Tom Tidwell is the current Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Tidwell began his Forest Service career on the Boise National Forest as a firefighter and has spent more than 30 years dealing with forest issues. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in October of 2014.
It seems like the concept of Wilderness could be a little hard to accept for an agency that favors multiple use.
Well, actually, it's not. If you look back on the history, it was the early Forest Service employees that really started the Wilderness movement, the designation of areas. Going back to 1920 with Aldo Leopold, Gila Wilderness came out of his efforts, quite a few years before the Wilderness Act.
And yet the Wilderness Act was created in part because the Forest Service administratively could and did backtrack on Wilderness.
And there's no question. The legislative process to designate Wilderness provides more certainty, by far. It's supported by law. And so those were some of the questions about our administrative approaches that said, yes, Forest Service, you acknowledge these areas need to be reserved, preserved as is; however, things could change administratively in the future. So, that was the benefit and really what was the driver behind the Wilderness Act.
Most folks assume a hands-off approach in our Wilderness areas, and yet, in the future, we may need to manage them more if we want to keep the characteristics we love. Will Wilderness require more management in the future?
Well, in the future we're going to have to definitely use more fire, to help restore and maintain the resiliency of these systems. We also need to inform the public so they have a greater awareness to be careful about bringing invasives into areas. And then when we do get a problem, we can go in there and just use volunteers and hand-pull those weeds. And for the most part, the majority of our Wilderness areas still have very intact ecosystems, and you actually see less invasives, less weeds in those areas, because of that intact ecosystem.
Many people seem quite concerned that the Wilderness is burning up, and that no one is doing anything about it.
Well, fire is part of the ecosystems, and it is the tool, the only tool we have to be able to restore the health and resiliency of these systems. And there's no question, over the decades of fire suppression, we have changed the fire regimes. We've changed the makeup of plant composition in there by keeping fire out. So now our challenge is to put fire back in there. And, luckily, here in Idaho and the Frank Church and also in the Selway-Bitterroot, we've seen the difference by being able to manage natural fires. So, today when we get a large fire started, yes, it burns, but it will burn into one of the old burns that slows down, it creeps across there, and we're able then to have fire in the system to help promote the overall health.
In the past decade or two, we seem to be reaping the effects of putting out all the wildfires, as a matter of public policy, for almost a century.
We are. And there's no question, we're in a catch-up mode, not only in our Wilderness areas but throughout the national forests, to be able to manage more fire on the landscape; but we need to manage it. So, when we get a natural ignition, folks need to understand that we're going to be watching it, and we'll take what steps we need to, to make sure it kind of stays where we want it to be and it burns under those conditions. And that's the thing folks need to be okay with. They need to be able to trust that we are managing it and that we're going to do everything we can so that it doesn't ever threaten their communities.
I think a lot of people would be surprised that the Wilderness Act allows fire suppression. You can fight fires in Wilderness.
There's nothing in the Wilderness Act that prohibits fire suppression at all. In fact, we can go in and use mechanized equipment if we need to. Most places we don't. But in some of our Wilderness areas that are very close to urban areas, if that's what it takes to be able to keep the fire from coming out, we're going to do that.
But the best thing we can do is to be able to manage the natural ignitions so that when we do get a fire started, it's going to burn at a much lower severity. It's much easier to stop if it does come out. And at the same time, it has less of an impact on the overall watersheds. The forest is able to recover a lot faster, and that's what we need to do, and the best tool is by using fire.
The hot Wilderness topic in Idaho, of course, is the Boulder-White Clouds. Within the next year, it appears we're going to have either a national monument there or Congressman Simpson's wilderness proposal, CIEDRA. Have you taken a position?
There is significant difference between designating an area as Wilderness and a national monument. There's no question that Wilderness designation provides the highest level of protection, and it's covered under law. There's a lot of certainty there.
Now, there's benefits with the national monument, too. It can do different things that allow more flexibility than what a Wilderness designation can do. But I think what's really important here, and what I heard from the congressman, is that folks here in Idaho, they want to see some level of protection.
Ideally, I think the Wilderness legislation is the right way, the best place to go forward to really honor that collaborative effort. But at the same time, we need to respond to what we're hearing from the public, and the public is telling us they want some additional protections.
The other part of this is to basically honor some of the compromise that's been developed through these collaborative efforts. The legislation would do that, and as we move forward to have the discussions with communities about a monument designation, that's also one of the things we want to talk about, about how to be able to honor those compromises, those agreements that have been put in place through this collaborative effort.
So, you seem to be leaning more towards Simpson's wilderness proposal than a national monument at this point.
I want to honor the work that's gone on, and there's no question that when it comes to protecting areas, in the times that I've spent in the Boulder-White Clouds, you know, that has Wilderness character. And I just want to make sure that not only my daughter but her kids and maybe the next generation has that same opportunity to go back into a place like that. So, that's probably the best.
With that being said, in this administration the President's been very clear, that where we have situations like we have here with CIEDRA, where there's been strong collaborative come-together, legislative language put forward, bills introduced, but we're not able to move forward with it, there is a good opportunity then for the President to use the Antiquities Act. We did it in Colorado with a place called Chimney Rock, and it was based on legislation that was introduced. Last week we announced the one in Southern California, the San Gabriel. It was based on a legislative approach, and there wasn't any action on that. But it really is just to respond to what the public wants.
What do you see as the real threats to Wilderness in the next 20 years? Is it fire? Is it noxious weeds? Is it climate change? Is it a public that loves motorized travel?
With fire, as we continue to do the work we're doing -- and we're treating millions of acres each year to restore these forests both inside Wilderness and also with outside -- so 20 years from now, we're going to be caught up, and we'll be in a much better place to be able to deal with the fire.
Probably my greater concern with Wilderness, I want to make sure it's still relevant. I want to make sure, like the students that I was talking to this morning in the conference, that they have the passion, that they understand the benefits of these areas, this intact Wilderness; and whether it's to do the research that's in there or to provide that solitude, it's so important. There's no question, it is part of our heritage. It's part of our culture. And I really do believe it is part of the American spirit.
But that's the thing I want to make sure, that Wilderness, the concept of Wilderness, is relevant 20 years from now, 40 years from now; and I think that's a challenge that we have. We need to be able to elevate the understanding and the awareness, especially with the youth of today.
That's a tough one, because the youth of today are looking for their reality on their cell phones and their iPads and their motor bikes. How do you appeal to those kids?
One way we're working on that is through our youth programs. Last year we employed over 10,000 youth across the country, to give them an opportunity to get out and do some work in the national forests and out in the Wilderness areas, so they have an understanding of what conservation's all about. And no matter what they do with the rest of their lives, whatever career path they take, I think that time spending even a few weeks out there can really make a difference; and hopefully some of them will actually come to work for the Forest Service. But whatever they do, that's so important. So, that's one way that we can connect.
