In Praise of Wilderness

On our just-ended vacation, we visited 12 states and 17 national parks (part of our quest to visit all the national parks) and spent 13 nights in campgrounds, most of them managed by agencies of the U.S. Departments of Interior or Agriculture. It was the U.S. Forest Service campgrounds (The Forest Service is an agency of USDA) that we enjoyed the most.

Most of us with North Dakota backgrounds know that it was one of our heroes, President Theodore Roosevelt, who created the Forest Service, but it was President Woodrow Wilson who authorized an official recreational (read: camping) use for the government’s forest lands. It was during Wilson’s time as president that the use of the automobile became more popular, giving people an opportunity to travel further from home for recreation, and to create new kinds of family recreation.

At about the same time, wilderness advocates began pushing the Forest Service to begin considering other uses of the country’s national forests besides logging: chief among them was “non-use,” or preservation of riparian lands as wilderness areas. As the years passed, significant parts of our national forests became protected from development, culminating with the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. When President Johnson signed the Act into law in September of that year, he designated about 9 million acres of national forests as wilderness. Today, that number has grown to 35 million acres–still a very small part of our country’s public lands.

In passing the Wilderness Act, Congress determined, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

Lillian and I are big fans of Forest Service campgrounds, because they often abut wilderness areas. When you awake in the morning and get out of the tent or camper, you can generally turn right toward the highway, or turn left and walk into the wilderness. Walk is the operative word. No dirt bikes, 4-wheelers or even bicycles are allowed on or off the trail in wilderness areas, although horses are allowed. Darned near all the bears left in America are found in the wilderness areas.

The other reason we like Forest Service campgrounds is that often they are found at the end of very bad roads, discouraging those great big Greyhound bus-size motorhomes from using them. Which is generally okay with those who own those Greyhound bus-size motorhomes–they want to park somewhere where they can plug into electricity and put out their television satellite dishes.  I don’t mean to be a nature snob here–Lillian and I actually took a borrowed camper-van on this trip–but Forest Service campgrounds attract a different kind of camper than suburban RV parks. Quieter, mostly. And they are generally cheap. With my Golden Age Passport discount, I paid just $8 for a campsite the last night of our 2011 summer vacation.

And so we applaud Theodore Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and Woodrow Wilson, and E. A. Sherman, Wilson’s Assistant Forester, who first recognized the value of recreational use of our forests. Without their vision, we might have logged off all of our public lands, and not saved any of those public lands for their scenic beauty and wildlife habitat today.

Which brings me to the real point of this article (Geez, it’s taken me so long to get here, I was starting to feel like John Irby). The U.S. Forest Service owns and manages a million acres of national grasslands in North Dakota today. Most of it is in the Bad Lands, and in the heart of the Oil Patch. Much of it is leased for oil development. Much of what is not leased is eligible for leasing, but the oil companies just haven’t gotten around to it yet. But they will.  Sooner rather than later. The pressure on the Forest Service to not only provide oil to a fuel-hungry nation, but to provide revenues to run the government, weighs heavy on those who manage our grasslands.

Out of that million acres, there are a few small areas, totaling about 60,000 acres, which have not yet been leased, or developed, or roaded out for agricultural, industrial or recreational use. These small areas are classified by the government as “suitable for wilderness,” which means, generally, they are roadless areas that contain enough unique features to qualify them to become part of the nation’s designated wilderness system under the Wilderness Act.

These small areas in western North Dakota have so far escaped the bulldozer and the drilling rig. They are grazing lands, and are under lease to ranchers for that use, and that use only. No haying, only grazing. And that’s been just fine with the ranchers who use them.

An organization called the Badlands Conservation Alliance, a group of local ranchers and other concerned citizens (disclosure: I am a member and my wife, who grew up on  a Bad Lands ranch, is the founder) have proposed federal wilderness designation for these small parcels. That designation would not change the existing use–grazing. In fact, it would prevent changing the existing use from grazing to oil development, and keep it as grazing land in perpetuity.

I’ve written about this before. I’ve asked my readers to look at the proposal on the BCA website before. I’ve asked our congressional delegation to consider introducing legislation to make this part of the wilderness system before. My recent forays onto Forest Service lands in the West of our country, and the incredible pressure on western North Dakota and its land, people, and wildlife because of the Bakken oil boom, and the now-weekly stories in our papers and over our airwaves about oil spills and accidents in this very part of our state, prompts me to ask again.

Let me try once more to put this in perspective. At a public meeting conducted by the Bureau of Land Management earlier this spring, the head of our state’s oil and gas division said there will be 26,000 oil wells in our state in the coming years. North Dakota’s land area is 70,000 square miles. The area known as the “oil patch” probably makes up a third of that. That means that there will be, on average, an oil well for every square mile of land in the western third of North Dakota. EVERY SQUARE MILE. Put another way, the oil patch is about 13 million acres big. This proposal asks that about 60,000 acres out of that 13 million–about one half of one percent of the “oil patch”–be protected from roads and drilling rigs.  Leaving 99.5 per cent of western North Dakota open for drilling.

And on that one half of one per cent, the golden eagles will nest and rear their young, ranchers will ride herd on their cattle, and hikers will climb the buttes and marvel at the scenic beauty of the North Dakota Bad Lands. As the BCA says, this is indeed a “modest proposal.”

It takes federal legislation to, as the Wilderness Act says, “assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition…”

Federal Legislation takes sponsors.

Sponsors from North Dakota.

You know what to do.


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