Now that STC has a bill in the senate, it seemed like a good time to see what the senator who shepherded the Wilderness Act through congress had to say. In 1977, thirteen years after the passage of the wilderness Act he gave a speech titled, "Wilderness in a Balanced Land Use Framework." If you haven't read the text, and your are interested in the management of wilderness, this is one of key historical documents you should.
The title of the speech is indicative of his beliefs; wilderness needs to be seen as part of land use spectrum. This doesn't mean that he didn't believe in wilderness. He risked his political in career in 1962 supporting the wilderness act during his re-election campaign despite the near universal opposition of the political and business community in Idaho at the time. In an echo of Obamacare, the newspapers in Idaho. labelled it the Church Wilderness Bill. Despite the opposition, he won re-election and went on to see the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, He followed up in 1968 championing the Land and Water Conservation Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Along with his dedication to preservation, he valued using and recreating on our public land. In his introductory remarks John Ehrenreich, dean of the College of Forestry. Wildlife and Range Sciences at the University of Idaho at the time of the speech had this to say ,"Less publicized but also important are the Senator's continuing efforts to provide justified funding for Federal management programs to insure multiple use benefits from public lands." If anyone knew the intent of congress when the Wilderness Act was passed it would be him. While he never explicitly mentions bikes hopefully we can divine some of his beliefs.
"That's not the point Senator. Maybe some just plain people do enjoy the wilderness. Still they're not the majority. Most of us want to drive through the woods and find places to park our campers. The great outdoors is OK, but we like a little comfort, too."
Before the no bikes in wilderness crowd start jumping up down shouting, "He said wheels. He said wheels." Let's keep everything in context. He was replying to a question about driving and campers. In the same sentence he mentions pavement, billboards, and resorts. All things associated with automobiles and road trips, not quiet rides on bikes.
Much like Aldo Leopold he sees wilderness as a response to cars and development. For those of us who bike the backcountry our goals are the same as the wilderness seekers he describes. We aren't riding the trails for comfort. We want the land left alone as a sanctuary for adventure and yes, for a place to get away from it all.
"Valid as the verdict favoring wilderness was then - and is now - the fears of those who opposed the Wilderness Bill in 1962 have not proved to be unfounded The concept of expanding wilderness has extended far beyond the limits of the original bill."
With 52 million acres of wilderness in the lower 48 states,For those of who are passionate about protecting wilderness and believe that while the current 52 million acres of wilderness is more that was anticipated still think there are additional areas still in need of protection, yet have seen our favorite trails closed seemingly more for the fundraising and press release needs of distant wilderness advocates than local preservation concerns, the issues raised forty years ago continue to ring true today.
"My final comments tonight concern the issue of wilderness purity. Time after time, when we discuss wilderness,questions are raised about how developed an area can be and still qualify as wilderness, or what kind of activities within a wilderness area are consistent with the purposes of the Wilderness Act. I believe, and many citizens agree with me, that the agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act too strictly and thus misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed."
If you peruse the arguments against bikes in wilderness, one point that keeps coming up is that recreation is not a primary goal of wilderness. It seems to me that for Senator Church,m recreation is the reason for wilderness, and that the rules don't need to be overly strict as long as the use isn't negatively impacting the landscape. In many of the newer wilderness areas such as the Boulder White Clouds and the Montana WSAs bikes are an established us, and if they were able to grandfather grazing and power boats in 1964, allowing bikes in areas where we have been riding for decades should be a no brainer.
"This was the scene over the weekend on the Blodgett Creek Trail #19 below 7-mile meadow where a major blowdown event has occurred and is now blocking the trail. As many as 300 trees may have been toppled in the microburst which likely occurred in late June. Volunteers with the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation cleared 151 trees this weekend, many which were 35-40 inches in diameter! Four saw teams were able to clear 1.5 miles of trail. Our Forest trail crews will continue clearing these trees up to Blodgett Pass. Stock users are discouraged from using the trail beyond milepost 7 at this time as they will not be able to get through. It will take us several more weeks to clear the trail... we will keep you updated here on our progress :) ."
The above quote was from a recent Facebook post from the Bitterroot National Forest. At some level I understand the opposition to chainsaws for trail maintenance. The Forest Service wants to set an example on how to behave in Wilderness, Still it seems that nostalgia for cross cut saws and mule trains occasionally overrides practical management concerns. Is closing a trails for several weeks during peak season appropriate? What has more impact a couple days of transient chainsaw noise or several weeks of a trail crew camp?
"Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there,we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending to our resources as we should - not a people in despair scratching everyone last nook and cranny of our land for a board of limber, a barrel or film a blade of grass, or tank of water"
Many hands involved in the creation of the Wilderness Act. Some such as the original author Howard Zahniser had a more restrictive vision of wilderness. Other's such as Senator Church and others in Congress were more generous in the interpretation. In the subsequent 50 years, groups such as the Wilderness Society have promoted, as would be expected, a purist vision, and have been successful in having that vision implemented. Perhaps now is the time to reconsider and recognized the value of the more pragmatic approach espoused by Senator Frank Church.