Opinion » John Rember

Only A Paper Wilderness

Why we can't have nice things


U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson's resurrection of the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA) has garnered support from national monument opponents, who call it "the lesser of two evils."

I agree—emphasis on the evils.

Lots of evil to go around in both proposals. For years, I opposed CIEDRA on the basis that it weakened the 1964 Wilderness Act by using wilderness as a bargaining chip, trading protection of wild areas for the privatization of public lands around Stanley, which would then be subdivided and developed for trophy homes. Subsequent versions of CIEDRA eliminated this "View Lots of Evil" provision, but the bill remained, and will remain, a dilution of the concept of wilderness outlined in the 1964 Act.

The biggest problem with CIEDRA is that it contains no provision for funding wilderness personnel. If "wilderness personnel" sounds like a contradiction in terms, take a look at Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness, which will have 1.5 people in the field to protect it during the coming tourist season. That's down from 36 when I was a wilderness ranger in the Sawtooths during the 1970s.

Neglect of the Sawtooths hasn't been benign. Designating a wild area as wilderness can attract an ugly type of tourist who thinks wilderness is to be conquered rather than respected, or that it offers freedom from the rules of civilization rather than acceptance of the responsibilities of conservation. Much of my time as a ranger was spent telling these people the 19th century was over, and irresponsible use of their freedom would turn the Sawtooths into a trashy artifact of civilization.

In an act of bureaucratic malfeasance, the Sawtooth National Forest has taken funds intended for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and distributed them to its other districts, preserving permanent office jobs at the expense of on-the-ground seasonals. One result is that the Sawtooth Forest has elaborate forest plans but no one to implement them.

Wilderness education programs have been canceled. Trails have gone unmaintained, resulting in dozens of paths around fallen trees or washouts. The Sawtooths have acquired a worn and seedy look. High-use areas are surrounded by what looks like crime-scene tape, keeping people off campsites worn down to bare gravel.

The Sawtooth Wilderness demonstrates that Congress can have good intentions, but in the face of devious or uncooperative administrators, good intentions don't necessarily show up on the ground. A wilderness can exist on paper, but without funding, it's not much more than an advertisement for tourists. In the face of the tourists it then attracts, it shouldn't be neglected.

Someone has to be out there protecting it, because tourists are like rats. They don't consume much individually. But get them in a horde, and they can strip a place bare, gnaw toes off babies in their cribs and spread disease.

I exaggerate. A little.

What you should take seriously is that wilderness without wilderness education and educators is wilderness in name only. Visit the lakes of Shangri-La above Redfish Lake on a July weekend and you'll see what I mean—if you can navigate through the maze of beaten paths to get there.

I have some suggestions for Mike Simpson as he refines this year's version of his bill:

• With wilderness, smaller is better. It's easier to protect a small area than a large one. Redraw the maps for your wildernesses with an eye toward quality, not quantity. This move will make almost everybody happy except for the acre-counters in the Pew Foundation, and Idaho Conservation League and Wilderness Society fundraisers.

• Phase in the three wildernesses one at a time, at five-year intervals. Experience with one wilderness will allow for changes in the parameters and management of the next.

• Look carefully at what's happened to the Sawtooth and Frank Church Wildernesses before you finalize CIEDRA plans. Specifically, look at use and abuse, commercial exploitation, fire control and negative economic impact.

• Dedicate funding for an adequate number of wilderness rangers and other field personnel so administrative agencies can't siphon off funds for their own purposes. While you're at it, use the Congressional Budget Office to investigate where the monies Congress intended for the SNRA have gone for the last 35 years or so.

• Finally, stop looking at tourism as a cure for central Idaho's economic ills. Tourism has an uncertain future in a world where resources and energy are coming up against hard limits. In the meantime it creates a false-front world full of empty pageantry and canned experience. It prices poor people out of their environment. It divides people into herders and the herded. It damages the human spirit, as any refugee from Las Vegas or Disneyland or even Sun Valley can attest.

Central Idaho is a beautiful place. It's well worth treating well. That doesn't mean commodifying it as a tourist attraction, or letting special-interest groups sit on boards that will decide what it will be. That's what a national monument would do, and that's why CIEDRA is the lesser of two evils. It can be a lesser evil yet if Mike Simpson decides to listen to the people who know central Idaho well.