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Public Theology: The Changing Wilderness
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The Changing Wilderness
Defining just what is meant by the 'wild' has never been easy. Is it what never changes? Does nature have to be managed to stay the same? Climate change is changing wilderness in Idaho.

By Rocky Barker

Editor's Note: During my years in the seminary, in the summers I stated a camp in northern Idaho, the Priest Lake area. We took kids on hiking trips across the Selkirk mountains there. It's thrilling to be "out in the wild." But what is "wild" actually? The following article in the Idaho Statesman just begins to raise lots of these sorts of big questions about wilderness areas. Northern Idaho is not designated official wilderness like some areas further south, but the questions here can apply to both areas.

GOSPEL-HUMP WILDERNESS - The trail to Lower Gospel Lake is steep, unmaintained and poorly marked.

Hikers drop 700 feet in less than a mile into a thick forest of pine and fir filled with huckleberries, beargrass and blooming Indian paintbrush. Then they climb 300 feet to an alpine lake with cutthroat trout and a tall rounded peak rising from its crystal waters.

The scene captures the spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act, to preserve "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

The 206,053-acre Gospel-Hump Wilderness, in the Nez Perce National Forest along the Salmon River north of Riggins, is one of Idaho's least-visited wilderness areas. Despite that pristine isolation, its lakes have not escaped the mercury pollution that is carried globally in the atmosphere today.

And other changes have come to even the most untouched of Idaho's wilderness areas.

Runoff is earlier now, since winters are warmer. Within 50 years, scientists say, that runoff could be done as early as April 1 due to climate change. High-elevation whitebark pine is now listed as an endangered species, and without active management to control competing tree species - logging is prohibited by the Wilderness Act - many scientists suggest it could disappear within a century.

Fifty years after the passage of the Wilderness Act, about 5 percent of the nation's land mass - 109 million acres - is designated as wilderness in 44 states and Puerto Rico. For the uniquely American wilderness movement, the law has been a huge success in its goal of ensuring "that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States."

Advocates continue to press for preservation of more American wilderness. But today, the major threat to the act and the values that underly it is not development of mines, trophy homes or parking lots. The impact of human beings on the earth now goes far beyond what anyone in 1964 envisioned.


The burning of fossil fuels has meant we have more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any time since civilization developed. CO2 and its greenhouse effect is changing the ecology of wilderness areas in Idaho and elsewhere. Invasive plants such as cheatgrass in the Owyhee Wilderness area, protected in 2009, and knapweed in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, protected in the 1964 act, threaten to alter the ecosystems and the web of life that makes these areas special.

Fire is a force of nature with which many landscapes evolved - and which the Wilderness Act sought to encourage. But its frequency and ferocity have been amplified by greenhouse gases and global warming.

Fires in our drier, hotter summers are burning down forests that scientists say may grow back as rangeland in places such as the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in west-central Idaho. That means prime habitat for wildlife from wolverines to salmon could be degraded or even disappear.

Such threats strike at the heart of the Wilderness Act's goal to protect "wildness," which former Nez Perce Forest Supervisor Tom Kovalicky describes as humans remaining hands-off and allowing nature "to roll the dice."

Emma Marris is the author of the book "Rambunctious Garden" and a leading voice of the generation of environmentalists who grew up in a world altered by climate change. With global human actions already changing wildernesses, she argues, the decision to not take action in wilderness areas is a deliberate human act in itself.

In the 1960s, the authors of the act expected wilderness areas to evolve, says Gary Macfarlane, a Moscow board member of Wilderness Watch, a group that pushes for strict adherence to the 1964 law. But those authors also wanted to protect wilderness areas from dramatic changes.

Those original goals pose a dilemma in an era of human actions with potentially sweeping worldwide effect.

"The problem in 2014 is, if you want to have something that looks unchanged, you are going to have to manage it," Marris said. "If you have something unmanaged, it's going to become very different."

She predicts the two original visions of wilderness - places unchanged by man, and places where wildness is valued above all else - are going to conflict more and more.

Which will be the true wilderness? Or will both qualify?