The other part is that we've got to learn how to use social media, and when it comes to Wilderness, there's a lot of debate going on. If you're reading the Sand County Almanac from the book you packed in, or if you're reading it off of your iPad, is there a difference? Definitely with some folks there is. But those are the things we need to talk about and really take a step back. And what is the real value of Wilderness? And part of it is to be able to keep it relevant and also to provide access, and if that access is through some forms of social media, then that's something I think we need to embrace.
The work that you do through Idaho Public Television is a great way to be able to share not only the values of Wilderness but why it's important, because I know that there's a lot of people that will never step one foot into a Wilderness area, but they're very strong advocates, strong supporters of it because of what it means to them, just knowing that it's there, and those are the things we're going to have to continue to work on.
Do you ever see a time when the Forest Service will have the money to do what most experts believe needs to be done in Wilderness and in our forests? Do you see any bright spots?
Well, I do see bright spots, and I continue to always be optimistic. But to be fair, we've never had enough resources to do everything. And one of the things that I stress with our employees and with our communities, that we need to feel good about the progress that we're making.
I'll tell you, the differences that are occurring today, we're seeing more and more people that want to be engaged, either to volunteer or actually contribute their own resources, financial resources and their own time, because they want to be part of it. They want to be part of the collaborative processes, but they also want to get out there and help. Those are the things that also provide a lot of optimism with me about where we're headed.
I think it's just a matter of time in this country when we fully recognize the benefit of these landscapes, the value of the clean air, the clean water, the biodiversity, the wildlife and fish habitats, the recreational settings, the quality of life that it provides, plus all those economic benefits that occur from managing those lands. And when we recognize that, then I think there'll be the resources that we need to be able to care for these lands in the way that the American people want them cared for.
Well put. But the opposition is still there.
Well, there's no question, this concept of collaboration — and I'll tell you, it's nothing new, but I'm really proud of the agency, how we've embraced this over the last five or six years, so that it's really commonplace. It's not an easier way, but it's a better way, to take the time to bring diverse interests together and to be able to work out and reach an agreement. Not only do we make better decisions, but then people support those. And when they don't work out as planned, then you've got a whole crowd, you've got a community that's standing with you to say, "Okay, let's learn what didn't work, and let's go back to the table and fix it."
It does take time. And as much as I, at times, think, you know, Wilderness should not be controversial, but it is so important in that it's really permanent protection, and so we do need to take the time to make sure that we select the right area. And that is so helpful, not only to have the right boundaries that we can actually administer, but it really reflects what the community wants. And I'll tell you, where I've worked in places where the community is supported, I'll tell you, it's so much easier, so much better. Not only is the management, the care for the Wilderness, but you have that support, and then you also see more economic benefits in those communities that actually support Wilderness than those communities that have some questions about it.
There really aren't any northern Idaho Wildernesses. You worked there. Is there hope for Scotchman Peak being ultimately in the Wilderness camp?
I think if the collaborative stays together and people are willing to invest the time, then I think it will get done. And the reason I say that is that I've been up there in those communities, and I can remember when people couldn't even stand to be in the same county together, and now they're not only sitting together, they're working together. And not only are we seeing more agreement about what areas should be Wilderness, but also how we should be actively managing other parts.
So, the communities up there are seeing a difference. They're seeing an improvement in the overall forest health. They're seeing the outputs of sawtimber and biomass coming out there which is creating jobs. It's keeping the industry in place so we can actually restore the resilience of these forests. And so people are seeing the benefits of actually coming together. And I think folks are tired. They're tired of the controversy and some of the fight that really didn't solve anything, and because of that, I think we'll get there someday, but I think it'll take a few years. But it's worth it, because once Wilderness is designated, it's permanent, and it needs to be permanent, so it's worth spending the time to do it right.
So, I'm wondering how you keep a stiff upper lip in face of all the adversity that Mother Nature throws at you, and all the controversy over how best to manage our public lands. How do you keep your team from racing to take early retirement?
Well, there's more support for the Forest Service mission of being able to not only provide the benefits, but to provide the services. There's more support for that today than ever in my entire career. There's less controversy. There's less conflict. There's more people coming together; and whether it's around Wilderness or around what we need to do to restore these forests. And I'll tell you, that's the difference.
And I'll tell you, this is the most exciting time in my career, and I've spent most of my career dealing with the conflict, but today there's more and more support where people are sitting down together, reaching solutions and we're moving forward to not only increase and improve the management of the national forests but also to improve the service. So, that's what keeps me going. This is, in many ways, the best time — the best time in my career, and I'll tell you, that's what keeps us coming to work every day.
Last question: you made an appeal to Idahoans today at the Frank Church Conference.
The appeal I made this morning, it was kind of based on my experience with the Idaho Roadless Rule. And I'm on record as saying that I didn't think that was going to work out. I'm from Idaho. But I'll tell you, that group — and it was kind of a formal collaborative -- I'll tell you, they impressed me. They found resolution around that issue, and I use it as an example. If we can do that on 9 million acres of roadless in this state, the idea that we can come together to identify which areas should be Wilderness, so that was my ask.
I think Idaho can set the example. They can be the model, like they have been in the past, about there's a better way to do this. And the big part when it comes to Wilderness, getting the designation, it provides certainty. And so a lot of folks that are concerned about what it is or what it's not, getting it completed also answers that question. So, there's benefits for everyone that's interested in this, and so that's kind of my expectation. We've done it before. There's no reason we can't do it again.
Craig Gehrke is the regional director of the Idaho office of the Wilderness Society. He was a key player in the 2009 wilderness designation of Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands, the state's first wilderness legislation in nearly 30 years. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in the summer of 2014.
We've had designated wilderness now for 50 years. What has it meant to the nation?
Wilderness designation is a commitment to a landscape that I think really helped define what America was. We don't have to develop everything in order to be a wealthy nation. Wealth isn't just about money. Wealth is also about spirit, and it's about heritage.
The thing about wilderness that I've come to appreciate is that there's no good or bad in it. It just is. We get carried away with trying to put our values on a landscape, and I think that's the wrong thing to do. I think you have to take wilderness on its own terms and leave your values behind when you come in and experience the wilderness. You're there to learn from it, not there to make judgments.
And what do you think it's meant to Idaho to have 4 ½ million acres of wilderness?
The wilderness system protects and preserves and keeps the best of what really makes Idaho unique. There are places where people say, this is really what defines our state, like the Middle Fork Canyon, Hells Canyon, the Sawtooths. We can't improve on that. We want other people to see this. We want people to come after us to say, this is really a great spot in our state, and it's always going to look like this.
Is there one thing that folks don't understand about wilderness?
That you take wilderness on its own terms. You don't come in and decide what ought to be there. The idea that we bring our artificial targets for elk populations into a wilderness area, we bring our artificial goals for wolf populations into wilderness -- that's not what wilderness is about.
Wilderness is about what happens to the land when we step back and appreciate it and try to learn from it. We can take those lessons and apply them to other landscapes that we do more intensively manage. I'm a big believer that we need places in the West that we learn from and we don't try to manipulate. Good baseline information -- what does the western landscape look like without big manipulation -- is very valuable to us, and it's something that we don't take advantage of enough or appreciate enough.
