An Interview with Craig Gehrke
Craig Gehrke is the regional director of the Wilderness Society. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2010.
Bruce Reichert: Is the battle for wilderness different today than it was in the 1960's, when the first wilderness areas were established?
BR: Back then we had Democrat Frank Church. Today we have Republicans Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson. What's changed?
There was a little bit of that when they did the Sawtooths and when they did Hells Canyon. The designation of a place, the protection of a place is always at the heart of the matter, but then they are also listening to all these other constituents saying, what can we do to make you comfortable with this? And I think there is more open acknowledgment that that is what you have to do these days.
BR: What do you tell a younger generation of Idahoans about wilderness?
BR: When do we know that we have enough wilderness in the state?
I'm just glad that nobody has ever decided back in 1964 with the charter areas – well, that's enough wilderness, because if that had happened, we'd have dams in Hells Canyon now. I hate to think what the Middle Fork of the Salmon would look like had it not been put in the Frank Church wilderness.
Peoples' needs for wilderness change,and it really comes down to if somebody is going to promote Borah Peak wilderness, they will make it happen; the Pioneer Mountains, it will come up, and it will start to get legs, or it won't.
When people find special places, they will organize around for their protection. Scotchman Peak is a perfect example. It is a total grassroots effort out of Sandpoint to step forward and say, we want to see Scotchman as wilderness. It didn't come from me, it didn't come from an organized group to say let's go pick this one up. It was totally folks in the local area.
BR: How did the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness come to be in the original group of wilderness areas in 1964?
BR: The River of No Return wilderness in 1980 was quite controversial, wasn't it?
I think we're seeing a lot of controversy with the Boulder White Clouds right now. Ten, 15 years from now, people are going to be glad we designated the Boulder White Clouds as wilderness. Had we not done that in Hells Canyon, I'm convinced there would have been more dams on the Snake River. So nobody I know is sorry we made the decision to protect Hells Canyon or set aside the Sawtooth Wilderness areas, and I think that is the way it is always going to turn out.
These are tough decisions now, and they're controversial. People stake out their positions, and there are a lot of shots fired back and forth. In the end I can't think of a single area that people say, ah, that was a mistake.
BR: The trouble with wilderness for many folks is that it's not managed, and pine beetle infestations can do significant damage, which leads to massive wildfires.
The wilderness area is going to continue to be a place where we see what a forest is supposed to look like. What's a water shed supposed to act like after a big fire?
It's a laboratory, and it will always be a laboratory to find out what a forest is supposed to look like. We'll have lots of managed forests in the state. Eight million acres at least of national forest land that is managed to see what they do. I still argue that we need to learn something by watching what happens when we don't build roads, when we don't cut trees. What is the long term? Bugs and fire were here long before we got here, and they'll be here long after we're all gone.
BR: What's your perspective on filming in the wilderness?
Now, I don't want to see reality shows filming in the wilderness under the guise of education, but that is going to be a common sense question. My first reaction was, the Forest Service approved helicopters to capture, radio collar, and track wolves last winter, and yet they are upset about a camera man walking into film something? Something is not right here. This is kind of arbitrary.
The Forest Service, to give them credit, is looking at that policy now. They've got a new draft policy out for a few months, and we've taken a look at it, and we think it really defines a lot better what is appropriate in wilderness.
BR: Mountain bikes have got to be a real problem for wilderness advocates, because they are not allowed in the wilderness, since they are mechanized. Is there a way to bring them into the fold?
But there is just going to be kind of an inherent conflict because of the fact that they are mechanized. If you come up with a designation that is kind of "wilderness light," that would allow mountain bikes, as an organization we're not ready to embrace that yet, as a wholesale way to solve this problem.
So, we still think wilderness works, and the way to address the mountain bike concerns is try to sit down and find a way to exclude a trail based on long standing use. You are right, it would be a powerful constituency to get it on board, and we're just not quite there yet.
BR: How hard did the Wilderness Society have to swallow to support the Boulder-White Clouds proposal?
And that is mostly what drove the Owyhee decision too; at some point you get to a package that says, yeah, this is pretty good.
BR: If no one is attacking or threatening the White Clouds, what's the need to designate it as wilderness?
Places don't protect themselves anymore. A good example: when we'd first drawn a forest plan in the 1980's, we didn't pay attention to where snowmobiles went when they made wilderness recommendations, because the machines were not nearly as powerful as they are now, and we didn't worry too much about it. We got our clocks cleaned, because by the time they revised them, machines were going further and further into the back country; they had established far more use and they were a real problem then – and I'm not going to make that mistake again by thinking the land will protect itself. I have no doubt right now somebody is thinking an even more powerful motorized thing with wheels on it that will get somebody further into the back country that we will be dealing with 10, 15 years from now.
BR: What did the Owyhee wilderness legislation signify to you?
BR: It also seemed to make your organization a force of moderation.
BR: So you matured?
BR: You may have succeeded, but didn't you also take off the table a great way to raise money?
The group is behind the Owyhees and behind the White Clouds. We have taken a lot of hits from other groups to the left of us, and we'll continue to do that, and we just had a respectful parting of the ways with those groups that we might have worked closer with back in the '80's. That's just the way it is going to be, because we think we've hit on something here to actually get things done; and it is certainly tough, but I feel if we're getting results, it is worth trying it, it is worth sacrificing some folks who think we're not standing up enough, because ultimately it is not about whether you are pure enough or whether you are mean enough, but what you actually get done on the ground.
BR: What is the lasting legacy of the Owyhee Initiative?
Again, folks step forward and say this place is special enough it deserves to be left alone. We're going to manage it for that. We're going to put it up to a higher standard than regular BLM land and work to protect it. I think that is going to be the lasting part of the Owyhees.
BR: How do you keep a user group from coming in at the last minute and torpedoing the collaboration?
At some point your proposal becomes solid enough that you can take the hits. It is frustrating to think you've worked – again, in the case of the White Clouds – for 10 years, you've gotten agreement with most of the players here, and yet at the last minute something comes up, and you get derailed. The best you can do is say, okay what can we deal with here? Do they have a point that we have to deal with? You evaluate it, and you keep moving forward. But it is frustrating. We've had it done to us. We've done it to others, too. That is the process, as imperfect as it is.
BR: What is next for wilderness advocates in the state?
We're involved in other collaborative efforts for the Clearwater Basin. Looking at the lands of the North Fork, Clearwater and some of the tributaries of the Selway and we've been meeting. It has been going on for almost 3 years now, trying to kind of replicate what we did in the Owyhees, and we're hoping that in the next session of Congress we'll have a proposal ready.
Scotchman's Peak would be ready to go if the Montana side could come together, but there could be a proposal for wilderness for Scotchman's Peak soon.
BR: You've got to be one of the most patient people in the world.