Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Big Wild

A Legislative Vehicle for Conserving and Restoring Wildlands in the United States

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1999. Big Wild: A Legislative Vehicle for Conserving and Restoring Wildlands in the United States. Wild Earth. Vol. 9, No. 4. Winter 1999-2000. 77-86.

By Andy Kerr


A new legislative strategy is proposed that synthesizes the best of existing strategies and can garner a critical mass of support among various conservation factions and the American voters. Compared to existing legislative proposals, Big Wild has the highest probability of being effective, both ecologically and politically. The area that could be covered by Big Wild (Phase I) is approximately 200 million acres of federal public lands across the nation administered by the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service.


The public land conservation movement is—at long last—poised to move from an almost exclusively defensive legislative posture to a primarily offensive posture.

Unfortunately, conservationists are factionalized behind differing strategies. Public land activists have been balkanized in these camps for several years, so it is unlikely that any current legislative approach will gain enough converts from the others to achieve the necessary mass of conservation community support. Even if critical mass were achieved for one approach, inherent flaws in all the current strategies would likely result in ecological and/or political failure. In defining success, both ecology and politics must be considered. This paper attempts to contribute to the debate and recommend an approach that can coalesce enough conservation community support to be successful. (1)

Ecological Realities versus Political Realities

Science, in particular the discipline of conservation biology, is stressing conservationists. If we are to ensure functioning ecosystems—both across the landscape and over time—the amount of protected land needed (in core reserves, corridors, and buffers, and with large carnivores) is much higher than present politics will accept. The sum recommendation of this new, yet very defensible, science is that at least one-quarter of the continental landscape must be in very strong protective categories, one-quarter in restrictive management that strongly favors conservation, and one-quarter in somewhat restrictive management that leans toward sustainable development. For some ecosystems, the first requirement (very strong protection) rises to 75%. (2)

Ecological realities and political realities are equally real; the difference is that ecological realities are immutable. Political realities are mutable, but only if: (1) conservationists are smart and effective political activists; (2) the general public cares and acts; and (3) the opposition isn't as smart and effective as conservationists.

Conservationists must both slow the rate of biological extinction (using defensive measures for temporary delay) and speed the rate of political transformation (using offensive measures for permanent change). We must look to our past to see what has worked (and why) and also be creative in pioneering new strategies.

Non-Legislative Approaches to Wildlands Protection

Conservationists' efforts in public education, grassroots organizing, administrative advocacy, Endangered Species Act listings, litigation, agitation, civil disobedience, etc. must all continue irrespective of what legislative strategy is undertaken. Properly executed, these tactics can approach—but not reach—zero extraction of timber, minerals, and grass from public land (as well as reductions in off-road vehicle abuse).

Recent significant reductions in public land timber cutting and/or livestock grazing, especially in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest, make it an excellent time to seek to convert administrative and judicial gains into permanent legislative protection.

Legislative Strategy

Current legislative approaches to public land protection can be placed in six categories:

* Traditional Wilderness Legislation;
* “Zero-Cut” Legislation;
* Forest Management Reform Legislation;
* Agency Reform Legislation I: Better Statutory Guidance;
* Agency Reform Legislation II: Better Bureaucratic & Economic Incentives;
* Annual Appropriations Efforts.

Traditional Wilderness Legislation. This is the tried and (formerly) true method of public land conservation, having been the preferred technique of the conservation movement since the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Traditional Wilderness bills were enacted even throughout the Reagan administration, but began to decline in effectiveness in the Bush administration. Almost none have passed in the Clinton administration. Only one major bill, the California Desert Protection Act, has passed in the 1990s. (3)

The lack of recent Wilderness designations is primarily—but not exclusively—attributable to the Congress changing from Democratic to Republican control. The congressional Republican leadership is infested with anti-Nature westerners. However, other factors have contributed to our lack of success in enacting traditional Wilderness bills, including, but not limited to:

1. the opposition has become more organized and effective;

2. as Congress turned against Nature, the conservation movement has had to spend more resources on defense rather than offense; and,

3. traditional Wilderness bills are no longer the only game in town.