How important is it to the Wilderness Society that there be more wilderness?
Specific places don't protect themselves; if they are going to remain undeveloped, there's got to be a proactive approach to it. People have to step forward and say, "Okay, this place right here deserves to be protected."
And the whole emphasis behind the Wilderness Act was that leaving it to agency flexibility wasn't going to cut it. Here in Idaho the Forest Service removed places from primitive areas before they were designated wilderness. That really brought groups like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club to say we need a more permanent system, because to endure the political winds was going to take an act of Congress to set this up and not leave it just to the agencies to manage.
The Forest Service was opposed to wilderness right up until the bitter end where, I would argue, they saw the inevitability of it. They didn't like it. It was a problem. And even for years afterwards, I remember back when I started my career, wilderness was really not necessarily a career move for a Forest Service person. It's gotten a lot better the last few generations.
Are there places that you think today deserve the designation of wilderness?
I think in the short term, they've done a fabulous job around Scotchman's Peak to build local support for Scotchman's, and I think that's just a matter of time. I mean, they've gotten grassroots support for a wilderness designation.
I think the Great Burn on the Idaho and Montana border is another great candidate that's been recommended for generations now for wilderness. Borah Peak should be wilderness. It's been recommended. So, I think there's lots of different spots around Idaho that are going to come and be in the wilderness system at some point.
Are you worried that a younger generation may not have the same feelings about wilderness that you have?
It's tough, and I kind of believe this is somewhat cyclical, too. I think we're kind of in a downswing right now, and that's unfortunate because, like I said, areas don't protect themselves. They need constituencies.
I think the challenge for groups like the Wilderness Society is to find more opportunities to get younger people to places like Idaho and see what we've got here. Until we did the Owyhees, the idea of wilderness and the discussion about it was off the table for a long time. People come here now and they kind of take it for granted, "Oh, yeah, those are cool places. They've always been there." Well, it was tough.
So, I think trying to get people to appreciate that wilderness areas are the unique places they are is part of an educational process, and I think as people stay in Idaho and they come here, they get to know those places, and I'm counting on an upswing.
It seems that most of our current wilderness areas have involved bitter fights.
And, see, that's the point we make about all of these designations that they're incredibly controversial, and that's okay; but they're also looked upon as the right thing to do.
It's important to remember that when the final passage for the Frank Church Wilderness came about, Frank Church was the only one who voted for it out of the four members of the delegation. He didn't let the lack of agreement stop him and stop that effort, and I think that's important. At some points you'd need to step forward with a longer term vision and do the right thing.
Nobody in their right mind today would argue for more damns on the Snake River. Nobody in their right mind would argue for a molybdenum mine at the base of Castle Peak. Very controversial, but, in hindsight, these are Idaho's icons.
You raised some eyebrows when you hooked up with mountain bikers to push a White Clouds monument without any wilderness in it.
I'll be honest. It was a tough decision. The Wilderness Society has argued for support of wilderness in the White Clouds for decades now. One of the first conservation actions I took as a student at the University of Idaho was signing a petition to make the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness, back in the early 1980's. So, backing off from wilderness came as a recognition of how dysfunctional our Congress is.
Also, I'm a firm believer that places do not protect themselves, that if you want a place to remain as it is today, it takes a proactive approach. Just thinking, "Well, you know, the Forest Service will manage it okay" -- that's not going to happen. If you look at the last 30 years, there's no question that that's been eroding.
Mountain bikers hardly existed, you know, 15 years ago. Now they're a constituency with a seat at the table. And so the decision for the monument came saying, "All right, let's work with the constituencies there and talk about managing all the uses there." Nobody wants the trails in the White Clouds to be overrun by bicyclists, so I'd rather be having them with us to make a decision about how to manage a monument after it's done than just leaving it the way it is right now, which, basically, you show up, you get to ride.
There's a fellow in Lewiston that's converting dirt bikes over to snow travel, and will the Forest Service say, "No, you can't do that" in a wilderness study area of the White Clouds? Well, they've got a pretty poor record of that right now.
For folks like me who value solitude, silence, wildness -- to leave it the way it is now, you're going to lose that over time. You've got to step forward. People have got to step forward and say, "Okay, we're going to manage this or we're going to protect that kind of character."
I think a monument can do that now. It's not going to be wilderness, but I'm convinced that five years from now, a monument in the Boulder-White Clouds is going to be better than they would be if we don't step forward and do something. Look at the different constituencies that helped to get Hells Canyon passed, like the jet boaters. That wouldn't have happened without the jet boaters, so we kind of talked about the mountain bike was our jet boat moment.
We need these people to protect the White Clouds at this point in time, and they came forward and said, "Well, let's talk about the trails here. Let's talk about how this might work." We had some pretty productive discussions that led to the agreement, that we'd support some trails that have been left open, and they'll support some trails that are being closed in the Monument, so it worked out at this point in time.
I imagine you got a few calls from your wilderness buddies.
We did, and we still do, and it's been hard. I'll be honest. It's been hard to motivate the folks who have worked for generations for wilderness to accept less than wilderness, but again, it gets back to the process we've counted on, which is Congress. It's broken. Nothing's going to happen.
There's a lot of folks that say, "Well, if you do a monument, you shut the door on wilderness forever." That's not technically true, but I'll be the first to admit that once you protect an area, for all intents and purposes, it's protected that way. You know, coming and taking the second bite of the apple could conceivably happen, but there's not been much history of that.
So why couldn't advocates push Rep. Simpson's wilderness bill for the Boulder-White Clouds over the finish line?
It was very frustrating when Congressman Simpson couldn't get the White Clouds through, because that had everything going for it. It had a constituency; it had buy-in from the County; it had pieces that everybody was better off than they were without the bill. And to see that just sink under the partisan wrangling that we see now was very disappointing, because a lot of us -- and particularly Congressman Simpson -- spent years putting that package together.
I think there were seven versions of it; it kept getting better all the time from our standpoint. He got to the point where he should have been able to get over the finish line and just didn't quite make it.
It was interesting that the Owyhees made it through and the White Clouds didn't. Talk about your dark horse! Nobody knew where the Owyhees were; they couldn't even pronounce "Owyhee." And suddenly that one passed, and the White Clouds didn't, even though the White Clouds have been, since 40 years ago, looked at for wilderness.
What if the president had just quipped, "Oh, we're looking at Monument status in Idaho's White Clouds"?
Part of it was we kept hoping that we could get wilderness. We didn't push for Monument until we had a bit of a realization, "This isn't going to happen. You know, this is not going to happen." And we still thought, because there had been so much work gone into Simpson's bill, that we could resurrect it. We could get enough momentum again, get something moving through Congress. Then everything stopped moving through Congress, from budget bills to wilderness bills to anything. They weren't doing anything, and that avenue just seemed to be walled off to us.
