It’s not often that poetry works its way into laws. Howard Zahniser’s definition of “wilderness character” in the 1964 Wilderness Act is a rare example. The definition alone has had as profound an impact as the law that eventually led to the conservation of 109 million acres.
Now all of those acres legally possess “wilderness character,” which the law defines as untrammeled and containing opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation.
Laws aren’t written like that anymore.
Protecting the untrammeled is a difficult pursuit these days. Conservationists face an inherently different debate than other causes do. In other issues like taxes, laws can swing back and forth. While the damage can be vast during unjust times, it can be repaired when the pendulum swings back.
But in conservation, bad laws cause permanent damage, even if they are undone in the next cycle. There is only so much wild land. Once it’s trammelled, much less drilled or mined, it is no longer wild.
The camp that seeks to release wilderness often frames their argument as a sharing agreement – as if there is unlimited space and developers should always be given a “fair” piece of it. In reality, the debate is tug-of-war over limited space; if conservationists weren’t on one side of the rope, there would be no wilderness.
This is one of those years that conservationists need to be on their toes. The pulls on the other end of the rope are stronger and sneaker than they have been since President Ronald Reagan.
Montana’s delegation in Washington, D.C., save Sen. Jon Tester, has mounted the largest assault on public land in Montana’s history. In Dec. 2017, Sen. Steve Daines introduced legislation to release protections on five Wilderness Study Areas totaling 450,000 acres. Last month, Rep. Greg Gianforte did his part in the house. He introduced a version of Daines’ bill in addition to his own bill to reduce or eliminate 24 Wilderness Study Areas.
In total, he has proposed releasing 690,000 acres.
The language that these representatives use is slick. It has to be, as conservation is supported by a vast majority of Montanans despite the state’s right-leaning tendencies. They claim the legislation “increases access to public lands.” This narrative fails to consider the access of future generations or recreationists seeking solitude. After all, we all own and can access these areas, we just have to do it by foot or horseback.
Another argument laments the wasted opportunity for revenue when public land is “locked” or “grabbed” by the government. It’s true that solitude and development are two very different economic drivers, but the outdoor recreation industry has been screaming about their impact for decades. A recent government study proves them right. None of this is news to lawmakers, but they have to appease their donors.
This midterm season, Montanans need to hold firm against public land giveaways. It is our land, our heritage, and it’s not for sale. When you have a free afternoon, look into volunteering with organizations like Montana Conservation Voters and Montana Wilderness Association. These groups are thanklessly doing the legwork to keep our wild places untrammeled.
And don’t forget to enjoy our state’s solitude while we can!