Since 1980, most Wilderness bills that have been enacted were done so as state bills. This trend has tended to vest more power in a state's delegation than was held previously. Given the anti-wilderness prejudice that exists among many western legislators, such bills are going nowhere today.

Some regional bills, like the proposed Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, are multi-state bills, in part to make them national, rather than state, issues. Unfortunately, the scale of the combination results more in unifying a few bad state delegations than creating a large enough congressional coalition to overcome opposition. The strategy behind some other state bills (e.g., America's Redrock Wilderness Act to designate Utah Wilderness) is to make a state's unprotected wildlands a national issue.

History has shown that, with two exceptions, single-state Wilderness bills do not pass into law over the objections of the senior senator from the affected state. Only the Alaska Lands Act of 1980 and the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990 were enacted over the objections of a state's congressional delegation. Both times, all three members of the state's delegation were in the minority and not well respected in Congress; today these same individuals hold committee chairs.

Although America's Redrock Wilderness Act is a national conservation issue (witness the executive order for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument during the 1996 presidential campaign), a political stalemate effectively exists. Conservationists cannot enact a bill into law that the Utah congressional delegation opposes, nor can that delegation pass a bill the conservation community doesn't want. It's one thing to get senators from other states to filibuster to kill a bad Wilderness bill supported by that state's delegation (as has been done for Utah), but quite another to pass a good bill over the objections of a state's delegation. While most apparent in Utah, such stalemates also exist elsewhere, especially in western states with solid Republican delegations, including senators that are committee or subcommittee chairs.(4)

“Zero Cut” Legislation. Zero Cut, or more accurately, the end of commercial logging on public land, is a developing campaign. It is absolutely the right goal. However, it is not legislation that will likely be enacted into law anytime soon. It was first introduced into Congress in 1995, and is now known as the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act.

Pictures of clearcuts have great effect on a select portion of the conservation community and the public. Such images, along with the fiscal folly of public lands logging, motivate some activists to exhibit great commitment to the Zero Cut cause. From a political standpoint, however, it is fundamentally a negative—rather than a positive—message, campaign, or goal.

Zero Cut is very unlikely to be enacted into law in one fell swoop because while it flames the passions of a highly committed group of activists, it will not achieve deep and wide support within the conservation movement. Internal division within the “zero-cut” faction is not helping matters and will in all likelihood continue, given the nature of their passion.

Recast into a more positive theme, ending all logging on all National Forests doesn't sound extreme to the American public. However, it is perceived as extreme to politicians. Those who rely exclusively on national polling data to develop and execute a political strategy make the fundamental error that the only factor affecting a politician's position and actions are national polls. In fact, many other factors influence politicians, such as the:

1. position of opponent in the next election;

2. polling information relevant to one's own constituency;

3. special interests that must be heeded due to campaign contributions or political power with the elected official's constituency; and

4. relative political strength and weakness of movements holding the majority or minority view on an issue.

If opinion polls ruled, abortion wouldn't be an issue and guns would be controlled.

Additionally, to pass Zero Cut, the conservation community would have to expend significant political capital (which we may not have or wish to spend) “saving” a huge amount of already clearcut land.

Forest Management Reform Legislation. Within the past decade, a variously named legislative vehicle has sought more restrictive—and therefore less harmful—logging of federal public land. It seeks to impose statutory management guidelines on forest managers. This approach has reached its apogee and is in decline, in part because of a split on the approach between the Forest Reform Network and Save America's Forests. While these factions have reunited behind one bill for this Congress, forest management reform legislation has failed to reach a critical mass of support in the conservation community, Congress, or with the public. Much of the original support for this legislative strategy has switched to other approaches, such as Zero Cut or direct reform of the federal land management agencies.

Agency Reform Legislation I: Better Statutory Guidance. A segment of the public land conservation community advocates improved “organic” acts (basic laws that govern land management agencies) for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Both agencies' organic acts have remained essentially unchanged since 1976.

