Chip Ward

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Charismatic Carnivores

My favorite advice for hiking in grizzly bear habitat goes like this: Avoid surprising bears, especially sows with cubs, by carrying a whistle to blow when moving through brush where visibility is poor. Also, tie bells to your pack. Finally, be alert for signs of bears – like large turd piles with whistles and bells in them.

Conservation biologists call big predators like bears, wolves and mountain lions "charismatic carnivores," a term that reflects the love/hate nature of human attitudes towards those powerful creatures. We cuddle with stuffed bears and turn lions into noble cartoon characters or steadfast marble guardians for our libraries but if you see one in the wild it's usually been shoot first and ask questions later. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) can, after all, eat you.

That rarely happens. In the United States and Canada in the 1990s, 29 people were killed by bears. During the same period, 250 were killed in dog attacks. You are 12 times more likely to die of a bee sting than a bear attack. In the entire history of America, only one person was killed by a wolf, a rabid one at that. While hiking in or near wilderness, you are 40 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion. And yet our fear of top carnivores is as primal as our admiration for them.

Landscapes Raised by Wolves

Can science trump fear? After a long era of killing wild predators, every last one by any means available, America is entering a post "wipe em' out" era that includes the re-introduction of wolves into Western ecosystems, a project our grandfathers would find unfathomable. That wildlife biologists even chose the loaded term "charismatic" for certain carnivores indicates a profound shift in perspective now taking place. Until very recently man was the only carnivore considered charismatic – a high powered hunter who tracked down and slaughtered the other big carnivores and then expropriated their habitat for trophy homes, vacation ranchettes, gas wells and back-country, off-road-vehicle theme parks. Perhaps the grand beasts we exterminated only grew larger in stature – more noble than nuisance – because they were seen in the rearview mirror of extinction. But if we have not mistaken charisma for the nostalgia of a last fading glimpse, then perhaps the new regard for carnivores signals the early glimmerings of a radical break with the resource-driven policies that the Bush administration represents so admirably.

The change in attitude can be attributed to the influence of conservation biologists who have in recent years described the profound effect of carnivores, charismatic or otherwise, on the food webs that include them. Until now, predators have generally suffered a bum rap.

Ecologically, you could say that western landscapes are raised by wolves. After wolves were wiped out in Yellowstone in the early 1900s, for example, elk got lazy and bunched up in delicate but critical river and stream habitats where they chewed up and trampled down the tall grass in which birds nested. They eroded stream banks until native fish choked to death on the muddy waters left in their wallowing wake. When the elk ate up all the willow seedlings, beavers that feed on willow saplings and use them to weave their dams dwindled drastically. No beavers, no dams. No dams, no wetlands. No wetlands, no ... well, whole sets of species fade away. Yellowstone lost precious biodiversity, the most compelling measure we have of any ecosystem's vitality. With no competition from wolves, smaller carnivores – coyotes and foxes – became too abundant and ravaged their prey species: More birds, small mammals, frogs, and snakes gone. Eventually, Yellowstone's entire ecosystem became skewed and degraded, thanks to the absence of just one "keystone" species of predator.

Even the smallest predator can play a "keystone" role. After a summer of painful welts and screaming children, a superintendent in one of our national parks ordered the eradication of wasps that nested in the eaves of park housing and dive-bombed the residents. The next year, the park's historic fruit orchards were overrun by voracious caterpillars. The wasps, it turned out, were the only effective predators on those caterpillars. Without them the caterpillars were free to pitch their gossamer tents without limit until the trees above the campground resembled racks of cotton candy. The wasps were reintroduced when park biologists grasped that even the least appealing insect predators play a role in nature's give-and-take dynamic.

Conversely, the presence of predators in a landscape can be a measure of ecological health. A decade ago I heard a Bureau of Land Management ranger describe a favorite wilderness canyon as "infested" with rattlesnakes. The canyon in question is one of the most robust I have ever experienced, lush and loaded with springs, birds, insects, and animals. Rattlesnakes are plentiful there because they have a rich food web to enjoy. "Infested" does not characterize their presence so much as reveal an attitude towards creatures which are inconvenient, repellent to most of us, and put us at risk: the only good rattler – like the only good wolf, bear or mountain lion – is a dead one.

