Andy Kerr

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

Increase Supply to Alleviate Wilderness Shortage

By Andy Kerr

Column #30 - Go to next column

Length: 747 words

Published: 11 September 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain

The Forest Service is considering limiting use in crowded Wilderness Areas in the Pacific Northwest. Limitations on party size, pack animals, camping sites, camp fires and such have long been in effect to protect naturalness by minimizing human impact on delicate environments.

The agency is realizing that protecting the natural character of the vegetation and soil isn't enough to adequately protect wilderness values. The Forest Service now wants to limit the number of visitors to protect another wilderness value that is also legally mandated: solitude. Even no trace camping isn't enough if there are too many people in the woods at once.

Next spring, the agency may limit visitors to Oregon's Mount Hood Wilderness near Portland and Washington's Alpine Lakes Wilderness near the excessively populated Puget Sound. The Forest Service is contemplating reductions of 60%, even 90% in some areas. Such limits on numbers are already common on popular boating rivers such as the Rogue and Colorado.

Wanting to shoot the messenger, US Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) has attached language to the Interior Department FY 98 appropriations bill to prevent the agency from implementing the protective measure.

A better solution is for Congress to expand the National Wilderness Preservation System. There has been no major expansion of Wilderness in the two states since 1984, though both population and the demand for Wilderness recreation have skyrocketed. (In 1996, outgoing US Senator Mark Hatfield, in a feeble attempt to mitigate his clearcut legacy, did establish the Opal Creek Wilderness.)

The National Forest System and Bureau of Land Management forested lands have many de facto wilderness areas that are worthy of congressional Wilderness protection. Such lands now provide significant backcountry recreation and could absorb more in the future, if they aren't roaded and clearcut. If they are, recreationists using these areas will be displaced and put even more pressure on existing protected Wilderness Areas.

In both states, the majority of the lands protected as Wilderness are either high-elevation forest or the "rock and ice" above timberline. Though a small amount of low-elevation old growth forest has been protected as Wilderness, much more could be if Congress would act soon.

While the National Park System and National Wildlife Refuge System also have lands that qualify for Wilderness designation, the biggest potential source of new Wilderness areas in the Pacific Northwest is the Bureau of Land Management holdings in southeast Oregon.

Approximately six million acres of roadless and undeveloped lands in the Oregon High Desert would add much needed diversity to the Wilderness System. Such landscapes are little, if at all, represented in the system. They include the glacially carved valleys on Steens Mountain, wild free-flowing streams such as Owyhee and John Day rivers, vast and fantastic flows of lava at Jordan Craters, the Fort Rock Lava Beds and The Badlands, virgin pristine grasslands in several areas, expansive desert mountain ranges, and massive fault-block scarps like Abert Rim and Fish Creek Rim.

Though they be fine enough reasons, the opportunities for primitive recreation and solitude for humans are not the only reasons to preserve Wilderness. If we want to have functioning forestland, grassland, and wetland ecosystems across both the landscape and time, we need to preserve and restore wild lands and waters, even if they are not highly attractive for human visitation.

Scientists tell us, that if we want the Pacific salmon to always run, the grizzly bear to always roar, and the pronghorn antelope to always roam, that society must ensure that these and the other species with which we share the Earth have enough habitat to live and prosper. We need to leave enough room for nature.

We aren't.

In my grandfather's time, an Oregon hunter could take two deer annually. In my father's time, one deer, but the rules were simple: a month season and you could hunt anywhere on the side of the Cascade Crest you wanted.

Today, the rules are unfathomable. Little seasons in little units for little deer that you have little chance of drawing for. The paperwork has become such a pain, and the chance of success so slim, that many hunters have hung up their rifles. Hunter numbers have been generally stable, even though the total population has increased dramatically. This population is encroaching on wildlife habitat, and deer numbers—as wild country in general—have declined.

If we humans fail to stabilize our numbers at sustainable levels, both the hunting and the hiking will continue going to hell.

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