Viewpoint: Expand the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness
Phil Knight and George Wuerthner
It’s time to expand the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in Montana and Wyoming. Up to 300,000 acres could be added to this iconic and rugged wilderness.
Wilderness areas everywhere are under pressure from climate change, air pollution, extinction, extreme wildfires, invasive species, motor vehicle trespass and heavy human use. Let’s set aside as much land as we can, while we can.
The impacts of industrial civilization and its addiction to fossil fuels is wreaking havoc on the Earth’s life-support systems. We need to take many steps to curb our consumption and try to blunt the impacts of climate change and other unfolding disasters.
One thing we can do is protect more land from development. Scientist E.O. Wilson called for restoring and protecting 50% of Earth’s land as reserves. President Biden has initiated a plan to protect 30% of US lands and waters by 2030.
The America the Beautiful Initiative seeks to reverse the negative impacts of biodiversity decline and climate change by protecting more natural areas, and to increase access to nature for communities that lack it.
Protecting more land through a variety of designations will help with climate change in several ways:
-Carbon sequestration in vegetation
-More uninhabited areas to absorb extreme weather and fires
-More room for stressed and migrating animals and plants to move
-Storage and release of fresh water
-More accessible wilderness in mid-elevation areas for people to enjoy, and to spread out human impacts
Here in the Northern Rocky Mountains we can add protected land more readily than most areas of the US. We still have quite a bit of undeveloped land, and most of it is public. But even here ecosystems are unraveling and climate change is hitting hard.
On June 13, 2022 record-breaking floods came roaring out of every canyon in the Beartooth and Absaroka ranges. Heavy late season snowfall combined with up to 8 inches of rain produced record-breaking floods, with the Yellowstone River topping 50,000 cubic feet per second. Roads in and near Yellowstone National Park were destroyed. The town of Red Lodge was hit with extreme floods, damaging and destroying many homes, roads and bridges.
Climate change is clearly here and is impossible to ignore. Bozeman just had its hottest August on record.
One way to mitigate and offset climate change, and many other problems, is to get Congress to designate more Wilderness. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, designated in 1978, covers 940,000 acres in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana and the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming.
Nearly 300,000 acres of unprotected roadless lands surround the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This pristine public land is the “low-hanging fruit” for 30x30 protection. The footwork has been done, the maps drawn. All it requires is an act of Congress.
Montana has 6 million acres of potential Wilderness still, sitting in limbo, nominally protected by the Roadless Rule but still subject to the whims of the Forest Service and its predilection for logging and road building.
Some may say it is unreasonable or impractical to set aside more land from development, and to expand existing wilderness areas. But remember that the Absaroka-Beartooth was to be cut in half by an existing north-south motor vehicle trail. Wilderness advocates refused to give in and the motorized route was closed and included in the wilderness.
There are many potential additions to the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance has identified 22 areas in all, from Line Creek Plateau near Red Lodge, to the West Fork and Lake Fork of Rock Creek, to the 25,000 acre East Rosebud to Stillwater roadless area.
The 129,000 Deer Creek drainage is a foothills landscape largely missing from the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. It is important elk and deer habitat, wih genetically pure Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout in the upper Deer Creek drainages.
The 8,000 acre Tie Creek/Mission Creek/Livingston Peak roadless area is a worthy addition, and in Paradise Valley, the entire roadless terrain of 13,000 acres from Deep Creek to Strawberry Creek along the Absaroka Front should be added.
Chico Peak, Emigrant Peak and Dome Mountain’s 56,000 acre roadless area is well known and extremely scenic. Congress recently passed a bill to stop the proposed gold mine in Emigrant Gulch, showing how valuable these lands are to the American people.
The Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Act would designate all of these areas and more as Wilderness, for a total of 1.1 million acres across the Custer Gallatin in the Northern Greater Yellowstone area of Montana. For details on each of the 22 proposed additions to the Absaroka Beartooth see www.gallatinyellowstonewilderness.org and look under “Wildlands.”
The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act would also expand the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. NREPA has been around for 25 years and has been introduced into every session of Congress since. It would designate 22 million acres of new Wilderness across Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Eastern Washing ton and Oregon. Allianceforthewildrockies.org