Bear Huggers and Lycra-clad Deer

As suburban sprawl invades the foothill habitat of lions and bears and we build more resort communities on the borders of national parks and wilderness areas, the potential for clashes between charismatic carnivores – human and wild – is bound to increase. Can predators and people co-exist? I think so. I have a lifelong fear of snakes that I share with most of humanity. The serpent, though still an uncharismatic carnivore, has always been a source of veneration as well as fear, much like its more charismatic peers. I deal with my fear first through understanding and then by modifying my behavior accordingly. Collectively, our culture can do the same.

A rattlesnake is a very astute and patient creature. It can go weeks without food, moves slowly to conserve energy, and picks its targets carefully. It can hear the footfall of a mouse, pick up the faintest odor, and judge a body's size from the heat it throws off. To a snake, I come across as huge, clumsy, and distinctly inedible. Rattlesnake attacks express neither malice nor virtue, but are based on a simple set of calculations: Am I hungry? Can I swallow it? A rattlesnake normally strikes a human in self-defense and the first bite is often "dry." After all, why waste precious venom on a target too big to eat? Because they are cold-blooded, snakes have predictable behaviors – they sun in the morning and shade up in the heat of day – and that makes them easier to avoid. When I attend closely to what I know about where they may be, I rarely see them. When I do encounter one, it is usually as startled as I am, often coiled and buzzing.

That, of course, is how we imagine and depict them – ready to strike – a bit like basing our impression of automobiles only on head-on collisions. Before I moved "out west" 30years ago, I imagined lots of snakes here. My brother-in-law was a ranger at Saguaro National Monument near Tucson and he wrote to me that his morning duties included moving rattlesnakes from the Visitor Center area to remote areas away from people. I decided I had to overcome my fear of snakes before I moved and so I caught every snake I saw that last summer in Vermont. It was an enlightening adventure. I learned that a snake's first line of defense was to be very still and hope I didn't see it. If that failed, the snake would flee. If cornered, it would feign aggression in the hope I would give up or back off. Only as a last resort would it fight and bite. This, I realized, is the exact sequence most unarmed humans work through when confronted by a bear.

I am to a snake what a bear is to a human, except that bears don't get drunk and behave unpredictably. Snakebite victims are overwhelmingly male and typically in their teens or early 20s. About 80 percent of the people admitted to emergency rooms with rattlesnake bites were inebriated when bitten and about the same percentage were bitten on the hand, often twice. You get the picture: rattlers bite drunken young men who try to pick them up.

Bear avoidance can also be learned and practiced. Steven Herrero has collected data for many years on where, why, and how bears attack humans. His book, "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance," is the authoritative study of the subject. Herrero makes the case that we could significantly reduce deadly bear attacks by not feeding bears, better securing food and garbage, educating the public about bear behavior, and moving trail routes away from where bears feed, migrate and seek shelter. Predacious attacks on humans, he says, happen mostly because bears learn to associate us with food sources. Our tradition of feeding bears through car windows, at open dumps, or by failing to secure food at campgrounds can generate this potentially fatal association. The predacious bear simply figures that the slow and soft animal generously offering food might make a better meal than the leftovers he's giving away. To your average bear, gratitude is tasteless and non-filling.

We can learn, Herrero says. Indigenous people who lived among bears were smart about bear avoidance based on close observation and a natural sense of respect. Mindful respect is key. In the Native American view, bears are sovereign. They are not cuddly and not for befriending, as Timothy Treadwell, the bear-hugging founder of the Malibu-based organization Bear People recently discovered when he and his research assistant were mauled and eaten by bears at Katmai National Park in Alaska. Treadwell was known for approaching and touching bears, even sows with cubs, while humming friendly tunes to them – an experiment that, in the light of his demise, will not be peer reviewed, or at least replicated, anytime soon.

Mountain lions are also trying to rebound but are running into our traps and guns when they do. Severe drought and dwindling deer herds (coveted by hunters) are being used as a rationale for further reducing mountain lion populations across the West. And then there's the problem of people building trophy homes in the lion's foothill habitat. Not surprisingly, the lions will learn from time to time to go after joggers who, from their perspective, look and act like deer wearing Lycra. Perhaps those who choose to build in lion habitat will have to curtail their jogging – and give up pets. I do not swim in the ocean with bleeding feet that may attract sharks and people who live in cougar habitat would be wise not to imitate deer.