I'm wondering if we can really afford wilderness in the 21st century, if it's all just going to burn up or become infested with noxious weeds.
It is going to burn. You know, Yellowstone burned. Forests have been burning for generations, and they'll continue to burn. There's not much we can do about it. That's where you've got to step back and just say, "Okay, we can't stop this, you know. It's just going to happen. What can we take from it? What can we find out about that, about this landscape here?"
But you're right. If you look at a map for the Frank Church, most of it has burned now to the point where I would argue that you're not going to get this scale of fire anymore, because you've got a bit of mosaic, and you've got places where fire doesn't burn as intensely. Now climate change will probably change that, because we're going to have different burning conditions that we've never seen before.
And what about weeds?
Some folks would argue, "Well, just let the weeds go. You know, you just have to watch and see what happens." Other people would say, "Well, we're supposed to be providing for wildlife and fish habitat, and a lot of these weeds don't supply forage for anything."
So, that's the balancing act where they're trying to keep the status quo, but the long-term success of that, I think, is really up for debate. We've supported weed control on the Middle Fork, along the Selway, along the main stem, but I've got to admit, when you see other places in Idaho, the Lower Salmon or the canyon with yellow starthistle, you've got to kind of wonder, "Is this all inevitably going to change very dramatically and for the worse?"
So management is the answer?
It will require some manipulation, some management, and it almost makes you think, at what point can we not keep it the way it is? What point does it become not wilderness but become a relic of what was? And that's not their management goal either, but that's kind of how we think about it. I want this place to look like it does when I saw it and when my kids saw it, and I'm not too sure that's going to work out long-term.
Well, it's the whole global change thing. Protecting wilderness doesn't do anything for global warming other than give us, like I said, some kind of benchmark to judge what we've done to the planet. But after working all these years, inevitably, they're going to burn. You're going to see more weeds. You're going to see some wildlife leave. You know, will mountain goats survive in Idaho 50, 60 years from now? I don't know. I don't know.
I imagine this problem of weeds is a real concern in the Owyhee Canyonlands, our newest wilderness.
I think the potential problems down there will be fire, and this gets into the fact that I think our fire regimes are changing. And that's going to be a place where the BLM is going to really have to think hard about how they're going to manage fire, because you've seen what happens between Boise and Mountain Home. Repeated fires wipe out sagebrush.
Some of the best sagebrush and sage-grouse habitat are like in Big Jack's and Little Jack's Creek, and so that would make an argument for a more proactive fire suppression in these wilderness areas, because we can't afford to lose any more of the sage-grouse habitat. So, that's going to be one of the balancing acts that I think the BLM faces, that we're all going to face, is maybe a free fire regime is a luxury we can't afford in the Owyhee Canyonlands, because that would mean the loss of sagebrush and sage-grouse. And are we willing to make that sacrifice?
So, you can't just take a hands off approach to wilderness. Any decision is a decision that's going to affect the land down there, and just letting fire go down there has some long-term ramifications for altering that ecosystem to cheatgrass.
You seem so pragmatic about wilderness. So it doesn't mean a "hands off" approach to land management?
It's never been that way. That's kind of the myth. And I think, actually, the opponents try to say, "Yeah, you're going to lock that up and then it's just going to go to hell, you know, burn up, whatever." And that's not how it's ever been.
Even with fire back in the 70's and 80's, there were conscious decisions of what lightning strikes they were going to go in and suppress. And look at the Middle Fork. You're managing 10,000 people down that river every year. That's not a hands off.
So what are the "myths" of wilderness?
Boy, it's hard to start on the myths about wilderness. We've heard everything from you can't do search and rescue, you can't hunt, you can't pick berries. You can't maintain trails. I mean, over the years, it's mostly just put forward to scare people. And I think it's gotten better in the more recent years, because I just think there's more people that know what wilderness is all about.
But I remember back in the early 1980's where even people like Representative Craig was saying you can't maintain trails in a wilderness area; and we're just constantly putting out these little brush fires of misinformation. It's just mostly promoted by the opponents trying to scare people.
So you can fight wildfires in wilderness?
You can fight fires in wilderness. You can put them out. You can jump on them. You can let them go; like a lightning strike now, they'd probably leave it alone. A lightning strike a month from now, I don't know. It's going to be interesting this year.
Any last thoughts?
It used to be that pioneers felt they were surrounded by a sea of wilderness. Now wilderness is surrounded by a sea of people; and you've got air pollution affecting alpine lakes.
And that's another concern, that there are more people living in the West and coming to these places. That's going to affect wilderness areas; how are we going to deal with that? Those are going to be some tough questions.
Earl Dodds was the first ranger on the newly formed Big Creek District of the Payette National Forest, serving in that position from 1958 until his retirement in 1984. The Big Creek District, originally part of the Idaho Primitive Area, became part of the River of No Return Wilderness in 1980. Dodds wrote a book about his experiences, "Tales from the Last of the Big Creek Rangers," which is available on the Payette National Forest website. This interview was conducted by Marcia Franklin in July of 2014.
What about this country attracted you so much that you wanted to work here for so long?
The big geographic feature in this whole area is the Salmon River. It is very difficult to say too many good things about the Salmon River. It's all within one state, which is really kind of unusual. It has no dams on it; it's an entirely free-running river. It has a fishery that is outstanding. In addition to the fishery it has big game, and it is really a tremendous resource. And in fact, even though it's entirely within Idaho and it's Idaho's river, it's a national treasure. It really is.
I think it's truly a unique feature and (I had) a real outstanding opportunity to be involved with the management of this place back here.
The area you administered used to be called the Idaho Primitive Area. Tell me about that.
The intent of the whole Idaho Primitive Area was to set aside something and keep it in an undeveloped state, so there weren't any roads constructed during that time, and there's no logging. But it was very long on fire control, and at that time the number one priority in most of the districts in the West was fire control.
So the area was considerably opened up from that extent and there were quite a system of trails and lookouts and telephone lines, and the whole objective was to catch the fires while they were very small and keep 'em that way.
And then the Wilderness Act was passed. What was that like?
It took quite a long time, like eight years, to debate the provisions of the Wilderness Act through the Congressional process back there in Washington D.C. and finally get it signed. But when it did come to a vote finally it had overwhelming support. There was a really great interest in doing it and setting something aside and keeping it in a wild state.
You often hear the conservation services say America's best idea was the national parks. I'll bet you the Wilderness Act is not too far behind that. In years to come we're going to be recognized as maybe the #2 best idea (tears up).
You get emotional talking about it don't you?
I do get a little emotional talking about it.
Why is that?
I just really believe in the wilderness movement. I'm a strong supporter of the wilderness movement and keeping it undeveloped.
Tell me more about why you feel wilderness is so important.
Well, for one thing, once it's gone, it's gone. You can't get it back. So hold onto it as long as you possibly can. Keep your options open there. You know, once it's opened up and has the systems of roads and logging and so forth, the country has changed dramatically. And we've got a huge amount of that already, but this wilderness resource is dwindling.