No legislative proposals have been offered by conservationists, but have been by our opposition. Both forest and grassland “reform” bills were considered in the 105th Congress (i.e., former Oregon Republican Representative Bob Smith's “forest health” and grazing bills). In the 106th Congress, Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) introduced the “National Forest Management Reform Act.” As part of the strategy to kill these kinds of bills, conservationists may wish to introduce counterproposals. Agency reform doesn't really excite us as a movement, and it certainly doesn't excite American voters.

Agency Reform Legislation II: Better Bureaucratic & Economic Incentives. Rather than prescriptive and restrictive statutory language, another approach, best articulated by resource economist Randal O'Toole, is to change the bureaucratic and economic incentives that cause land managers to behave as they do.

Some in the conservation community believe that incentive reform has theoretical merit but is impractical politically.(5) It is impractical because most public land conservationists are at heart Calvinist regulationists, and this kind of reform has been strongly embraced by libertarians. Conservationists are generally suspicious of libertarians because the central organizing principle of libertarianism is no government (and therefore no regulation) rather than environmental protection. Whether the results may coincidentally advance both goals is politically irrelevant, given the gulf between the two groups.

Annual Appropriations Efforts. Action in this arena has dominated conservationist action since 1984, primarily because of the defensive battles that must be waged annually against anti-Nature legislators' attempts to attach their fantasies to annual appropriations bills. We have worked offensively to attach our policy initiatives to those same appropriations bills.(6)

An advantage to the appropriations approach is that this political train must leave the station every year and we have a chance to be on it (or be run over by it). However, as a long-term strategy to save the world, the annual appropriations process is limited.

The aforementioned strategies all have merit. They have, to varying degrees, raised awareness and framed issues. But given the magnitude of the task before us, new thinking is needed.

New Approach Part I: The Mother of All Wilderness Bills—Big Wild

A new two-step legislative approach is recommended for federal public land conservation. Big Wild draws heavily from the approaches described above. It seeks to combine what works, or can work, ecologically and politically. Discussed below are the major features of Big Wild (as currently viewed by the author and subject to change).(7)

1. One legislative bill. The title must grab the attention and values of the American voters. One suggestion is the American Wilderness Heritage, National Security, Family Togetherness and Personal Freedom Protection Act.(8)

2. Multiple legislative titles. The one legislative bill would be composed of numerous separate and free-standing “titles” (a congressional term of art that means, in effect, big subtitles), which address ecological and/or political needs of particular states or regions. Separate titles could include, but are not limited to, the following:

* America's Redrock Wilderness Act (BLM Utah)
* Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Act (Alaska)
* Arizona Wilderness Act (USFS & BLM)
* Arkansas National Forest Wilderness Act
* California Wilderness Act (USFS & BLM)
* Chugach National Forest Legislation (Alaska)
* Colorado Wilderness Act (USFS & BLM)
* Eastern Montana Wilderness Act (BLM)
* Georgia National Forest Wilderness Act
* Idaho High Desert Protection Act (BLM)
* Maine Woods National Park Act
* Minnesota National Forest Wilderness Act (9);
* Nevada Wilderness Act (USFS & BLM)
* New Hampshire National Forest Wilderness Act
* New Mexico Wilderness Act (BLM)
* North Carolina National Forest Wilderness Act
* Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (10);
* Oklahoma National Forest Wilderness Act
* Oregon Desert Conservation Act (BLM & USFS)
* Oregon Forest Wilderness Act (USFS & BLM)
* South Carolina National Forest Wilderness Act
* Tennessee National Forest Wilderness Act
* Texas National Forest Wilderness Act
* Tongass National Forest Round III (Alaska)
* Utah Forest Wilderness Act
* Vermont National Forest Wilderness Act
* Virginia National Forest Wilderness Act
* Washington Wilderness Act (USFS & BLM)
* White Mountains National Park Act; and
* Wyoming Wilderness Act (BLM).

Other states could be included as well. The total amount of land that would be protected by Big Wild is estimated to be roughly 200 million acres.

3. All federal land agencies. Big Wild would include lands within the National Forest, National Park, and National Wildlife Refuge systems and Bureau of Land Management holdings. It could also address certain surplus Department of Defense lands.

