Viewpoint: ‘Backcountry’ is a far cry from wilderness
The debate over how to protect Wilderness is as old as the hills but as the saying goes, “they ain’t making anymore of it.” The word wilderness has its roots in old English as “wildēornes” which translates to “places inhabited by wild animals.”
The old trope about “backcountry” designation being basically the same as Wilderness is embraced by “collaborative” organizations who say it’s “wilderness lite.” But it means Multiple-Use, a euphemism for “multiple-abuse.”
Inspired by the Gallatin Forest Partnership collaborative the revised Forest Plan for the Custer-Gallatin National Forest designated four backcountry areas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (see map). Two cut chunks out of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, another claims the adjacent proposed Wilderness in South Cottonwood and a fourth absorbs the Lionhead area, a crucial wildlife linkage habitat.
The Forest Service allows logging, mining, motorized and mechanized use and may permit construction of temporary roads for “forest health, fire mitigation and salvage logging” timber sales. No matter how well intentioned, this what the Forest Service and Congress make of proposals for backcountry areas.
The concept is wholly divorced from the protection of the “places where wild animals live.” These areas retain their wild character and are reservoirs of fish and wildlife habitat, biological diversity, solitude and are buffers against the negative effects of climate change.
Backcountry designation is a cop-out by those who have lost the will to fight the good fight, preferring to be pie-carvers interested primarily for what their organization can get out of it and to keep the coffers full for financially flush groups.
The Wilderness Act was strongly opposed by the powerful chair of the House Public Lands Committee, Rep. Wayne Aspinall (R-CO). The proponents led by Howard Zahnhizer and Stewart Brandborg could have thrown their hands up in the air and said “that’s the political reality so we might as well throw in the towel.”
Instead, they redoubled their efforts. It took eight years and Aspinall extracted concessions, but he moved the bill through his committee and we now have 112 million reasons (acres) to be thankful for and a legislative tool to protect what remains wild.
Wilderness is the bedrock of ecosystem protection and the last best chance to halt the extinction crisis engulfing the planet including Montana’s wildlands. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (H.R. 1755, S. 1276) is currently before Congress with 70 sponsors in the House and 12 in the Senate.
It has enjoyed the backing of some of the world’s leading scientists including Drs. John and Frank Craighead, the fathers of modern grizzly bear research and Dr. Michael Soule’, the father of conservation biology. Why? Because Wilderness and biological diversity are a diminishing resource and as Bob Marshall said, “is disappearing like a snowbank on a hot day in June.”
In his book “Half-Earth” Dr. E.O. Wilson suggests we need to preserve 50% of the globe as protected reserves or face certain doom. Designated Wilderness areas comprise just 2.6% of the contiguous United States and even with National Parks and Wildlife refuges its less than 10%.
Wilderness proponents must not surrender to the current political reality but rather work harder to change it. Such is the history of everything good that has been accomplished in America whether it be civil rights legislation or the right of women to vote.
Advocates of backroom deal-cutting are yielding to the rank politics of the day rather than fighting to change them. Settling for backcountry designation means throwing in the towel. Hard work, dedication and perseverance are what achieve meaningful, lasting accomplishments.
Mike Bader, Missoula, is an independent consultant, conservationist, former Yellowstone ranger and firefighter and researcher specializing in grizzly bears. He frequently writes about natural resource issues in the western U.S.