And you had a privilege to be one of the few people right there at the beginning.
That's really right. It was really an opportunity and a privilege and, and almost like an honor here. This central Idaho unit was the largest in the lower 48 states and this Big Creek/Chamberlain District is one of the biggest pieces of that. So it was really quite an opportunity to move that from the Primitive Area management status over to this new Wilderness Act philosophy.
Did you feel at the time that you had a great responsibility?
Well, yeah, I felt we were in for a sea change here as far as management direction goes. The big emphasis on fire control and all of the lookouts and jumping on these fires was kind of taking a backseat here. We were running into, "Hey, we're going to manage this now as wilderness."
And fire control, it didn't change completely overnight, but we got to recognize that fires are a part of the natural environment back here and the fires were here way back in Lewis and Clark's day. And before the Forest Service nobody was taking action to put out forest fires. And we were going to allow fire to play a more natural part in the management areas. So that was really a major change.
What was it like working with the trail crews?
One of the things I really liked being a ranger back here was the opportunity to work with the younger guys because a lot of them this is their first time really away from home to do anything and they take right to the big country too, and they like the idea of being back here in this living condition.
Occasionally I used to get a hold of one or two, I can remember one guy had packed clear out to Lookout Mountain and about two weeks later said, "Come get me; I can't take any more of this." There are those types and there are the other ones that this is kind of the high point in their life and they come back year after year.
What were some of the other challenges transitioning from the Primitive Area to wilderness?
One of the things we started on was a program of "pack it in, pack it out" here with all the camp provisions. And that was kind of a radical change here. The Forest Service ourselves, we never packed things out when we'd camp. We buried everything and we encouraged all of the public and the outfitters and guides who pack in a tremendous amount of groceries in the course of a long big game season back here to bury their trash, too.
(The new "pack it out" program) was kind of a real unpopular program with the crew. Nobody particularly likes to handle a bunch of old icky rusty old garbage and tin cans and so forth. And I had to kind of lean on the guys to get behind the program there. The packer, he didn't like the idea of packing that old rattly stuff there on the mules. And then we got it into Chamberlain and the pilots they sure didn't like putting that old icky stuff in their airplane.
And then it was unloaded at the McCall airport, and it worked fine as long as you could back a Forest Service pickup up to the airplane and then throw it in there and haul it away to the dump, but that didn't happen all the time. Had it piled around the airport and the airport manager thought that was terrible. So it was really a kind of a tough time there.
But we stuck with it, and by golly we packed out a small mountain of trash out of Chamberlain.
I'm really kind of proud of the American public and the way they have changed their ways here on that. Particularly with the floating group. A lot of those campsites are used almost nightly, and by golly, they pick those things up clear down to picking up cigarette butts and toothpicks and very small micro-trash.
What was it like for you to have to change your living conditions to comply with the requirement of the Act that you be non-mechanized?
It was a major change there. Out went the power saws and all that, we flew 'em back, put 'em in the fire cache there in McCall, and we did away with the generator, and we got a push mower here to mow the lawn there at Chamberlain. We got rid of the tractor and we had to replace it with something, so we went and got a couple of matched mules that were broke to pull the mowing equipment very much like the farmers did all over the country before the days of the tractor.
I think what the strategy now is, "Hey, let's not have so many people (employees) back here." If you have people there, then they need things like washing their clothes, they need all the flying for the groceries and so forth, and we're trying to cut down on that activity. So the real way to do it is to not have as many people.
And I find that hard to live with myself because in my day the Forest Service it was the dominant presence back here. We had the system of lookouts and we had to maintain the trails to them, so we had trail crews out there. And if visitors came back in here they had a contact with Forest Service personnel. But now they've cut down on the number of people there to the point where we are no longer the dominant presence back here. Which kind of bothers me.
Existing airstrips were grandfathered into the Wilderness Act, even though planes are clearly mechanized. What do you think about them?
Well, that was very much incompatible with the wilderness concept. That was one of the big debates, and it held up action on the wilderness bill for a long time. I think the airplane is here to stay back here. Personally I think we've kind of overdone it here with so many strips along Big Creek there.
How do you balance the idea of wilderness with also making it possible for people to enjoy it?
Well, I strongly believe that if the wilderness movement is going to prevail and we're going to be able to keep it and it's going to be able to grow, it's going to have to have a broad base of public support. Not just a few elite people who will go to the South Pole or climb Mount Everest or something like that. It's going to have to have a much broader appeal to the outdoor public.
Part of that is the public has got to be able to use it to a certain extent. And I'm not talking about making the trails into bridal paths. We haven't developed the trails to be like a boulevard by any means. You can expect to get your feet wet while you wade through across the creek or you get an occasional log to work around. But it's not just one jumble after another, you know, or completely abandoned.
If people do come back in here and holy smokes, that was the worst darn trail they'd ever been over, by golly they have a negative experience and their support for the movement falls off.
Why did you decide to write a book?
My kids were after me. "Gee whiz, dad, you've got all those stories. Why don't you write 'em down and write 'em up for us?"
So I started to do it and then I went to one of these smokejumper reunions in McCall, and gee whiz, the guys that I had jumped with were all so old, and I'm thinking, "Boy, here we're talking about these people slipping away from us here, and I ought to do something with those doggone stories."
My young friend Richard Holm leaned on me, and by golly he found out that the Forest Service does have a little money to publish something like that. And then we took them to the Heritage program on the Payette National Forest where our friend Gayle Dixon is. We turned the project over to her and she just rose right up.
And it has proved to be far more receptive to public interest than we ever thought of.
When you look at your tenure here, is there something that stands out for you that you feel you're the proudest of?
I think I'm proudest that we did keep it in as wild a state as we did. That's not as easily done as it might seem.
John Freemuth, a political scientist at Boise State University, has written numerous books on the nation's public lands. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in the fall of 2014.
What can we learn from Idaho's newest wilderness, the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness?
The two things I think about is, number one, the forcing event or crisis that got them together was the talk of a national Monument. And people said, well let's come up with something better that's more local. And second, I think we're starting to see more and more that any kind of new wilderness has to be done with some giving and taking. It's not just more wilderness; it might be something for a local community or something like a land trade or something like that. That seems to be the current era right now.
So the idea of a pure wilderness bill is a thing of the past?
Things can always change, but look at what Congressman Bishop is trying to do in Utah where they've got environmentalists on board. Here's a very conservative Republican who's going to have a lot of power now, since he's Committee chair. More wilderness, but land traded for oil and gas and so forth. In other words, that seems to be the only way now, by and large, unless there's just no controversy over something perhaps small.
Does the follow-through of federal agencies, once Wilderness is secured, bother you?
You mean, they promise something, then it gets more controversial? Yeah that seems to be an issue where there's a disconnect between the ground. Certainly the BLM people here, at least from what I've heard, with Tim Murphy now as director, are pretty well thought of. But there are people with different points of view in Washington, D.C., that are often "program" people, and so there's a tension there. What's frustrating to local folks is, you think you've got something worked out, and some guy drops a flag late in the process, and that drives everybody nuts.