The Snake in the Garden

Our fascination with predators runs as deep as our fears. Snakes are erotic and undulating spines, phallic, mysterious, and wholly other. In the dance between nature and culture, the snake becomes the serpent, a potent player in religion, folklore, and dreams. Once upon a time, lions, tigers, crocodiles, and bears reminded us of our limits and vulnerabilities. Our ancestors were well aware that they lived in a world where every creature fed on and was, in turn, food for some other creature. Humans, after all, were both hunters, a source of pride, and prey, a source of profound humility. The presence of big carnivores in our world rooted us in the cosmos rather than lifting us out of it. In their absence, human hubris and a sense of ultimate hegemony have thrived. But perhaps if we can recover something of that lost sense of humility in our damaged world and begin to focus on the long-term symbolic service charismatic predators offer us and the ecological good works they do for us, we can overcome our fears long enough to restore them to our wilds.

The American landscape – the watersheds and habitats that sustain our very lives – are not in close to optimal shape to face the onslaught of chaotic climate disturbances that we are now beginning to experience. Our forests, deserts, and plains have been clear-cut, over-grazed, fragmented by development, drained, dammed, and trashed by miners, oil drillers, and off-road vehicle drivers. The present historic drought across the West and that busy harbinger of global heating, the bark beetle, are killing entire forests just ahead of catastrophic firestorms that will feed on the dead, dry timber. We are not just poised for a future biological meltdown as the globe warms too fast for species to adapt, we are experiencing a crash of biodiversity right now. Putting predators back in the game could help staunch the loss.

Recognizing that predation, especially by charismatic carnivores, is an all-important ecological process that ties extensive food webs together is one thing. Creating the conditions on the land to let it happen is another. Big carnivores need room to roam – lots of room. One project currently in the works would link habitat from Alaska to Mexico into a continuous chain or corridor so that wolves, bears, mountain lions, and jaguars have more room to thrive. Such ambitious plans will require years of negotiation, public education, and clever collaboration to overcome the endless conflicting interests on the ground. It won't be quick or easy but it could help us understand how to survive our own mistakes.

The ecological crises we face have many causes that could be addressed through laws and policies, if the governmental will were there. But I suspect that at their heart lies a failure of imagination, a fundamental disconnection from the natural world that sustains us. Blind pride and an absence of empathy ultimately hobble our attempts to restore disrupted ecosystems. We will conserve what we appreciate. It is easy to love salmon and whales, eagles and otters. If we can learn to appreciate rattlesnakes, then bats and badgers should be easy to accommodate. We could use some ecological wisdom right about now and, ironically, we could look down to the serpent at our feet for that apple. This time, however, we might just get to re-enter the garden.

Rewilding America

Imagine America in 2104. From the air, what you see is a largely unbroken, green, and fluid realm with graceful and permeable natural boundaries -- all those geometric grids we were so used to faded away when we tapped out too many aquifers before we switched over to sustainable farming. There are still dams, but only a few. Water is stored the way nature stores it in regenerated wetlands, recharged aquifers, and along recovered flood plains that are also refuges for wildlife. The restored river valleys also serve as corridors for cougars, wolves, and bears moving between huge habitat reserves that are spread from one end of the continent to the other. In the Northwest, salmon teem in pristine streams that also provide clean drinking water for nearby cities. On Midwestern plains on a great, restored, natural "commons," the buffalo roam again. Across a mostly rural continent, the howling of wolves can sometimes be heard at night.

Lawns, so popular in the water-wasting days of the twentieth century are rare, but native plants thrive everywhere, inside buildings and out. Schools have shaded playgrounds and gardens. Rainwater and storm runoff are harvested to make it happen.

An urban renaissance went hand-in-hand with the creation of a continental network of nature reserves. Cities eventually became more attractive than sprawling suburbs because they offered so many parks, sports fields, libraries, galleries, restaurants, nightclubs, and museums. After several decades of explosive growth, sprawl stopped, and then receded, as long and frustrating commutes, dead lawns, and the social isolation of the burbs lost out in competition with the easy transportation and diverse cultural amenities of cities. There are still cars and sometimes even traffic, but clean and reliable public transportation is generally the preferred method of travel.

Sadly, the urban renaissance was fueled by natural disturbances. Persistent wildfires caused by global warming and decades of unnatural fire suppression eventually chased people down from the hills, and the inhabitants of floodplains were driven off, too, when hundred-year floods became common. Slowly, that old checkerboard sprawl has been converted back to small farms (the term "organic" is now assumed) to meet a growing demand from local farmers' markets and from the popular "slow food" trend. The disruptions of global trade, thanks to terrorism and pandemics earlier in the last century, opened up a burgeoning market for more reliable regional food.