4. National in scope. Big Wild is designed to protect land and resources across the nation. Big Wild will be most helpful to states unable to attain adequate ecological protection using existing approaches. Big Wild does not depend on the acquiescence of firmly anti-Nature congressional delegations.

To pass Wilderness bills in most eastern and the “left coast” states, the support of a critical mass of a state's congressional delegation is necessary. Fortunately, it's far easier to obtain, given the urban and suburban nature of the states' voters and the ideological composition of such delegations. However, the size of such bills is usually limited by the state's congressional delegation. Big Wild can result in more protection for such states than traditional state Wilderness bills.

A major advantage of Big Wild over the current strategy of statewide Wilderness bills stems from the “free vote.”(11) A “free vote” is one by a senator or representative that has no political downside. For example, a vote on a Wilderness bill way out west has no negative political impact on a senator from New Jersey. Conservationists and the public in that state will support it. The timber, mining, and grazing industries have no presence in the state, so such a vote is without political cost. There is a boatload more free votes on western wilderness issues in the East than on eastern wilderness issues in the West. Anti-Nature western legislators would never vote for Wilderness in the East.

5. Close loopholes in the Wilderness Act. A title could also be included to close the loopholes in the Wilderness Act that pertain to livestock grazing (end public land grazing with compensation),(12) mining (require a validity determination to extinguish the bogus claims, and target the rest for compensation), and logging and roading (remove the “forest health” loophole).

6. More than just Wilderness. While primarily a Wilderness bill, individual titles could have other federal protective categories, existing and proposed (such as for restoration), including but not limited to:

* National Conservation Area;
* National Monument;
* National Park;
* National Preserve;
* National Recreation Area;
* National Reserve;
* National Scenic Area;
* National Wildlife Refuge;
* Wild and Scenic River; and
* Wilderness Recovery Zone.

All but “Wilderness Recovery Zone” have been enacted previously by Congress.

7. Expansion of Land and Water Conservation Fund. A title could be included to address needed reforms—conversion to a true trust fund and increasing revenues—of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. LWCF should provide at least a billion dollars annually for public acquisition of imperiled wildlands, thus enlarging the public domain.

Some Prerequisites. Before Big Wild is introduced, it is assumed that:

1. Initial citizen conservationist wildlands inventories are completed (they need not be perfect) in states that still need them.

2. Citizen legislative proposals are developed for states that need them.

3. A presidential administration that can be made favorable to the effort is in office.

New Approach Part II: Conservation Biology-Based Study Provisions—Big Wild II

As part of the effort to protect the remaining wild public land base (and in many places begin restoring damaged public land), conservationists need to anticipate the success of Big Wild and concurrently provide for the next big bite of the legislative apple: Big Wild II. This next bite must be the further implementation of conservation biology-based principles (the first principle—preserving the remaining wildlands—having been achieved), including the restoration of much degraded land, both public and private.

Presently, conservationists have no chance of persuading Congress to order the rewilding of half the nation, no matter how scientifically justified. This is the case especially if conservationists (even with the most distinguished group of scientists that could be assembled) are the messengers who first suggest it. Instead, rewilding on the scale necessary has a political chance only if conservationists can first persuade Congress to ask the big questions themselves.

A last title in Big Wild could require the National Academy of Sciences to report to Congress, within three years, on the steps necessary to ensure the full ecological functioning of all major US terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, both across the landscape and over time, including the reintroduction of extirpated species and control of exotic species. Such an effort could include specific recommendations and be map-based.

Each area-specific title of Big Wild could have a similar provision that required the proper agency (the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Forest Service, and/or Bureau of Land Management, as appropriate, in consultation with other government and non-government institutions) to address the same issues—specific to the ecosystem or state addressed in that title.

Recommendations arrived at through these scientific processes would likely include:

1. end all destructive activities on public land (logging, livestock grazing, mining, damming, motorized recreation, etc.);(13)
2. strengthen the Endangered Species Act;
3. enact an Endangered Ecosystem Act;
4. expand the public lands(14);
5. end predator control efforts;
6. curb industrial recreation
7. end the use of dangerous pesticides on public lands.