What's your take on the White Clouds?
The White Clouds is not a new deal. Cecil Andrus' career began with it; the Park Service proposed in part, a wilderness park. But right now you've got these difficult politics of new wilderness and the notion that the delegation's got to be behind a wilderness bill, which has always been a role, but apparently there was an agreement that went away, and so Congress has not supported it.
Governor Andrus gets up and says, based on what he was able to do in Alaska, let's try the Monument route, and so it is an issue now about, well, something's going to happen, but what's the best? Does the threat of a Monument create a chance to pass Wilderness? I have no idea, given Congress today. I'd say maybe in the past it would, but today I don't know what's changed, unless maybe Congressman Mike Simpson thinks that he's close enough to chairman Bishop that that can create some momentum in the House. But then it's going to come down to the Senate.
With Senator Risch there's got to be something there that he could broker or ask for, that would be reasonable enough that everybody could sign on to it. Now I don't know what that is, but it has something to do, I think, with ORV use, more than anything else.
So you've got a situation where on one side of the White Clouds you've got Blaine County, and on the other side you've got Custer County. Big difference between the two counties.
Oh, it's fascinating. I wouldn't say New West and Old West; I'd just say two different Wests. And I think it's the uncertainty over what it all means that gets people concerned. That's why I've argued, if it ends up going the Monument route, get involved in arguing for things that can go in the proclamation. A president can do anything he wants in a proclamation that's legal. They can't create Wilderness, but they can do about everything else.
I think they'll be working both simultaneously; Congress is notoriously slow and there's going to be a bunch of stuff on the agenda all at once. Now Congressman Simpson is powerful enough that he can get his on there early. But I'm sure the Monument thing will be, you know, they'll be working on that and they are already, in terms of what should be in there and how should it be crafted, to keep the Congressional action going. You know, the threat of a Monument, once again, unless we do something better.
Remind us how Interior Secretary Andrus did it in Alaska.
They were making progress, and then of course President Carter lost some seats in 1978 in Congress, and it kind of slowed it down a little. Andrus told me how he worked closely with Stevens who was an adversary, but sort of kept his word. And during a lot of the debate, Senator Gravel was kind of an obstacle, and then he threatened a filibuster.
At that point that led Andrus to say, well, then we will use both the Secretarial power of withdrawal and the Antiquities Act to force the hand to get something done. And Andrus has told me the story of meeting with the president and explaining the Antiquities Act to someone from Georgia. "I can do that?" "Yes sir you can." "Well, then, let's get it done."
And they did it; it forced everybody back to the table, and they got agreement. They doubled the size of the Park system, the wildlife refuges, and I think, a lot of people don't know, they also put in that bill two things; one, that only Congress can open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. And all the Monument proclamations were rescinded, because they were resolved by Congress; and so they kept their word on that as well, which they didn't have to do, because once a proclamation is done, it can't be reversed by somebody else—at least in the Executive branch.
It was action forcing. It forced Congress to pass the bill that resolved everything, because the Monuments were there. And it was like, oh we need to do something now or they will stay in place.
Can the next president rescind another president's National Monument?
No, it's pretty clear. John Lesch, solicitor, wrote a memo during the Clinton administration, and a legal paper too, that it defeats the purpose of the law if President B rescinds what President A did. I mean, that would defeat the intent of Congress as an affirmative power given the president. Congress could decide to do something else; they could repeal the Antiquities Act, but Congress can't repeal a Monument because they've given the president that power. So that then sort of violates checks and balances, unless the president can turn around and veto their repeal. But that's never happened in American history, really. We've learned to love them all; many of them have become national parks.
So the president could say to Congress, I'm going to enact a Monument in the White Clouds and rescind it if you pass a Wilderness bill?
What if something happens along the lines of what happened in Alaska, where they make a promise that the Monument proclamation would be rescinded if Congress ever passes a wilderness bill that sort of meets the intent of the Monument proclamation. Something like that might be feasible, but I don't know if they're at that point, even thinking that way yet.
And, of course when he's gone, the next president would have to sort of honor that agreement of that. You could put it actually in the proclamation, I would think, but the question would be for some, what if the Monument is of a certain size and the wilderness proclamation is a lot smaller; could people live with all of that? But, theoretically, something like that could be done, I think.
Final question: what have we learned in the last 50 years about Wilderness?
We've learned to accept it, and the system is pretty amazing to most people, really even around the world, though wilderness is a very American construct because of our own history.
The question is, to me, with the younger generation, do they value it as much? I mean, things always change for all of us. You know, people got really kind of clever by talking about the Old West and the Lords of Yesterday. Well, it ain't just them. Younger people seem to enjoy being outside to a lesser extent, but much more with toys. And their toys include things like mountain bikes. So do they need wilderness to do what they do? And I don't get a sense of where that's at right now. I mean, I read Outside Magazine and I'm appalled at that. It's just such big dollar fun-a-ramastuff that really doesn't have much to do about solitude and quiet. It has to do with fun, fun, fun. Maybe this new generation is going to make us rethink everything again.
Lisa Brady is an environmental historian at Boise State University. As chair of the Idaho Humanities Council, she helped initiate a reading/discussion program that explored the history and meaning of wilderness. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in the summer of 2014.
What has wilderness meant to Idaho and the West?
Wilderness has been an important part of Idaho's past and its present and certainly for the West it's been an identifying part of what the West has meant. I think wilderness is actually the character of the west. For easterners, for people in many other nations, they think of the west and they think of wilderness. They look at the mountains, they look at the wild rivers, they look at the forests of the west; and certainly much of our state is in wilderness conditions even if it isn't designated wilderness. Wilderness is just part of the inherent identify of the west and of Idaho.
And congressionally designated wilderness?
Designated wilderness is unique to America. We are the only nation that has designated wilderness. Wild places certainly exist everywhere; you can find wild places wherever you go; you can go outside your backdoor and you can find little bits of the wild in your backyard. But designated wilderness is a political idea, and it certainly comes with political baggage.
One of the questions that I ask my students is, what is wilderness? It's amazing the variety of answers I get. It's solitude, it's nature, it is out there, it's away from everybody, it's grizzlies, it's wolves, its forests. The ways that people idealize and think about wilderness are vast and extreme.
And other people would say, it's a lack of development, and it's wasted land. That's certainly what the first Europeans thought of as wilderness. The idea of wilderness has changed over time and has not been the same throughout American history.
That is one thing that struck me about wilderness, how our views have changed over the years.
Absolutely. I think changing ideas of wilderness have come with changing landscapes. One of the things that I think struck the early Europeans as they encountered the American landscape was that it was very different from what they had come from, where there had been centuries of management. The forests of England, in particular, had long been cut over, had been managed by the royal families, had been managed by the nobility, had been denied access to the peasants. So when you get into these forests that, yes, had been managed by native American tribes for centuries, but it was very strange, and so it was frightening.
