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Going Local
Good, old-fashioned grassroots organizing is bringing the wilderness movement back to its roots.

Johnson Ridge Trail on Scorpion Mountain in Washington’s Wild Sky Wilderness.
Tom Uniack, Washington Wilderness Coalition

In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill into law that would have a profound influence on our nation’s resources. It was the Wilderness Act, a piece of legislation designed to permanently protect areas “where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Four decades later, in a bold policy shift, Interior Secretary Gale Norton altered the fate of wild areas when she announced that the Bureau of Land Management would no longer informally block development on land—no matter how pristine—that had not already been proposed as wilderness. Norton’s announcement effectively opened millions of acres of wilderness-quality regions to mining, oil and gas exploration, logging, and road construction, prompting The New York Times to declare “the end of wilderness.” Then, in 2004, news broke that President George W. Bush had signed fewer acres of wilderness into law than any other president—in part because the Interior Department, which under Clinton had been a force for conservation, had under Norton abdicated its role in recommending wilderness areas. Congress hadn’t picked up the slack, and America’s wild lands seemed all but doomed.

Old-growth forest in Grotto Grove in the Wild Sky Wilderness.
Tim Greyhavens

Today, looking back on Bush’s legacy and forward to a new administration, the chronicle of our nation’s wilderness isn’t entirely bleak. True, the president still has a somewhat dismal record: The wilderness bills he’s signed amount to just over two million acres, the fewest of any president except for Richard M. Nixon (who spent about five and a half years in office compared with Bush’s eight). And though Secretary Norton is gone, the new interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, doesn’t seem much more amenable to conservation than his predecessor. But the current administration’s seeming apathy toward wilderness has had the counter effect of strengthening the resolve of environmental groups and private citizens who have opted to take nature preservation into their own hands. “A lot of groups are strongly motivated by a sense that these lands aren’t safe,” says Doug Scott, policy director for the Campaign for America’s Wilderness. “More total effort is going into building the support at the grassroots level than we’ve seen for some time.”

Old-growth forest along Meadow Creek Trail in the Wild Sky Wilderness.
Steve Higgins

Not that this is a new thing. In the 1960s and 1970s preservation “used to be very locally based,” says Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness. “Now [conservation groups] are finding that returning to the old ways is providing a lot of success—opening new doors, finding new partners.” One example he cites is the new collaboration between the timber industry and environmental groups, both of which see more value (albeit sometimes for different reasons) in better forest management than clear-cutting or fire suppression. Sportsmen, too, consider protecting wilderness a means of preserving the wildlife they want to hunt and fish. And, according to Scott, if bipartisan support works its way up to Congress and into bill form, “the ultimate political success of the legislation is somewhat a given.”

Simms Lake in the Wild Sky Wilderness.
Mark Lawler

The case of Washington’s Wild Sky wilderness area is a prime example of how indefatigable local action can have federal results. In 1999 a group of environmentalists from the state got together and decided to lobby for the protection of some of Washington’s most pristine areas—not necessarily because they were under threat but simply because they wanted to be sure the beauty of those areas would be there for a long time. The group set their sights on Wild Sky, a 106,000-acre expanse of salmon streams, rocky mountain cirques, and old-growth cathedral forests in Snohomish County, just an hour’s drive from Seattle. Mike Town, a high school science teacher who has lived for 25 years “in the shadow of the Wild Sky,” jumped on board, assembling a group of “local folks,” including fishermen, religious groups, journalists, local business owners, and birders. He named it the Friends of Wild Sky.

Washington Wilderness Coalition Conservation Director Tom Uniack and U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) unveiled a new sign near the town of Index this May at a celebration of the passage of the Wild Sky Wilderness Act.
Steve Higgins

One of the group’s best recruiting strategies was, in the tradition of John Muir, to let the forests speak for themselves. “For years we did hikes for anybody in the community that wanted to come out,” Town recalls. Eventually one of those hikers was U.S. Senator Patty Murray (above). She was sold, Town says, and in 2002, Murray and Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA) introduced the Wild Sky Wilderness Act to Congress.