Advantages of Big Wild

1. The amalgamation of conservation effort can result in greater gains. Rather than divided efforts, all effort would be focused on one legislative campaign. Conservationists would trade their small boats for a bigger ship, and all row together.

2. Financial and personnel (volunteer and staff) resources are used more efficiently, and more resources are acquisitioned overall. Consider the numerous members of Congress from eastern states without much public land. With some local organizing in the district, their vote can be obtained. Why duplicate resources having multiple concurrent campaigns, each requiring the same amount of effort to get that same vote? It need only be done once.

Beyond efficiency, more campaign resources can be obtained. Big Wild is large enough to excite more conservation activists, conservation funders, and American voters to new levels of involvement.

3. Media would be focused on a singular legislative effort. One very large effort will attract more earned media than several smaller efforts. In addition, our paid media moneys can be used more efficiently.

4. The marginal additional benefits exceed the marginal additional costs. Yes, Big Wild would unite timber, mining, grazing, energy, and off-road vehicle interests, but it would also unite and excite the American conservation movement and our allies. Big Wild is large enough to command attention as a national issue. The larger the political context of the issue, the better conservationists do.

Crafting traditional Wilderness bills to appease special interests does not work.(15) We have just as much opposition to a score or more separate traditional Wilderness bills as we would have to Big Wild. We cannot avoid this opposition, and in fact should welcome it. The conservation community, not the special interests, has the national political strength on Wilderness.

5. Local conservation activist autonomy is maintained. By dividing Big Wild into as many titles as necessary, the bill can be tailored to meet both the local ecological and political needs of the various states and bioregions. Each title would be managed by the same interests who are leading such efforts now.

6. Ecological reality is addressed and political reality is changed. By changing the political context from one or a few states to the whole nation, the gap between ecological and political realities can be narrowed. Political limitations that militate for smaller acreage in an attempt to enact legislation through a state's delegation become far less significant in a national political context. Victory for Big Wild depends on getting the votes in Congress, not the acquiescence of the affected state's delegation.

7. The bottleneck issue is resolved. Conservationists have much land to save and not much time to do it. The bottleneck of current Wilderness legislation allows for no more than three (most likely two) legislative campaigns to effectively exist simultaneously. These campaigns not only compete with each other, but they also prevent other campaigns from moving forward. Even at optimistic rates in a state-by-state strategy, our legislative goals would take decades to complete.(16)

8. The fate of America's last wildlands can be made a national issue. Ecological destruction is an issue that must gain the nation's attention. Big Wild is the best way to do it.

9. It is the best possible position when the deals go down. Take a hypothetical US senator from a west coast state. This senator can receive pressure from below (in-state conservationists), the side (from other US senators pressured by their own in-state conservationists from below) and above (the administration).

In traditional state Wilderness bills, the pressure from below is either inadequate to achieve legislation at all, or will likely result in a “rock-and-ice” (or “rock-and-sand”) bill. The pressure from the side—given the tradition of the Senate to defer on matters affecting one state—is gentle at best, and the only likely positive result will be the inability of that state's senator to pass a bill that conservationists oppose. Similarly, the pressure from above is not significant, given that the administration usually has larger and supposedly more important priorities than a particular state Wilderness bill.

In a national bill, the pressure comes from the same directions, but the dynamic changes. The pressure from below is greatly enhanced by increased pressure from the side and above. From the side, since Big Wild is a national bill and support will be strong in other states, eastern senators won't feel the obligation to defer to western senators on the matter. Since the size of Big Wild will generate adequate excitement among the entire conservation community, it will become a priority of the administration.

The result is that when the final deals are cut, conservationists are in the best possible position to get the most. If we have done our organizing properly, the inevitable horse-trading will not be trading Wilderness here for Wilderness there (within or between states). If we do our politics correctly, the horse-trading will not result in less Wilderness acreage, but a plethora of new federal buildings, post offices, bridges, and research grants flowing to a state in the years running up to the reelection of key members of that delegation.

Advantages of Big Wild II

1. A second bite of the legislative apple for conservationists. Requiring a study and a report to Congress sets the political stage for the next phase of the continuing effort to conserve and restore ecosystems.