On vacation, city dwellers still love to head out to the mega-reserves that run like a necklace of huge national parks across the entire continent. Created to conserve vital biodiversity -- especially after we understood that life in all its forms provided us with medicines, foods, and new kinds of building and manufacturing materials, plus endless models for sustainable production and consumption -- the mega-reserves became as mega-popular as they were mega-necessary. People go to the reserves to hike, bike, kayak, windsurf, vision quest, or just relax. Sunbathing, of course, still remains too dangerous as the ozone layer has yet to completely heal and, in any case, most beaches disappeared when the melting glaciers inundated them. But people love to sit under umbrellas and watch wildlife -- deer and elk, for instance, and the bears and the wolves that pursue them -- pass under or over the old highways along specially constructed and landscaped corridors designed to make their passage from one mega-reserve to the next possible. Almost anyone can tell you when they saw their first wolf, whale, or condor.

Between the cities and the chain of connected reserves, are buffer zones of family farms, wind farms, solar farms, retreats, spas, and green belts that are also outdoor recreational hotspots. After the obesity epidemic led to a mid-century diabetes die-off and we realized that excessive television and Internet surfing caused early senility and paranoia, more people headed for the outdoors. Now that carbon emissions have been cut drastically and the weather is moderating, the land between city and reserve is being redesigned to accommodate both people and critters in ways that can be sustained.

This is the world we got when we chose, incrementally in a million fits and starts, to "rewild" our continent because we finally realized that natural biological systems which include us are invaluable and irreplaceable. The ecological collapse of China early in mid-century was certainly instructive. We got tired of dysfunction and trauma and we could see it was only getting worse. Global warming had displaced whole populations and caused war and chaos. New pandemics were emerging. The first incidences of genetic pollution were a shock. When denial was no longer possible and it became clear that Rapture was not an option -- that we would all be "left behind" -- we simply decided there was a better way; we didn't have to be impoverished, anxious survivors, desperate for an advantage in a fraying world. As a culture, we finally grasped that biodiversity was ultimately a better measure of health and well-being than bell-and-whistle measures like GNP or corporate profit rates. So we decided to put it all back together -- to reconnect and restore our wounded world until it was reanimated and resilient again. It took us almost a hundred years to get started, but here in 2104 we're slowly but surely healing the land -- and ourselves as well. Life is better. Hope is widespread.

A Froggy Love-Tunnel World

Now, drop back to America in 2004 and we have a long way to go. Consider the froggy love tunnel in Germany.

A local radio show in Salt Lake City where I live has a "stupid story" contest every morning. Three tales of incredible foolishness are pulled from the back pages of the news and conveyed by laughing DJs. Commuters caught in traffic jams then pick up their cell phones and vote for the "stupidest story of the day." They choose, for example, among a kidnapper who writes his ransom note on the back of a personal check, a woman who burns her house down to get rid of ghosts in her bathtub, and a robber who turns himself in for the reward money. On one recent morning, German bureaucrats were thrown into the mix for, "get this," the DJ said, building a tunnel under a highway so local frogs could get from the woods to a lakeshore where they mate. The show's hosts had a blast imitating German accents and yelling, "Froggy love tunnel!"

Nuts, huh? No. What's seen here as the perfect opportunity for ridicule is actually a fine example of ecological enlightenment. The new scientific discipline of conservation biology has vividly demonstrated that biologically diverse ecosystems have a better chance of surviving our assaults on them, and that biodiversity is being lost at alarming rates. The principal reason that species die off is human hegemony -- we are degrading and fragmenting their habitat. Among other things, there are too many human-made barriers in the way when animals need to migrate, or to regenerate a population decimated by natural disturbances like fire or disease. Populations of species cut off from one another suffer a lack of genetic variation that severely reduces their viability over the long run. Creatures have always faced challenging natural barriers like rivers and mountain ranges, but add a zillion interstates featuring diesel trucks with flat raccoons on their bumpers and the balance is tipped.

A key, then, to conserving biodiverse life on earth is to make our human-built world more "permeable" for creatures that hop, lope, and crawl. A froggy love tunnel is a cheap means to save a species that may play a critical ecological function we do not yet appreciate, or perhaps contain the key to a medicine we have not discovered -- better to play it safe and build that tunnel. Or maybe, like me, you just like frogs and think the world would be lonely without their rough music. In the West, we are already starting to provide landscaped bridges and tunnels across highways for deer because the alternative -- hitting them -- is dangerous and expensive. Removing barriers, then, is hardly a stupid story.

