Whose Wilderness is This?

Public land is just that - public. Who should be able to decide how it is maintained? One man's wilderness policy may be another man's folly.

John McPhee (one of my favorite authors) once wrote a book called The Control of Nature. His theme was man’s hubris in attempting to contain the power of nature, and his propensity for forgetting how limited his ability to do so really is. One of three examples that McPhee describes highlights the heroic nature of the quest, as the inhabitants of a small town on an Icelandic island try and save their homes and harbor by turning fire hoses against the lava flow that is about to overwhelm them. In another, he demonstrates the foolhardiness of those that build houses in California canyons that periodically are the site of flashfloods that hurl bus-sized boulders through anything that stands in their path.


Unfortunately (depending on your point of view), nature isn’t always that powerful, and submits with a whimper. All too often, it can be tamed with a tool as simple as a cow.


This comes home all to forcefully wherever you travel in the lower forty-eight states, and increasingly so even in Alaska. Consider the following: I am currently in what may be the least inhabited part of those forty-eight states. In an area roughly 160 by 120 miles, there are a total of 12 ranches. Period. No towns, not even a crossroads with a gas station, and almost no crossroads, for that matter (and where roads do cross, they’re both dirt or gravel). Surely this must be, by some definition wilderness, right?


Unfortunately (again, depending on your point of new), not in any classic sense, nor even in a consistent sense within this same area. To the west and east are a few ranches. In the middle is the 575,000-acre Sheldon Antelope refuge. And all of the land is intensely managed, stark and beautiful though it may be.


Although dry, this land lies at 5 to 8,000 in altitude, and when Charles Freemont traveled through on his journey of (white) discovery the grass grew up to his knees — when he was on horseback. Now, it is an arid expanse of sagebrush and cheat grass, with juniper at the higher elevations. It’s still rich in wildlife (on which more later) in current, if not in historical terms, and it is actually more empty today than it was when the native inhabitants greeted him. But as with virtually every acre of land west of the Mississippi that doesn’t have crops or houses on it, it has cattle, on a percentage basis.


Impossible? Consider this also: I once wound my way up from the desert to cross a mountain range in eastern Colorado, finally crossing to the other side in a heavily wooded pass at over 10,500 feet. At the very apex of the pass, after climbing through trees for over 2,000 feet, there was…a cattle grate.


In fact, the very great majority of all of the unfarmed, non urban or suburban land in the entire western half of the country bears only such vegetation as cattle cannot eradicate. It therefore also means that the American west can only support such types of wildlife, and in such numbers, as can survive on a diet of what cattle won’t eat (or what’s left of what they do eat), or on a diet of the animals that can survive on such vegetation. Even the climate has been altered over the last hundred and fifty years, given the altered evaporative quotient for such a landscape and the higher temperatures that an arid landscape produces. So also has the carrying capacity of the land, as a result of the loss of topsoil through erosion and dust storms, and the reduction of water tables as “fossil” water supplies deposited during the last ice age are tapped more quickly than they are replenished.


Even where cattle do not graze the land, it is sometimes (as with the Sheldon refuge) managed to maximize the number of “desirable” animals (e.g., antelope and sage hen, for hunting) and minimize the number of “undesirable” animals (e.g., wild horses, which are culled annually). As I hiked through the Sheldon terrain, I could see juniper trees that had been cut so as not to lose the sagebrush that antelope and sage grouse rely upon for cover. Similarly, even though there are no dwellings to protect, I met a fire crew pre-positioned in the center of the refuge because a thunderstorm was on the way. Sagebrush takes a long time to recover, once burned. Without such fire management, the land might eventually revert to its earlier, natural state, of high grass (which retains water and soil).


So if wilderness means “landscape unaltered by man”, then there is about as much wilderness left in the western half of the country as there is virgin forest in the east.


What of all of the public land? By far and away the largest amount is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forestry Service, and other government agencies, each of which officially or analogously operates under the slogan “Land of Many Uses” (and it is, after all, public land). Only National Parks, by law, are immune from grazing. Virtually all of the rest is leased for ranching, mining, and/or logging. The percentage of National Park land, augmented by any Nature Conservancy, state, local or private land that does not allow grazing, is woefully small.


Of course, let he who is a vegetarian cast the first stone (I can throw a modest stone — I virtually never eat beef). But even if I don’t eat beef, I still live in a nation of meat eaters, and if we bar all grazing from public lands, it would only mean that we would be despoiling some other country’s landscape. All of which leaves us with choices to make, and very difficult ones, when easterners (like me) want to walk in wilderness that others (like the people who actually live here) don’t want to give up their ranches, or let anyone else tell them how to manage them, either.


Sadly, like so many things today, it’s turned into a red state/blue state issue, with each successive administrations pushing the laws in the direction it favors, and sometimes reversing the initiatives of it’s predecessor.