2. The best way to approach Congress to address the issue of “what's ecologically necessary.” Large-scale wilderness protection and restoration, while quite rational ecologically, are presently quite radical politically. Over time, and with proper preparation, that which is rational can become reasonable.

Who Needs Big Wild?

Though various current protection efforts may be bioregional or ecosystem-based, this analysis is focused on the political subdivision of the state.(17) Some states need Big Wild more than others, but all could benefit. All western states can be divided into three categories (18):

Those that could probably never pass strong permanent protective legislation without Big Wild. This includes most interior western states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming).

Those that could possibly pass permanent protective legislation without Big Wild. This includes three of the four “left coast” states: Nevada, Oregon, and Washington (all are presidential swing states). Given its large urban population, Colorado is theoretically possible, but it does have two Republican US senators opposed to the rather modest state bill introduced by Democratic House members. Most eastern states would also likely fall into this category.

Wilderness bills for these states that passed would be modest, limited to what was acceptable to the state's delegation (or a majority thereof). In Oregon, for example, this means whatever Democratic senior Senator Ron Wyden wants (and he's becoming joined at the lip with Republican junior Senator Gordon Smith—they do joint townhall meetings). Big Wild, by enlarging and changing the political context, would result in other US senators (and the administration) pushing Wyden (and Smith) more than Oregon conservationists can do alone.

Those that could pass permanently protective legislation without Big Wild. There is little question that California could pass a bill that could please the state's conservationists. It's an urban and green enough state. However, Senator Barbara Boxer and—most importantly—Senator Diane Feinstein still have political limits below our ecological needs. As in the Oregon example above, having other senators and the administration advocating for California wildlands would likely increase the final acreage.

Arguments Against Big Wild

“Putting all your eggs in one basket.” The most plausible argument advanced by advocates of state Wilderness legislation against Big Wild is that it “puts all your eggs in one basket.” For only one western state, California, is this a legitimate concern. For most states, the eggs are theoretical. For those states with a real egg, it won't likely be of much size or taste, unless all eggs are in the same basket. Even for California, Big Wild makes sense for the reasons stated above. California could choose to go it alone. However, if conservationists in all the other states chose to pursue Big Wild, California could potentially be competing with a much larger national effort for funder and public attention. Big Wild is not a basket, but a heavily armored mobile egg carton.

“As California goes, so go the others” or “Utah: The First Domino.” This argument is that the logjam is broken by the leading states (California by its greenness, Utah by the length and depth of the campaign), after which others will fall into place.

In 1984, Oregon did break a logjam which allowed the passage of several other bills. The logjam, though, was not on designating Wilderness per se, but a hangup on language regarding the remaining non-wilderness roadless areas (Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming never passed “RARE II” legislation).(19) California can go forward, as can some other states, but Utah probably will not.

A plethora of state Wilderness bills is comparable to a MIRV ICBM.(20) If enough state Wilderness bills are launched, the reasoning goes, some will reach their targets. However, the “targets” are states defended by senators and representatives who are very effective Patriot missile systems that only need to hit their one target.

Why Big Wild Can Win (21)

Let's count the hypothetical votes in the 106th Congress.(22) First, two enlightening facts:

1. The members of the Florida House delegation equal the combined delegations of the eight Rocky Mountain states.(23)

2. This strategy doesn't require the vote of one Republican senator west of Chicago for its success (though we shouldn't write off all of them).

The House of Representatives: We need 218 of 435 votes to pass. A majority is quite possible for Big Wild, especially in the House, where deference to federal matters affecting another's congressional district is much less prominent than in the Senate. Three-quarters of the House represents districts east of Dallas, Texas. California has 52 seats. The urban nature of that state's delegation makes most of them consider Wilderness, even California Wilderness, a “free vote.” If Big Wild is bottled up in committee, a “discharge petition” could be undertaken.(24)

The Senate: The peculiar institution of the U.S. Senate provides some unique challenges to overcome. The nature of the Senate is to work by unanimous consent. This gives great power to any one senator to “object” to procedural actions (thus requiring a majority vote to continue) or, in the case of legislation, to put a “hold” on a bill. The power of such holds is the threat to filibuster a bill on the floor.(25)

Filibusters bring the Senate to a halt and the leaders make efforts to avoid them, usually by not bringing up the bill as long as the hold is in place. This gives great power to the holding senator to extract concessions to make the bill acceptable. If the objections cannot be addressed, and the proposing senators don't care enough and/or don't have enough political power to end a filibuster (assuming the hold threat was not hollow), the bill dies. If the bill is of enough importance to a majority, it moves forward if a filibuster ensues, 60 votes are needed to end debate (cloture).