All the froggy love tunnels or deer overpasses in the world, however, won't solve our most basic problems. Removing barriers is not enough. In the 1970s, an obscure discipline called "island biogeography" discovered that islands were the globe's extinction hotspots and that, generally speaking, island populations do better the bigger the island is or the nearer it is to another island. The larger the populations of a species that an island can support, or the easier access is to other populations of the same species elsewhere, the better the chances that a healthy population can rescue a depleted one and the more genetic variation is available to draw on in times of stress. For North America, this means we have to take a second look at our system of national parks and designated wilderness areas. Cut off from each other, they function as "islands" on the mainland and most are too small or too isolated to assure the survival of many of the creatures they harbor over the long run. We like to think we are conserving bears and moose so our grandkids can see them. Whether their kids will be able to do the same, however, is in doubt.

A Country Raised by Wolves

Enter a wild idea -- rewilding. In 1991, Michael Soule, a renowned professor of biology at UC Santa Cruz and the midwife of the new multi-disciplinary science of conservation biology, got together with Dave Foreman, the legendary activist who founded Earth First! to shake up a lethargic conservation community, and the Wildlands Project was born. Over the next decade, the Project translated conservation biology's key concepts into land-use principles and designs. Ecological criteria for deciding what lands are crucial to set aside -- like identifying "keystone" and "umbrella" species important to other species because they are "highly interactive" -- were explained in ways that made them useful to local activists and advocates. Smaller numbers of big reserves, for example, were deemed more ecologically advantageous than larger numbers of small ones. Species in big, interconnected core reserves surrounded by buffered areas are more viable than those in cores that bump up against cities and suffer "edge effects" or those not linked to others. Add such empowering new ideas to a technological revolution that included satellite positioning devices and new mapping software that can show patterns of flora and fauna on conventional topographic maps, and the academic concepts of conservation biology got legs. Across the nation, its influence on land-use planning is now being felt -- from land-trust meetings to university classrooms where a new generation of land-use managers is being trained.

Two things are becoming apparent. First, conservationists in the past have paid too little attention to ecological criteria. All too often, our national parks and wilderness areas were "conserved" for their appealing scenery or the recreational opportunities they offered. We got a lot of rock and ice as a result, but not much ecosystem integrity. We need to pay much more attention to landscapes and species that do not look great on those brochures used to raise money for environmental groups or to lure vacationers into "the wild," but may play important ecological roles. Second we need to think of preservation and restoration on a much grander scale. Why? Because ecologically we are raised by wolves.

The "top-down" view of predators developed by conservation biologists stands in stark contrast to the old "bottom-up" model that said you could remove a big predator like the wolf from the food chain with minimal results. Until recently, being at the top of that food chain meant you were seen as expendable because your role was considered superfluous. We knew, for instance, that wolves were dependent on the relationships beneath them -- eliminate forage and you got less prey and less prey naturally meant fewer wolves. But it didn't work the other way around (or so we thought). Eliminate wolves and the forage and grazing prey would be largely unaffected.

The recent natural history of Yellowstone National Park, however, demonstrated just how limited that old model was. After wolves were exterminated within the park boundaries, Yellowstone filled with fat, lazy elk that hung out by streams and ate the aspen and willow seedlings down to their nubs. With no aspen and willow to eat, beavers disappeared and so stopped creating wetland habitats for myriad other species. Stream banks eroded and native fish couldn't feed or breed in silted waters. When the tall grasses were chewed away by the elk, birds and small mammals lost nesting areas. They were also eaten up by smaller predators like foxes and coyotes that had no wolves to fear or to limit their own populations. Here was a vast and supposedly self-willed landscape that was slowly unraveling, all because we took out an evolutionary player and assumed it wouldn't be missed. We were wrong and so in the last ten years, wolves have been successfully reintroduced into the parkscape.

The reintroduction of wolves to Western landscapes would have been unfathomable to our grandfathers -- as unimaginable as those scenes of a rewilded future America are to us. Our complete misunderstanding of the role played by big carnivores in healthy ecosystems is only one of many mistakes that, thanks to conservation biology, now seem obvious to many of us.