So wilderness seemed to be a place of evil; it seemed to be a place of danger; it seemed to be a place of sin. But as the wilderness receded in the early 19th Century, then the wilderness became something that seemed to be more valuable. As modern technologies, as modern communities began to spread into these forests and wetlands and parklands, they realized they were missing something, they were losing something.
And so wilderness then changed its meaning into something valuable instead of something to be gotten rid of something. Wilderness was something that was very rare or perceived to be rare and so the value of it had changed precipitously.
Given today's technology, I wonder if we fool ourselves into thinking we can just label something 'wilderness' and make it wilderness.
When you label something, we make ourselves feel pretty good about calling something wilderness, and we do protect it. I mean, we've got laws that make sure that we don't have motorized vehicles in wilderness designated areas. But the skies aren't wild; the planes still go through them; helicopters can fly over them; there are still cell phone towers probably in certain areas. We can't control everything, and certainly nature tells us we can't control everything.
But designated wilderness certainly tells us that we have certain changing ideas about nature, and certain changing ideas about the value of wilderness; and I think that's the benefit really of the designation of wilderness. We say that we now value nature as it is, that nature has an inherent value to it that is separate from any economic value we place on the particular entities within that nature. So the designation of wilderness says that we value an ecosystem as a whole thing, rather than just for their bits and their parts.
It took a long time to get to designated wilderness.
It took a very long time to get to the Wilderness Act of 1964; it took nearly 30 years, from the first conception of having some kind of designation for wilderness. It really started as the brain child of people like Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahniser. I think it was 18 different introductions into Congress for it finally to get voted on and passed into Congress.
If you think about 1964, that was an incredibly pivotal year in American political history. That was also the year of the Civil Rights Act; that was an incredibly beautiful year of bipartisan cooperation. We had the Civil Rights Act and we had of course the Wilderness Act, two incredibly important pieces of legislation that demonstrated that Americans and American politicians could actually work toward the mutual benefit of Americans. Bipartisanship was an important part of that. And we don't see that now.
Once a place in Idaho, like, say the Sawtooths, receives wilderness designation, it does seem that folks for the most part accept it.
I think more and more people are seeing wilderness as a place where they can go out and get away from modern technologies. We talk about the early 21st Century as being a place where we've got so many different distractions with all of the tablet devices and the cell phones and mobile phones, and we've got to get away from them; so where do you go? You go to the wilderness. But what do we take with us? Our high tech camping gear and our GPS and all of these other things that help us get to the places that we want to go that get us away from modern society.
I don't think wilderness is a place of no use. And I don't think anybody would want to get rid of the places that are already designated wilderness, but I think there is some concern about designating new places, partly because we're still struggling a little bit with some economic problems, and I think people are afraid of reserving places with potential economic benefits to them. There are economic uncertainties and concerns about the rising power of China and India in particular. Reserving land from economic use is frightening, especially to folks who think that there might be mining interests or timber interests or other future economic benefits from those lands.
Who were some of the leaders in the movement towards this concept of designated wilderness?
You'd have to look to Howard Zahniser who is the author of the Wilderness Act, the main person who wrote the language of the Act. But Frank Church is the person who finally ushered it through Congress, through the Senate, got it finally passed through that wonderful bipartisan act of Congress. So Idaho really has a special role in the history of the Wilderness Act.
But the Wilderness Act has a very long history; you could take it back through Muir and Theodore Roosevelt and Henry David Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh, to people who valued wild nature, people who valued nature other than what it could provide economically to our economic systems.
I wonder if there's a type of person who instinctively loves wilderness.
There are some people who just prefer sort of being outside and, maybe being away from the hustle and bustle. I certainly am like that. Maybe it's the introverts in society; that would certainly be me. My job is to be out there, to be extraverted, to be teaching in front of the classroom, but frankly I find my energy and I get more out of being out in a place like this than I do in my office. I probably shouldn't say that on television, but there it is.
And as the world's population grows, you could argue it both ways: we shouldn't protect places from development because they may be needed by a larger population; or we need to protect places from development because they will be needed because of a larger population.
I do think that as the world population gets larger, we need to protect natural spaces, because healthy ecosystems are essential for healthy social systems. If we allow human settlement to cover the entire planet, then we are going to doom ourselves. We need to have clean water systems, we need to have good healthy soil systems. We need to protect natural systems, we've got to protect the headwaters of our major river systems. We need to preserve places, frankly, where we can get out away from some of the smog of the cities.
What is it that most people miss when talking about wilderness?
One of the things most people miss or what they really want to think about wilderness is that it is pristine; when we go out into wild areas, we think that no one has been there before or we think that it has never been touched before; and certainly the areas that we go into that are either designated wilderness or appear to be wilderness are less managed by human systems. But Native American groups have been across most of North America and human activities have touched almost every part of the planet. But that doesn't mean they're not wilderness.
I think that's the big debate, that if we want to designate a place as wilderness, it has to be pristine. Well then that's not going to be very many places. I think the Wilderness Act talks about the places being pristine, but it doesn't have to be pristine to be designated as wilderness. What we need to do to have it be designated wilderness is allow it to rehabilitate itself and then it can become more pristine.
Do you think the Wilderness Act, by outlawing mechanical devices, has made it difficult for a younger generation to care for wilderness?
I think it's an interesting conundrum when we think about modern technologies; we like to think of modern society as really embracing technology; and there's a certain segment of the population I think that does that, that goes out and wants to get all of the new toys and all of the brand new technologies and the motorbikes and snow machines and all of those things.
But there are still a core group of people that really want that silence. They want the sounds of nature; they don't want the sounds of human technology. And a lot of my students don't want to hear the snow machines, they don't want to hear the four wheelers, they don't want to hear all of those things when they go out backpacking into the wilderness.
So I think that even though they might have embraced their mobile phones and their smart phones and their tablets, they want to leave those behind. So I think there's still the same percentage that would support wilderness, as we currently think about wilderness.
I'm wondering what you think of the Boulder White Clouds Monument proposal?
The Boulder White Clouds is a tricky situation. I really like the idea of having local say in local matters; but I also know as an historian that sometimes it takes national politics and national authority to do what needs to be done. And I think in this particular instance, it's been 40 years and nothing has been done. Certainly Congressman Mike Simpson has been trying for some time to get CIEDRA passed.
Some people are afraid that it's one more step in an authoritarian government pressing its hand down on the state of Idaho. I see it as finally setting aside a beautiful part of Idaho, protected for Idahoans and others to come and enjoy a beautiful part of our lovely state.
Any last thoughts?
Well, wilderness is a process; nature is a process; it's always changing; and I think one of the things that we have to remember is that humans aren't in control.
I think the other thing we have to remember is that humans are part of nature; we are not separate from it; we are human beings; we are animals; we are part of the natural world just as much as trees and grizzlies and wolves; and so wilderness may attempt to remove us from nature, but it can only do so for so long.
