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Blue Planet: Wilderness issues endure

By DAN WHIPPLE   |   Feb. 2, 2005 at 11:26 AM
BOULDER, Colo., Feb. 2 (UPI) -- I received a book in the mail the other day, along with a handwritten note thanking me for my contribution to it.

The book, "A People's History of Wilderness," was published by the High Country News, a western environmental biweekly for which I once toiled in obscurity. My contribution was a piece in December 1977 titled "Oil Development Threatens Forests."

Being the sort of guy who loves to read his own stuff, I turned immediately to my story. As I read it, I thought it held up pretty well.

So well, in fact, I had written a story almost exactly like it just this past summer. Could it really be the issues galvanizing the debate on wilderness in the United States remain virtually the same today as they were nearly 30 years ago?

Well, yes.

In 1977, I wrote that the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming -- adjacent to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, and one of the largest undeveloped chunks of federal real estate in the lower 48 -- was target of lustful petroleum exploration companies because of the largely untapped natural gas potential of a geologic formation known as the Overthrust Belt.

Then, last summer, I wrote about the oil and gas industry's plans to drill in lands on and near the Bridger-Teton National Forest, disrupting animal migration routes and forever changing the character of lands that are eminently suitable for designation as wilderness.

The questions posed in the 1977 story are the same ones posed -- and still unanswered -- today. Back then, a Jackson, Wyoming, conservationist named Phil Hocker said: "The overall record of wilderness in this country is one of getting dribs and drabs of the unspoiled continent we started with. We're looking now at one of the last few wild areas in the nation that is almost completely undeveloped. The question is: Which of these few areas will be given protection for our lifetimes and our children's?"

To which oil industry spokesman Terry Martin responded succinctly: "Which does the country need more? Do you need that acreage more for oil or wilderness?"

Even the indigenous local color seems to be the same. In 1977, I wrote Floyd Schneider, a stone mason in Pinedale, Wyoming, and a modern day mountain man who wanted to protect the migration of pronghorn antelope from the mountains to the wintering grounds near Wyoming's Red Desert. He feared the drilling rigs and roads inevitably would disrupt this ages-old route.

Schneider told me then: "This oil and gas development is going to disrupt the migration routes of the animals. Man has already disrupted the migration of the elk."

In 2004, I wrote about Joel Berger, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist who is concerned about the effect of oil and gas drilling on migration of pronghorn antelope through the half-mile-wide Trappers Point bottleneck near Pinedale.

"If people care about spectacular processes that once crossed vast landscapes, we've got to be creative and do things now," Berger said. "Otherwise no one is going to see long-distance migration outside of the Arctic."

The real issue then, as now, was whether new lands would be set aside as wilderness because they met the criteria of the Wilderness Act of 1964 -- that is, they are largely unimpacted by human intrusions. There are about 105 million acres in the National Wilderness System, more than half of it in Alaska. When all the arithmetic is completed, a little less than 2 percent of the land mass of the lower 48 is congressionally designated wilderness.

Wilderness advocates do not like to admit it out loud, but most of the forest land in the lower 48 suitable for wilderness already has been designated as such. Recent wild-land surveys have focused on Bureau of Land Management lands, which already are mostly heavily used for one or another of approved "multiple uses," such as grazing, logging, mining, oil and gas development and so on.

Some of those lands have managed miraculously to avoid substantial human impacts and may be suitable for inclusion in the national wilderness system. Often, these somewhat obscure places -- the Jack Morrow Hills in the Red Desert, Utah's Book Cliffs or Desolation Canyon, to name a few -- that attract the interest of both the oil industry and wilderness advocates.

One of the few issues that does seem to have been finally decided between 1977 and now is whether oil and gas drilling within wilderness boundaries would be permitted. The answer is a resounding, "No."

Shortly after taking office in 1981, Secretary of Interior James Watt floated an idea about opening wilderness areas to oil and gas drilling. In a television interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 1982, Watt suggested making all wilderness study areas off limits to oil and gas drilling -- but then opening all wilderness lands to drilling and exploration in 2000. The proposal never went anywhere, and a firm prohibition against drilling in congressionally designated wilderness remains in place.

I became friendly with Jim Watt in the years after he left the Interior Department. I found him to be a charming man with a self-effacing sense of humor -- not at all the stiff-backed evangelist for rape-and-scrape land management he had been depicted as in the media (including by me, I probably should say). Watt took deep offense at the notion that he had proposed opening the national parks to oil and gas drilling -- a charge I never heard anyone level against him.

He did want to open wilderness lands, though. In fact, at his urging, one test well was drilled in a New Mexico wilderness, only to be halted by a court order and threat of substantial fines.

In retrospect, though, the Watt years seem moderate compared to the designs of the administration and industry on the few remaining wild lands. During the Reagan years, nearly 10 million acres of new wilderness were designated in the lower 48, more than in any administration since.

Watt was forced to resign, not because of his policies about energy and environment, but because of a tasteless joke he made. This is progress?

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Blue Planet is a weekly series examining the relationship of humans to the environment, by veteran environmental reporter Dan Whipple. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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