To take an example, we built thousands of big dams across the globe, taming almost every river on the planet. Now we know that dams are great fun for someone with jet skis and are convenient for barges, but they destroy habitats and compromise whole ecosystems downstream. So we struggle to undo the damage. The same is true of wetlands: We spent a hundred years draining them without a second thought and now find ourselves having to spend vast sums to restore places like the Everglades. Conservation biologists are showing us the importance of all sorts of species we thought were ecologically insignificant to the integrity and health of the ecosystems that sustain our world. Hug that tree for dear life.

At the conceptual heart of rewilding is the notion that nature may not only be more complex and dynamic than we thought, but more complex and dynamic than we can think. Rewilding, rooted in humility and patience, signals that the era of hubris is over. We can dance with natural systems but not drive them. Once that lesson is learned, the era of piecemeal conservation as we've known it since the days of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt will be over too, and a new era of wholesale restoration and reconnection will begin. Ecological restoration will not only save us, it will redefine us in ways we can hardly imagine today.

Sound like a pipedream or froggy love-tunnel madness? Look around. People across the nation are restoring habitats, removing dams, setting aside land, and planning to link reserves together. In the Southwest, the Sky Islands Alliance is puzzling together national parks, wilderness areas, ranch lands, state lands, and wildlife refuges across Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico in an attempt to reverse a century of fragmentation and degradation. If they are successful, someday we may again see jaguars and parrots within the boundaries of the United States. Farther north, a coalition of conservation organizations, land trusts, and government agencies is patching together wildlife corridors meant to extend from Yellowstone to the Yukon. In the East, citizens are working to create a map with protected wildlife linkages that will reach from New York's Adirondack Mountains through Maine into Canadian Quebec.

Similar efforts are going on without much fanfare in hundreds of communities. People simply aren't waiting for a new federal mandate -- something like a National Biodiversity Protection Act -- they're just doing it. Like all cultural shifts, some get it and some still don't. But, since the biodiverse services of nature are irreplaceable and non-negotiable, eventually we will all be on board or we will be desperately diminished. So, make way for the froggy love tunnel, coming soon to a habitat near you.

Chip Ward is the author of Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land and co-founded the grassroots organizations Families Against Incinerator Risk and HEAL Utah.

Paving Mad

I like to climb canyon walls, see windswept desert vistas, sleep under a crystalline lattice of stars, drink from hidden sandstone pockets of rainwater and, from time to time, let a wild river have its way with me. Experiencing wilderness is how I stay whole and well. But even if you've never been closer to a slot canyon than a Nexium commercial, the fate of wild lands is compelling because it may be our own.

Wilderness is not just the stuff of scenery-slick calendars or articles in outdoor adventure magazines like Outside and Men's Journal . Wilderness and "roadless" (healthy and wild but not officially designated as wilderness) landscapes are the source of 80% of our nation's freshwater, our lifeblood. They are also storehouses of precious biodiversity, key to the viability and integrity of whole ecosystems. They provide critical habitat for endangered species and are the last places where we can experience the disappearing landscape that shaped our national character. And yes, they can provide spiritual solace.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration dealt the system of federally protected wilderness a crippling blow in a pair of out-of-court settlements with Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, now head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The deals brokered between Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Leavitt while he was still governor were a one-two punch delivered to conservationists in a dark alley behind a federal courthouse.

Left in critical condition: the Wilderness Act of 1964 which had for decades guided our collective decisions about how to identify, designate, and protect wilderness areas. After the mugging in the courthouse alley, the thieves made off with the means for turning millions of additional acres of "roadless" land into special-service areas for oil and gas, mineral, timber, and grazing interests. Cow tracks and dry washes can now officially be designated "roads" and paved over to get to the loot -- a clear case of identity theft that will rob us of irreplaceable reserves of wilderness so gas and oil corporations can party hearty.

Although most Americans may never get nearer to wilderness than a Discovery Channel documentary, millions have visited national parks and wilderness areas and millions more have seen the pictures, heard the stories, and dreamed of making their own pilgrimages one day. We are growing ever more eco-literate and understand the importance of healthy watersheds and biodiversity just as there is ever less to be eco-literate about.

Knowing that their deal would generate popular outrage, Norton and Leavitt conveniently confessed their crime the very week our troops invaded Iraq. As planned, the story was buried in the back pages of the papers and the public was blindsided. Ever since Bush replaced Clinton, this has been a familiar story. When unpopular corporate interests like the oil, gas, and timber industries can't work their will through an open, inclusive, and democratic political process or through the usual judicial contests, they simply sue the feds who then settle out of court and give them everything they want but can't get otherwise. That's what happened in April, 2003.