Geoff Baker is an attorney and an avid mountain biker. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in the summer of 2014.
What's the back story with the Boulder-White Clouds agreement with mountain bikers?
I think it was a joint discussion between the Idaho Conservation League, Rick Johnson and Brett Sheppard who's with the Wood River Bike Coalition, and she used to be with ICL, and so she already knew who to talk to at ICL. And so the Wood River Bike Coalition worked with the ICL to try to come up with a plan where you had a broader base of support. I think it's gotten to the point now where mountain biking has grown enough and it's become enough of an acceptable activity where you have to broaden your base to create a group that will support more land protection, and I think these days it has to include the mountain bikers.
Because the hiking faction doesn't have the critical mass it once did?
I would suspect that that base group of hikers, you know, foot-traffic recreationalists, it might be a declining group, whereas mountain biking is a growing group; and I think you're starting to see it as the Baby Boom generation ages. My generation, the Generation X, is starting to get also a little bit older, but I think our generation is maybe a little bit more into mountain biking and broadening out that kind of human-powered recreation.
So is the Boulder-White Clouds Monument proposal better than the wilderness proposal that seems to be languishing in Congress?
Well, I mean, obviously, it's easier to achieve, and I think one of the benefits of monument status over pure wilderness is, you can negotiate the usage plan where you can include more users. Wilderness is very strict, and it's these groups are in and these groups are out. So being able to designate monument status as opposed to wilderness, it gives you a lot more flexibility, and I think the flexibility is what's key in broadening out land protection.
I think the problem with wilderness is like everything else in national politics, it's become a very polarizing issue. I think you have one potential political party that's just not going to support it. And so trying to get wilderness designation these days is potentially a losing battle because you need consensus. You need political consensus, and you're not going to find that in this day and age.
I'm curious if you think that wilderness created by Congress has worked over the years.
I think it has worked from the perspective of, you have lands that are hopefully protected forever and are going to remain in their most pristine natural state, and I think that's of utmost importance in countries like the United States. We're growing rapidly. I mean, we're 350 million people. What's going to happen when there's 500 million people? And especially with resource extraction, and that's going to be a bigger and bigger issue as the population grows, and being able to preserve those pristine places in their natural state will preserve some of the history of the United States.
I think this brings me back to the first point which is, the Wilderness Act was not just about land preservation. It also had a very strong component of human-powered recreation. You've seen human-powered recreation in wilderness that is enabled by mechanized devices; take cross-country skiing. That's a mechanized device that's always been allowed in the wilderness.
It might have been Frank Church himself who was very adamant that we need not just the land preservation, but we need to encourage Americans to get out and recreate. I mean, I think it's clear as our obesity rates rises, getting people out into these wild places is more and more important.
There were two important purposes, and I think people need to remember that recreation is of equal importance in being able to recreate in these places, and as recreation forms change — mountain biking didn't exist in 1964 -- and had mountain biking existed in 1964, we would not see the ban that we see on it now.
Mountain bikers are an independent group; do you think you share the general feeling of mountain bikers on this point?
Oh, boy, it is a very divisive issue among mountain bikers. You get some who are very adamant about, "No, I'm a mountain biker, and I want wilderness, and I want mountain bikers out." The way I look at that is, I'm a hiker, as well. I don't just mountain bike. I hike, as well, and I'd like to see mountain bikes be able to continue to use areas where they have used them since mountain biking first came on the scene 30 years ago. When you lock out a human-powered recreation group that has been able to use land for 30 years, what kind of message does that send? And I don't think it sends the right message when you have a large group of mountain bikers who want to be able to continue their sport but also are land preservationists.
It's amazing what a mountain bike can do these days.
It is, and the technology continues to evolve, and that does open up mountain biking, I think, for maybe a more novice group and a beginner group that may not be hikers. They may want to be able to get out and recreate on some of these open areas, but they may not want to hike, and as the technology changes, it does get more people into the sport. I think that's a very good point that technology has changed.
Here's one thing that always drives me crazy, and this goes back to the Boulder-White Clouds. You have a group of people say, I want to be able to recreate and not see mountain bikers on the trail. How many millions of acres are there in Idaho where you can go do that? Right across Highway 75 from the Boulder-White Clouds, go into the Sawtooths. You won't see one mountain biker. Go north, go across the Salmon, go into the Frank Church. You will not see one mountain biker. There are millions of acres where you can go do that and not see mountain bikers. But there should be some areas that have those same characteristics where you can go mountain bike. That is, to me, one point that really is frustrating to me, is we have so many millions of acres where you can do that, but don't shut us out of yet another area.
The Wilderness Act currently forbids mountain biking; what's the exact wording?
The word they used in the Act was "mechanized," and the background on that was, they didn't want extractive devices, so anything that would allow a cart to extract minerals or trees, that was one thing they were trying to get away from; and that was one reason that they have that "mechanized" language in it. It was also meant to prevent, obviously, motorized use of the area, and that's a whole other can of worms.
But it was more than 20 years after the Act was first passed that they broadened out that definition of "mechanized" to "mountain bikes." And as we've talked about, there are other existing mechanized uses in the wilderness and in places like the Boulder-White Clouds that have been determined to not be something that's prohibited. So, you know, it was a federal government decision that didn't have a lot of thought behind it, and mountain biking was so new, they didn't know what to do with it. It was such a new sport, and it's grown so much in the last 20 years that it is something — and this goes back to the Boulder-White Clouds — it's become a necessity to work with the mountain bikers.
So is there a logical way to get mountain biking into wilderness?
There is a way for wilderness to coexist with mountain biking. There is a movement out there called Wilderness B or Wilderness with Bikes, and, you know, am I in favor of changing the Act itself? No. I think the Act speaks for itself, and, again, I think it encourages human-powered recreation, and I think there is a way down the road that you could have, if not a reinterpretation but preserving mountain biking in areas where they've always been able to mountain bike in any new wilderness area or in any new monument area.
I'm not sure if it's worth fighting the battle anymore to try to open up old or existing wilderness to mountain biking, but I think the key now is to preserve areas where it's been happening for the last 30 years, and that's what you're seeing in the Boulder-White Clouds. It's a creative way to preserve the wild characteristics of the land but also preserve the human-powered recreation that's been there for years and years.
Part of what I try to do in my job every day is to get people on the same page, and I think it's going to be more alienating for mountain bikers to try to push to reopen wilderness areas to mountain bikes; that might have negative implications for the new coalitions that are building, where it gets preserved in areas where it's already happening.
And without new coalitions, I just don't see much hope for wilderness. I mean, obviously, we had the Owyhee wilderness, but then you can't ride a bike. The mountain biking community I don't think had a dog in the fight, but the Boulder-White Clouds is a whole different ball of wax.
A national monument gives you a lot more flexibility, and so you can build those coalitions. I frankly think if you're going to see more land preservation in the United States or in Idaho, it's going to be Monument. I don't think it's going to be Wilderness.