ability to create national monuments emboldened the President, conservation groups and OIA, it has also mobilized those outdoor industry brands intent on doing more than selling swag. Chief among them has been Keen, which launched its “Live Monumental” campaign in order to advocate for the creation of three-million acres worth of monuments in Gold Butte, Nev.; Owyhee Canyonlands, Ore.; Mohave Trails, Calif.; and Birthplace of Rivers, W. Va. Starting at the brand’s headquarters in Portland Ore. with stops at each potential monument site, as well as high-profile detours such as the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, Utah, where it combined forces with OIA, and incorporating an online petition (, Keen’s tour has been gathering signatures to encourage Obama, Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Sec. of Interior Sally Jewell, herself a veteran of the outdoor industry as the former CEO of REI, to declare the monuments.

“As a brand rooted in the outdoors, we believe it is our responsibility to stand up for the preservation of the places we play for their environmental and recreational value. It’s in Keen’s DNA to champion action that can create lasting change so future generations can enjoy the outdoors,” says Steve Meineke, president of Keen, when asked why the brand would take such a political stance. “Through the Live Monumental campaign we are able to put those values into action, while giving people across the U.S. a vehicle to speak up for the protection of our public lands. The outdoor industry generates billions in revenue each year, so it’s not only good for the environment and our fans, it is good for business too.”

That type of powerful grassroots advocacy marks a dramatic change in the way business, or outdoor business at least, has and will continue to change and incorporate wilderness and public lands into the way it operates. It also makes it even more difficult to draw a line between how to best protect wild places. While land managers like Jensen Bissell at Baxter State Park must find ways to keep the people who visit their sacred spaces from loving them to death, they also must make sure that they do not isolate the very people who can drum up the political support to keep those places legally protected. Wilderness and national monuments have such a strong foothold in the heart of what we perceive as uniquely American that it is almost impossible to ever see them being overrun, but, then again, the idea of state’s taking public land seemed far-fetched just a few years ago, and it is now a growing movement.

As Johnson says, “People care about this stuff.”

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