Behind the Zion Curtain

Once the Bush administration declared an all-out war on western public lands, the unique and spectacular mesas and canyons of southern Utah, America's redrock wilderness, became ground zero. Conservation activists from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, and other groups have been struggling for years to designate 9 million acres of Bureau of Land Management landscape there as wilderness. The Redrock Wilderness Act, with 173 sponsors in Congress, would do that. The members of the Utah delegation, however, aren't on the list of sponsors even though it's in our backyard and polls show that a clear majority of Utahns want more wilderness, not less. Nonetheless, Utah's Republican governors, state legislators, and county commissioners have resisted the Act while attacking the very idea of wilderness designation every chance they get. Old-school patriarchs who believe land is not valuable unless mined, grazed, and drilled, Utah's politicians don't realize that the state's majestic mountains and a string of cherished national parks and monuments -- Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, among others -- are now generating more dollars for the local economy and attracting more new economic activity than extractive industries ever will. Quality of life counts and, ecological considerations aside, wilderness pays. But good ol' cowboys, it seems, can't learn new tricks, so Utah's pols have continued to resist tenaciously.

In the mid-1990s, citizen volunteers conducted a thorough on-the-ground survey of Utah's back-o-beyond and revealed that there are three times as many acres qualifying for wilderness protection as a previous Bureau of Land Management (BLM) survey had shown. Even the BLM agreed that their survey was incomplete, but in 1996 the State of Utah filed a lawsuit challenging then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt's authority to re-inventory roughly 2.6 million acres of BLM lands in Utah for their wilderness character. The state also challenged the BLM's decision to protect some of these lands from interim degradation, calling it "de facto" wilderness management. A Utah Federal District Court granted the state's motion to immediately halt the BLM inventory, but in 1998 the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out all but the state's "de facto" wilderness management claim. Conservationists applauded, then the case languished for another four years.

On March 28, 2003, Utah filed an "amended complaint" based on the way the BLM has managed wilderness "study areas" that have met the criteria to be officially designated and protected as wilderness but have not yet received final congressional approval. The state's case was weak and flawed, but it didn't matter. Secretary of the Interior Norton let Governor Leavitt back up his truck to the courtroom loading dock and haul away whatever he wanted.

In fact, Norton did more than that. She actually renounced her department's well-established authority to conduct wilderness reviews of public lands administered by the BLM and rescinded its authority to use any inventories conducted after 1991 as the basis for new Wilderness Study Area designations. In a single moment she rewrote federal law, ignored fifteen years of agency practice, and pronounced illegal her department's most popular and important mission. If the Leavitt-Norton deal stands, 2.6 million acres of wilderness-quality lands identified in the BLM's latest inventory cannot be managed as wilderness even though it clearly is wilderness by the agency's own standards.

Millions of acres of wilderness-quality land throughout the West will also be affected. Under this settlement, America's rarest and most robust lands can now be managed to allow for oil drilling, off-road vehicle abuse, resort development, and mining. In fact, every use is on the table except management for preserving wilderness. It is typical of the Bush administration's practice in general that the public never got a chance to influence such historic and radical decisions which will affect the wilderness lands they collectively own -- lands their children and grandchildren will one day inherit.

Sucker Punch and Judy

The Norton-Leavitt no-more-wilderness deal was not the first sneak attack the two of them made on four decades of popular and successful federal wilderness policy. Days earlier, they had signed an agreement aimed at disqualifying vast stretches of wild landscape from protection as federal wilderness. If implemented, this agreement will grease the skids for state governments, individual counties, and others to obtain thousands of bogus rights-of-way across national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, proposed wilderness areas, even private property. The basis for this change was RS 2477, the less than memorable code name for Revised Statute (RS) 2477, an archaic provision of the 1866 Mining Act that was intended to facilitate the settlement of the West by granting Civil-War-era homesteaders rights-of-way across public lands. The law states simply, "The right-of-way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted." Although RS 2477 was repealed in 1976 by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, valid existing claims for highways already established were honored under a grandfather clause. Throughout the West in recent years, this short, seemingly simple statute has taken center stage in the debate over the future of our national parks and incomparable wilderness areas. What is a valid claim? What is an established highway?

