Is wilderness best for the Big Snowies?

Steve Sem

Every few years, another campaign starts to designate more wilderness. It seems there is never enough. A multitude of new designations include agonizingly crafted compromises often conveniently forgotten as soon as the law’s ink is dry.
In our area, efforts currently focus on the Proposed Action to the Forest Plan Revision in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest - and the entire Big Snowies is recommended for wilderness. If this bothers you, let’s look at some facts.
As defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness is undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence. The natural forces prevail, without man’s interference. Man is only a visitor and his actions should be unnoticeable. It provides outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive type of recreation.
The Act prohibits commercial enterprises, structures, roads, motorized equipment, and mechanized transportation. There are a few, limited exceptions allowing such activities as outfitter-guide services and administration.
Wilderness is a place where the natural forces prevail, and fire is among those forces. While fire was historically suppressed, it is now permitted to more nearly play its natural role. The main focus of wilderness management is perpetuation of its wilderness character.
Let’s look at what wilderness is not. Wilderness is not for most types of recreation. A very limited amount of recreation can take place there, but only the most primitive kind. Wilderness is not used by the vast majority of the public. Fewer than 10 percent of forest users are there for wilderness (Forest Service figures). Wilderness is not managed for wildlife, stable ecosystems or rare and endangered species. Nature rolls the dice. Devastation by insects, catastrophic fires, and other natural events are part of the wilderness condition. Species come and go, as they have for centuries. Fires may destroy old growth harboring spotted owls. Landslides or siltation from flash floods may ruin endangered fish habitat or make it inaccessible. Wilderness provides habitat for wildlife, but it can’t be managed to benefit any species.
Wilderness designation does not assure things will stay as they are. The land and living things it supports are dynamic, in constant flux. Wilderness designation does not insulate it from outside influences. Exotic plants, such as spotted knapweed, invade and displace native species. Urban air influences nearby wilderness. Passing aircraft produce sounds of the modern world.
Wilderness does not necessarily confine its natural processes within its borders. Insect, weed and disease outbreaks can escape into surrounding lands. Smoke from wilderness fires can blanket entire regions for months, making the air barely breathable and devastating tourism.
Most Montanans have been using our forests in a responsible manner, so wilderness designation isn’t necessary to protect most public land. Wilderness designation could, in fact, result in loss of protection.
People promoting more designated wilderness usually tell us we only have two alternatives, wilderness or unfettered development. Not true! We have an infinite number of alternatives between these extremes. Many laws and regulations protect federal lands, and actions affecting those lands must pass high standards of environmental protection and public review.
Carefully crafted plans we help develop assure these lands and the ecosystems they support will be sustained for present and future generations. Management emphasis can vary from leaving the land undeveloped to building roads and harvesting trees. Forest managers have access to a full toolbox of management options that wilderness denies them. They can enhance endangered species’ habitat and actively protect it. They can prescribe and ignite fires needed for fuels management. They can thin dense stands of trees, salvage dead trees and remove barriers to endangered fish. And they can manage for a variety of recreation experiences.
I believe wilderness designation in these areas is not in the best interest of the land, its resources and the people of Montana.
Contact the Helena – Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor, Mr. Bill Avey -- and let him know how you feel about designating more wilderness. The deadline for comments is March 31. Also contact our Congressional delegation. We all want those treasures protected, but recommending more wilderness is not the best way.
Contact: Mr. Bill Avey, Forest Supervisor, HLC NF, Senator Steve Daines,, ph: (202) 224-2651; Senator Jon Tester,, ph: (202)224-2644.

Steve Sem of Great Falls is retired from the Air Force and enjoys recreating in the Montana’s outdoors.



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