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‘Backcountry’ is no substitute for wilderness

by Mike Bader
| August 1, 2022 12:00 AM

The debate over how and where to protect wilderness is as old as the hills but as the saying goes, “they ain’t making it anymore.”

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 as a replacement for wilderness has reared its head in proposals from “collaborative” organizations. The “backcountry” designation means multiple-use, a euphemism for “multiple-abuse.”

It is a concept wholly divorced from the protection of places for their wild character and as reservoirs of fish and wildlife habitat, biological diversity, solitude and as buffers against the negative effects of climate change. Proponents of this approach falsely claim it’s practically the same as wilderness. It’s a free for all with logging, mining, motorized and mechanized use allowed solely for consumption by insatiable humans.

The backcountry designation is a cop-out by those who have lost the will to fight the good fight, preferring to be part of the pie-carving multitude interested in public lands primarily for what their organization can get out of it and to keep the coffers full for financially flush groups.

Consider The Wilderness Act.

It was strongly opposed by the powerful chair of the House Public Lands Committee, Rep. Wayne Aspinall , R-Colorado. 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 and while it took eight years, Aspinall realized this was the will of the American people and moved the bill through his committee and it was signed into law by the President. Aspinall and his allies extracted concessions and compromises along the way but the heart of the bill survived and we have 112 million reasons (acres) to be thankful for and a legislative tool to protect what remains wild.

Likewise, today’s 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. Doing the right thing is always harder than simply giving into the political exigencies of the day.

Wilderness designation is the bedrock of conservation and ecosystem protection and the last best chance to halt the extinction crisis engulfing the planet including the Northern Rockies and Montana wildlands. This bedrock principle is exemplified by 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 constantly 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 at least 50% of the globe as protected reserves or face certain doom. Wilderness areas comprise just 2.6% of the contiguous United States. Add in National Parks and Wildlife refuges and its less than 10%.

Advocates of backroom deal-cutting are selling wilderness short, yielding to the rank politics of the day rather than fighting to change them. There are no shortcuts to achieving difficult tasks. Hard work and perseverance are what achieve meaningful, lasting accomplishments.

Mike Bader lives in Missoula. He is an independent consultant, conservationist, former Yellowstone ranger and firefighter and researcher specializing in grizzly bears.

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