"In the far future, we are going to have some areas that have management actions to save species and some areas with no management at all," Marris said. "Those areas are going to look crazy. They are going to look very unfamiliar."

We could see alien plant communities replace native forests. The wildlife and even the fish in the rivers may shift along with those adapting ecosystems.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River watershed, for instance, may become more rangeland and brush. Warm-water bass may replace salmon and trout in the river. Sage grouse, chased from the Owyhee Wilderness by fire and cheatgrass, might even make a home in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, said Chris Barnes, the Bureau of Land Management's representative at the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center in Missoula, Mont.

Truly embracing wildness means tolerating such changes, Macfarlane argues.


One of the most prominent groups in the fight to pass the Wilderness Act was The Wilderness Society. Today that old-guard preservation group is advocating some surprising strategies. It wants an ambitious program to try to stop the takeover of knapweed in the Selway River corridor that threatens to transform the ecosystem of the entire Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and make it less productive for elk and other species that thrive in its habitat.

In the Owyhee Wilderness, the group has urged the Bureau of Land Management to aggressively fight fires to protect the sagebrush steppe ecosystem on which the sage grouse and many other desert species rely.

"How can it be wild if it's dominated by non-native species?" asked Craig Gehrke, Boise director of The Wilderness Society.

Wilderness Watch has discouraged all but the most-minimal management efforts - think hand tools to dig up weeds, crosscut saws to clear trails- allowed under the original act. Protecting wildness means letting nature take its course, Macfarlane said.

"It takes humility," he said.

This wilderness debate has produced a fissure in environmentalist circles over the past 20 years, since historian William Cronon observed that wilderness is itself a concept invented by humans in response to industrialization and technology.

Traditionalists argue that wilderness - essentially, the creation God gave humankind - precedes human experience and as such should be kept as is. They call people like Marris "gardeners" who want all of nature managed for human benefit.

But Marris said her views have been mischaracterized. If humans don't decide now how to protect the things we thought we were protecting by law in 1964, we may not have much left to protect in the future.

As the realities of climate change threaten both biological diversity and wildness, she expects and hopes that we can find ways to preserve both.

"There are trade-offs," Marris said. "We can't have both in the same place."


Sandra Mitchell, director of the Idaho Recreation Council that represents the interests of motorized recreation, has fought new wilderness in Idaho for nearly 30 years. Wilderness was created at a time when the U.S. was the richest, most powerful nation in the world. "I believe that wilderness is a luxury," Mitchell said. "It was created when we were a country of surplus, and that may be coming to an end."

Technology has advanced to a degree where resources can be extracted with much less impact on the land, she said. Perhaps in the future it can be done with even less impact - to the point that areas set aside from mining or drilling might be accessed with little or no harm.

"I'm not holding my breath," said The Wilderness Society's Gehrke. Development remains the central threat to wilderness, he said, and that's why wilderness will need protectors in the future.

"There's never a shortage of people who want to make a buck on public lands, including wilderness," he said.


In the 1960s, the Wilderness Act reflected the views of the children and grandchildren of pioneers, who were generally white and European in origin, former forest supervisorKovalicky says. Those views didn't reflect the Indians who historically occupied many of the areas that humans now are supposed to visit only, he said. And as the nation becomes more diverse, the shifting values about nature and wildness will affect the wilderness movement. Today, hikers routinely talk on their cellphones in wilderness areas and carry global positioning system devices, a violation at least ofthe spirit of the act.

Tomorrow, people may have digital chips inserted into their heads. Humans may have machine parts - or their consciousness transferred to a machine. Will cyborgs be welcome in the wilderness of the future?

Ultimately, the Wilderness Act is a product of politics, said John Freemuth, a public lands expert at Boise State University. Wilderness advocates who won't acknowledge the changes in the world around us are like the entrenched timber, mining and ranching industries in the last century that historian Charles Wilkinson called "the lords of yesterday."

"These guys may be the lords of yesterday when it comes to wilderness," he said.

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Date Added: 9/2/2014 Date Revised: 9/2/2014 4:36:17 PM

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