The political dynamics of this are clear: One or two holds from the affected state are enough to prevent any action on a statewide Wilderness bill. Forty holds on a national Wilderness bill, if it is of adequate political importance to 60 senators and the administration, are not. (This assumes that conservationists have mounted a vigorous campaign to make Big Wild a national political issue.)

The rules and tradition of the Senate also allow any one senator to move to amend any legislative language they wish onto any bill they wish. No rule of germaneness is followed. So, for example, if Big Wild is bottled up in a hostile committee, and we otherwise think we have the votes, a vote on Big Wild can be forced by attaching it to a bill likely to pass. Let's tally the Senate votes that we could reasonably hope to win:

Northeast and Mid-Atlantic 24 (all Democrats and all Republicans)

Midwest (includes some Republicans) 16

South (all Democrats [26] and at least 2 Republicans) 10

Left Coast [27] (all Democrats) 8

Mountain (all Democrats) 2


This analysis also assumes concerted effort to move western Democrats on the issue. If we continue to make the Wilderness issue bipartisan, we can win. As important as is making Big Wild a “free vote” for as many senators as possible, we must also make it as costly a vote as possible for senators in opposition. In the past, certain public land issues have been elevated to the national spotlight. It can happen again.

The Need for Market Research

Increasingly, our wildlands protection efforts are based on natural science, as they should be. Conservationists also need to use political science to help achieve the goals required by ecological imperatives. As the public land conservation community debates future courses of action, it would be useful to have high quality polling and extensive focus group research that compares and contrasts the approaches outlined in this paper.

The rationale to incorporate state and regional Wilderness efforts in one large national Wilderness bill is compelling. However, the nationalization strategy of Big Wild is essentially the same as that of the Zero Cut and Forest Management Reform efforts. The question arises as to which national approach best captures the hearts and minds of the American voters.

Such marketing research may not change the minds of those most entrenched or invested in a particular strategy (28), but it can be very helpful to conservation activists who are willing to reconsider approaches. It can also assist the funding community in making decisions on the most cost-effective investments in public land conservation.

An extensive national polling effort, with a large enough sample to show significant regional results, should be undertaken (after an initial focus group or two) to explore current public attitudes now, as well as those attitudes after being exposed to our (and our opponents') best arguments. The results should be interpreted and made available to the conservation community.(29)


One should always try to pick both one's battles and one's battlegrounds. Big Wild does that.

To enact Big Wild, a level of trust and cooperation not seen for a long time in the public land conservation movement would be essential. This will not be easy, but the increased probability of achieving our goals should make the effort worthwhile and successful.

Big Wild addresses both ecological and political concerns. It can satisfy the goals of most conservationists. Big Wild will not satisfy those who believe it is morally wrong both to log public lands and to advocate anything but ending that logging immediately and completely.

Big Wild will not satisfy agency reformers, but would reduce the pressing need to do such reform.

Big Wild can satisfy the growing constituency for conservation biology-driven protection efforts.

If Big Wild I & II are enacted, the conservation movement resources now bound up in efforts to protect public land could, at long last, begin to be redirected toward private land conservation.

At any given time, can more than one major public land legislative effort be successful? Probably not. Must there be unanimity behind one approach? No, but there must be a critical mass of support—and Big Wild is the most likely vehicle for substantive near-term progress on protecting America's natural heritage.

Acknowledgements The author wishes to acknowledge the following people for their very helpful reviews of earlier drafts and/or discussions: Ric Bailey, David Carle, John Davis, Brock Evans, David Johns, Jim Jontz, and Mike Medberry. Though they helped improve it greatly, any errors in fact or flaws in logic are the author's.