Let's start with what this issue is not about: roads. Instead, the real debate is about whether dry creek beds, off-road vehicle tracks, hiking trails, and cow-paths are really "highways" under federal law. Leavitt as governor argued, as did some rural Utah counties, that as many as 15,000 of these tracks are RS 2477 right-of-ways that can be turned into paved highways, and they have spent $8 million of taxpayer money trying to prove it. Why? In the hope that these "highways" will disqualify otherwise spectacular wild lands from congressional protection. On the interpretation of what is an established right-of-way rests the question of who will control the fate of America's public lands all across the West and whether or not these magnificent landscapes will be protected in their natural state for generations to come.

After more than two years of secret, closed-door negotiations, Norton and Leavitt signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishing a process by which the Interior Department will grant RS 2477 claims across public lands. There may be no meaningful opportunity for public comment, no environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, and no conformance with other environmental laws that require the Interior Department to balance use and preservation. The MOU will loosen standards enough to potentially permit states to turn cow paths and foot-trails into constructed highways. It will permit Utah to turn jeep tracks into paved highways after simply notifying the BLM and receiving the agency's approval, with little or no public involvement; it would not require any assessment of the environmental impact of the wholesale giveaway of claimed routes. Anti-wilderness politicians could then carve roads into proposed wilderness areas to disqualify them for protection. Off-road vehicle groups notorious for opening healthy wild lands for abuse by weekend armies of All Terrain Vehicle enthusiasts are now free to pursue these claims in federal court.

Governor Leavitt and Secretary Norton didn't have long to wait for feedback on their two secret deals, and it wasn't pretty. Both the national press and Congress responded in loud opposition to the agreements. They were joined by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, members of the Salt Lake County Council, leading members of the outdoor recreation industry, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. In the press, editorial writers from the New York Times, Atlanta Constitution Journal, St. Louis Dispatch, Arizona Daily Star, Salt Lake Tribune and other papers bemoaned "the end of wilderness" represented by these clandestine deals. The ink continued to flow as USA Today, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, MSNBC, PBS, the Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio and others all ran essentially the same story. Dissent rang through the halls of Congress as a bipartisan corps of 100 Congressional representatives, led by Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Mark Udall (D-CO), signed a letter to Secretary Norton objecting to these deals as an attack on the wilderness and the public process. In reference to the two Leavitt-Norton agreements (as well as policy changes regarding wilderness reviews in Alaska), the letter reads:

"With these three decisions you seem to be trying to limit Congress' future opportunities to exercise its exclusive authority to designate qualifying public lands as wilderness. You have effectively taken away an important management tool for the BLM to protect some of the finest remaining wild lands in America from environmental harm. And you have limited the public's ability to be fully informed and to participate in a meaningful way in the planning process for our public lands."

State governments across the West were quick to criticize the RS 2477 right-of-way agreement. Citing the need to protect its scenic landscapes and wildlife habitat and to uphold local and regional planning efforts, the California Resources Agency, for instance, sent a letter to Secretary Norton in April asking that she leave California out of the Interior Department's RS 2477 designs. Likewise, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has written twice to Secretary Norton asking her to preserve the wilderness remaining in that state.

Utah businessman Peter Metcalf of Black Diamond Equipment, a Utah-based climbing and skiing equipment manufacturer, was also angered by the back-room deals. Metcalf, who helped bring the lucrative $24 million Outdoor Retailers trade show to Utah seven years ago, as well as other leaders of the outdoor-recreation industry, met with then-Governor Leavitt in June to discuss their concerns. They told him that Utah may be the wrong place to hold a trade show focused on backcountry recreation and wilderness, now that his secret settlements had jeopardized so much of it. Threatened with a bottom line he understood, Leavitt backpedaled and promised to hold talks with Metcalf and the others, just before bailing out of the state altogether to become Bush's EPA director. In the meantime, attorneys for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wilderness Society have come together to challenge the settlement's legality.

Wise and sustainable policies for managing our most precious national treasures grow from processes that are open, inclusive, informed, and accountable. The Norton-Leavitt backroom deals are alarming because they more closely resemble the process used by pirates to divide a treasure chest. And... aargh! Cap'n Leavitt is now over at the EPA!

Does the White House care a whit that while support for wilderness grows throughout the country, the Interior Department is serving up our last remaining wilderness landscapes to the oil industry, off-road vehicle groups, and mining companies? One thing's for sure: The American public does care, and with one loud, clear voice we must tell the administration that we refuse to be shut out of important decisions that whittle away our public-lands inheritance and threaten to destroy some of America's most spectacular wild landscapes.

Chip Ward is the Assistant Director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, and author of the forthcoming Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land (Shearwater/Island Press). He sits on the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

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