North Fork Skykomish River and Bear Mountain in the Wild Sky Wilderness.
Tim Greyhavens

Though Wild Sky was popular locally—even the snowmobiling contingent, sometimes opposed to wilderness designations because they limit motorized recreation, had agreed to remain neutral—and had bipartisan backers in Congress, it took seven years for the bill to pass. Among the obstacles was Richard Pombo (R-CA), the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Pombo was notorious for being “ideologically opposed to wilderness,” explains Tom Uniack, conservation director for the Washington Wilderness Coalition. In 2007 Pombo was replaced by Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia, who ultimately let the Wild Sky bill through the House for the first time last year. By the time President Bush signed it this May, it was the first new wilderness area in Washington in more than two decades.

From the top of a popular climbing cliff called Town Wall, the peaks of the Wild Sky Wilderness and the North Fork of the Skykomish River frame the tiny town of Index, whose residents rallied to protect the area.
Steve Higgins

The long wait for Wild Sky at times meant waning enthusiasm. It was “very difficult on morale and focus,” says Uniack. But there was a hidden benefit, too: Over time, and through continued media coverage, Washington residents became more familiar with the process of wilderness protection—and of the importance of their own role in it. After all, it’s the people who live, work, hike, fish, and relax in an area that hold the biggest and most personal stake in its future. “That is the story of how the Wilderness Act itself was first passed, and nearly every wilderness bill since then,” says Melyssa Watson, director and co-founder of The Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Support Center in Colorado. “Some of them did ultimately have the support of the administration, but in each case they are locally driven, grassroots efforts: volunteers on the ground, working with members of Congress It comes back to the people on the ground who have been building support regardless of who’s in the White House.”

The top of Townsend Mountain provides a majestic view of Eagle Lake and Mt. Baring in the newly protected Wild Sky Wilderness Area.
Steve Higgins

Today nearly two dozen wilderness bills, from Idaho to Michigan and West Virginia to Arizona, have been introduced in Congress, and Scott is optimistic that most of them will pass, even if it takes a while. The local and congressional zeal for preservation is such that the Washington Post has dubbed it a “wilderness renaissance.” Says Scott: “We have a more active agenda of pending wilderness than at any time”—except maybe the 1990s, he concedes—“and [those proposals] are politically viable because they have the support of members of Congress from that particular place.” A wilderness bill that, like Wild Sky, has support from local stakeholders whose allegiances span the political gamut is bound to also be attractive to representatives from both sides of the aisle, and according to Watson, “Such strong, broad, locally driven support [is] very hard for the president to oppose when both Republicans and Democrats are supporting those bills.” Even if the Bush administration hasn’t been diligent about actively preserving wilderness, the past eight years have given people a chance to think about what they want for their public lands—and then to go out and get it with a classic American do-it-yourself style that will hopefully help stave off the “end of wilderness” indefinitely.

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Bush and Wilderness: The Facts

  • Total acres in the National Wilderness Preservation System: 107.5 million acres
  • Number of wilderness areas: 704
  • Largest wilderness area: Wrangell-St. Elias Wilderness (Alaska), just under 9.1 million acres
  • President who signed the most acres of wilderness into law: Jimmy Carter (65 million acres—about 55 million of which were in Alaska)
  • President who signed the fewest: Richard Nixon (1.2 million acres)
  • Acres President George W. Bush has added: 2.2 million (in 60 wilderness areas)
  • Acres President Bill Clinton added: 9.1 million (in 96 areas)
  • Number of years that passed without a single wilderness bill passing during George W. Bush’s eight years in office: 3 (2001, 2003, and 2007).
  • Number of years that passed without a single wilderness bill passing during Clinton’s eight years in office: 3 (1995, 1997 and 1998)
  • Number of times a wilderness bill has been vetoed: Once, by Ronald Reagan in 1988. (The bill, an omnibus package meant to protect over a million acres of wilderness in Montana, was vetoed because Reagan wanted protection for only half the area. No new wilderness has been designated in Montana since 1983.)

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