1. Worth noting here is that the author:

* Favors the end of commercial logging, grazing, mining, and off-road vehicle use of public land, but disagrees with the minority view among the Zero Cut faction that the only way to achieve that end is to advocate for zero cut and nothing else.

* Rather, he believes that a few politically feasible, incremental steps will be necessary to reach the goal of forever-wild protection of public land.

* Believes that the principles of conservation biology must be implemented in a political context, though it sure as hell will not be easy.

* Favors the relative permanence and strength of congressionally designated Wilderness and similar designations, and believes in the “power of wilderness” to motivate the conservation movement and the American voters.

2. See in general: Noss, R.F., and A. Cooperrider. 1994. Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Defenders of Wildlife and Island Press, Washington, DC; Noss, R.F. 1992. “The Wildlands Project land conservation strategy.” Wild Earth (Special Issue): 10-25 and Soulé, M. and R. Noss. 1998. Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation. Wild Earth 8(3): 18-28.

3. Also enacted were the Opal Creek Wilderness Act of 1996 and the Oregon Islands Wilderness Additions Act of 1996 (both in Oregon)—the only significant additions to the Wilderness System by the 105th Congress.

4. Essentially every senator from a majority party with at least two years in office is a chair of some subcommittee.

5. Including the author of this paper, who considers himself a “flexitarian.”

6. Never forget: exploiters do “riders” and conservationists do “amendments.” Our amendments to appropriations bills are more germane than their riders. Riders suspend or repeal a statute. Our efforts are usually “cut and shift” (e.g., spend less money on roads and logging and more on restoration and endangered species).

7. The author wishes to give large credit to others whose thinking on Big Wild has both preceded and developed concurrently, in particular Jim Jontz of American Lands.

8. Brock Evans of the Endangered Species Coalition came up with the name to make the point that public land conservationists must market their efforts as consistent with key values of voters.

9. Which would fix the Boundary Waters Wilderness incongruities, once and for all.

10. Includes portions of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

11. The author is indebted to Senator Bob Packwood for explaining the concept of the “free vote” to me many long years ago.

12. See “The Voluntary Retirement Option for Federal Public Land Grazing Permittees,” by the author, published simultaneously in Rangelands 20(5), October 1998 and Wild Earth 8(3), fall 1998.

13. Perhaps in the form of “forever wild” language.

14. This also implies the end of land exchanges.

15. For example, while the new Colorado Wilderness legislation would grandfather existing grazing and mining, such a gesture did nothing to pacify the opposition of the mining and cattle industries.

16. The failure to move a national public land effort (Zero Cut or forest management reform) is not a bottleneck, but lack of a critical mass of conservationist support.

17. The two fundamental units of ecological organization are the watershed and the congressional district.

18. The lack of categorization of eastern states reflects ignorance by the author, not any lack of interest in including them in Big Wild.

19. “RARE II” was the Forest Service's second Roadless Area Review and Evaluation that culminated in a legislative proposal to Congress.

20. Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.

21. The author is indebted to Jim Jontz for this analysis.

22. If the House of Representatives changes to Democratic hands in the 107th Congress, or the Republican majority shrinks in the Senate, both of which are likely if you believe most pundits today, the passage of Big Wild is even more probable. Of course, this assumes that J. Danforth Quayle (“It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.”) does not become President.

23. Arizona 5, Colorado 6, Idaho 2, Montana 1, New Mexico 3, Utah 3, Wyoming 1, Nevada 2.

24. If a majority of House members sign a discharge petition, a bill buried in committee must come to the floor for a vote.

25. Filibuster: “The use of obstructionist tactics, especially prolonged speechmaking, for the purpose of delaying legislative action.”

26. Remember, Big Wild would be an administration priority.

27. California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

28. It could, however—if the research comes to favor their approach—serve to reinforce, ratify, and vindicate those most entrenched and invested.

29. Disclaimer: The author isn't suggesting that a chosen legislative strategy be based solely on market research. Other political considerations also come into play. Nonetheless, such information, if properly obtained and accepted by the public land conservation community, can go far to develop a more unified strategy.