Whither the Wilderness?

Last Friday meant leaving the out of doors behind and returning home, but it also meant being reunited after two full weeks with the New York Times at Reno/Tahoe International Airport, which softened the transition. As I sat on the plane home, I saw an article on page that provides an appropriate theme upon which to end this series blog of entries.

The article is entitled Top Official Urged Changes In How parks Are Managed, and reports that a deputy assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior (and also a political appointee of the current administration) named Paul Hoffman has submitted 194 pages of suggested revisions to the policy document that governs the operation of the Nation’s national parks.


In my August 23 entry, I provided a link to an essay in the Consider This section of this site called How do you Define ‘Wilderness?’. In that piece, I note how simple definitions become powerful legal standards when incorporated into law, and the NYT article provides excellent examples of how the slightest changes in the wording of definitions can have a profound and sweeping impact.


For example, the Times notes that Hoffman suggested adding the word “irreversibly” into the definition of “illegal uses”. The result would be that an action in a national park would only be an illegal use if the harm that it might cause were “irreversible,” which would mean, for example, that clear cutting huge tracts would not automatically be illegal. Or, as Bill Wade, a former park superintendent and now the executive council director of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, is quoted as observing, “taken to its extreme, I suppose you could do anything to a wildlife population as long as you preserved the last breeding pair.”


As noted in my August 20 entry Whose Wilderness is This?, national parks and monuments are the only public lands that are currently off limits for grazing — a use that also arguably causes changes that are not “irreversible.” If so deemed, it would mean that all public land of every type could now potentially become profoundly altered in this fashion, leaving no land where you and I could see the American wilds in its truly natural form.


This morning, the Times returned to the topic with its lead editorial, entitled Destroying the National Parks. The Times makes some of the same points that I have been making, saying:

There is no question that we go to national parks to use and enjoy them. But part of the enjoyment of being in a place like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon is knowing that no matter how much it changes in the natural processes of time, it will continue to exist substantially unchanged….In short, this is not a policy for protecting the parks. It is a policy for destroying them.

Could the Grand Canyon ever actually be in danger? Recall that but for the strenuous efforts of environmentalists (derided by many at the time), the Grand Canyon would be a lake today, held back by a hydroelectric dam, as was the of Glen Canyon (today, Lake Powell), which the Sierra Club and others were unable to save.



Consider this as well: another editorial in the Times several weeks ago also reported that an interest group in the West was challenging transactions between land trusts and ranchers, whereby the land trusts would buy the grazing rights from ranchers for less desirable land, which the land trusts would then allow to return to their natural state, and the ranchers could use the proceeds to buy grazing rights to more desirable land. A win-win? Apparently not to those that wished to be sure that public land would always be available for grazing.




The article also notes that other changes were proposed that would make it more difficult to create new national parks, or for park officials to seek aid from the EPA to mitigate pollution sources external to parks that have an impact on air or water quality within parks.




And, the article notes, the suggested changes would also remove “virtually every reference to the theory of evolution.”




16 senior park service employees met to discuss the suggested changes, and voted to reject them entirely, although they indicated that they would embark upon recommending their own, less radical revisions to the policy document. A spokesman for the group said that Hoffman (who is senior to those in the review group) was very comfortable with their wishing to start with a clean slate, and characterized his suggested changes as representing a devil’s advocate challenge to current policy.




The reason I find this article to be an apt final chapter to this series is that it illustrates perfectly the tension that exists between two philosophies regarding how national parks in particular, and wilderness areas in general, should be managed, as well as how that tension is manifested in the governmental system.




The group that rejected the suggested changes is defending the position that National Parks should be not only places to enjoy nature, but also as places that represent safe havens for nature, so that the natural world can be enjoyed in as pristine a condition as possible. Hoffman, on the other hand, is promoting the view that parks should be about access and enjoyment, such as wintertime snowmobiling, which is currently limited in Yellowstone to 760 vehicles a day, in order to limit noise and pollution.




Who is “right” and who is “wrong”? It may be that those are not the most useful words to use in asking the question.




For example, if you define a national park to be a wilderness area, and define wilderness to be something that has been allowed to revert to, and be maintained in, its pre-1492 condition, then national park policy would be to allow foot access only. Period. But if you include making national parks accessible to all (including those with disabilities, as would naturally follow), then you are automatically deciding that you will permit some number of roads, parking areas, sanitary facilities, and so on. And if you then add education and interpretation to the mission of the national park system, then guides, interpretive displays, nature trails, and so on naturally follow as well.




So the issue once again revolves around definitions, the question of what should go into the definition, and then what types of uses and policies those uses suggest.




In principle, there is nothing wrong with testing existing definitions periodically to determine whether they reflect current scientific thought, other laws (such as the Americans With Disabilities Act) and other dynamic factors. The danger comes when those tests are dictated by agendas that would go beyond that purpose, something of which advocacy groups on each side of this question have been guilty. (An editorial in Friday’s issue of the Times also notes that the administration is commissioning a fourth study of the impact of snowmobiling in national parks. Last week’s Times editorial voices the opinion that the administration keeps changing the test parameters each time, hoping that the next time the findings will support its desired outcome.) Today’s editorial goes much farther in assigning a political agenda to the proposed policy changes.




Personally, I would not wish to see the current policy change, and I would like to see the existing wilderness policy tightened to exclude grazing. And while I hold that position strongly, I must acknowledge that it’s a viewpoint, and not something that I can contend is manifestly “right”, as it presupposes what the goals of national parks should be. Still, one must wonder why Hoffman thinks that it is necessary to change park policy to explicitly permit the sale of religious items.




I will close with what I think is an interesting suggestion.




Public lands logically are subject to some type of balancing of views and interests. But private lands are not. Already, there are millions of acres that are owned outright, or controlled through easements, by “blue state” philosophy conservation organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy. Each property has its own management plan, which can range from liberal public access, to no public access at all, depending upon the nature of the site and the reason that it was conserved (e.g., scenic beauty as compared to endangered species habitat), and even local views of public access and the like (I’m speaking from personal experience, having been on the board of such an organization for over ten years).




Which suggests the following: Why cannot there be “red state” organizations that buy land and subject it to such restrictions — and such liberal use rules — as they may choose (such as hunting, unlimited snowmobiling, use of all terrain vehicles (ATVs) and so on). As I recall, Ted Turner has already set aside millions of acres of his own land in this fashion expressly for the purpose of preserving the character of ranchlands, providing an existing example of such an effort. There could also be federal funds available, as there already are at the state level in many states, to assist both types of organizations in purchasing land for their respective purposes.




The results should be “win/win” on all sides, as there would then be three flavors of conserved land, and presumably a higher total acreage under permanent protection from development: heavy (“red”) use, medium (“public”) use, and site-specific (“blue”) variable use. In effect, not unlike the traditional range of K through 12 schools, which range from Waldorf Schools to public schools to military academies, and where public funding is now available for charter schools as well. Hopefully, it would also take some of the tension out of the debate over how to manage national parks, since there could soon be (for example) numerous tracts of conserved land that would permit liberal use of snow mobile.




We shall see. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to my next wilderness vacation.




Until then, this blog returns to standards topics.