America’s Wilderness: A Proud Heritage

Tom Tidwell, Chief
31st Annual Frank Church Conference on Public Affairs: “Wilderness: America’s Heritage”
Boise, ID
— October 20, 2014

Thank you for that generous introduction. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here today.

As you know, I grew up in Boise and I served much of my Forest Service career in Idaho. So it’s a special pleasure to be back in this part of the country, which I still regard as my home.

This part of the country has an especially rich wilderness heritage. Idaho has five wilderness areas on national forest lands, six on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and one managed by the National Park Service. This totals 4.5 million acres, some 3.9 million of them on the national forests. That’s an area bigger than some states. The Selway‒Bitterroot Wilderness alone is almost the size of Delaware.

So people in this part of the country are keenly aware of the importance of wilderness, and I commend the Frank Church Institute for devoting its annual conference to the topic of wilderness and the challenges associated with preserving it.

What I would like to do today is to start with a little wilderness history. I think you will see that the Forest Service and wilderness are closely intertwined. Then I will discuss some of the challenges facing wilderness in the United States. Finally, I will outline the approach that the Forest Service is taking to meet the challenges.

Early Conservation Movement

The Forest Service is more than a century old. We were founded in 1905, not long after the historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the western frontier. The frontier was always a place of wide-open spaces and unlimited resources. Now that the frontier was closing, Americans were growing more aware that our natural resources were limited—and that we were losing them.

The fate of the buffalo was one obvious sign. The American bison once roamed by the millions from the Rockies to the eastern woodlands; colonial explorers found bison as far east as what is now Washington, DC. But by 1900, the bison was everywhere extinct except in small parts of the Great Plains.

And the same thing was happening with America’s forests. At the turn of the 20th century, people still thought of forests as an inexhaustible resource. Little thought was given to reforestation, much less to sustainable forestry. In the words of the early conservationist and forester Gifford Pinchot, “To waste timber was a virtue and not a vice. … The lumbermen … regarded forest devastation as normal and second growth as the delusion of fools.”

As a result, rampant deforestation was underway, just as it is in some developing countries today. From 1630 to the early 20th century, America lost about a quarter of its entire forest estate, mostly in the East; and two-thirds of that loss came in the period following the Civil War.

In good part, that’s why conservation was born. People like President Theodore Roosevelt … like John Muir … like Gifford Pinchot, who went on to become the first Forest Service Chief … people like these, the early conservationists, sounded the alarm. Through their efforts, the first protected areas were set aside—the first national parks … the first wildlife refuges … the first forest reserves, which became the national forests. Through their efforts, the first conservation agencies were formed, including my agency, the Forest Service.

Wilderness Movement

We at the Forest Service were in the forefront of what might be called the early wilderness movement. Although we didn’t call it wilderness back then, the wildness of the American frontier was part of what we were protecting on the national forests.

That’s because wilderness is key to our cultural heritage as Americans. One of the great American writers of the West was Wallace Stegner, and he put it this way: “We need wilderness preserved …because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in 10 years set foot in it.”

Wilderness is part of who we are as a people, and from the very outset the Forest Service was dedicated to protecting America’s wilderness heritage. The young foresters who went to work for the Forest Service more than a century ago were keen on wilderness values. One of them was Aldo Leopold, who started his career with the Forest Service and worked for the agency for 17 years, mostly in the Forest Service’s Southwestern Region.

Leopold saw the wildness vanishing before his eyes. The “blank spots on the map,” as he called them, were disappearing, even on the national forests. Leopold worked tirelessly to save one of the last remaining blank spots in the region where he worked: the Gila River headwaters in New Mexico.

His efforts paid off. In 1924, the Forest Service established the first wilderness area anywhere in the world, the Gila Wilderness on the Gila National Forest. That was 40 years before the Wilderness Act.

At about the same time, Arthur Carhart—another Forest Service employee—was also working for wilderness protection. In 1926, partly thanks to his efforts, the area we know as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on the Superior National Forest in Minnesota was protected.

That same year, in 1926, Forest Service Chief William Greeley initiated the first inventory of roadless areas. The inventory was limited to areas larger than 230,400 acres. The Forest Service identified 74 such tracts, totaling 55 million acres.

The Forest Service, acting on its own, gradually set aside a system of wilderness areas, wild areas, and primitive areas. They were mostly in the West, including right here in Idaho, thanks to conservation efforts across the state. One proponent was Harry Shellworth of the Boise Payette Lumber Company, later known as Boise Cascade. The Forest Service took up his idea of designating a primitive area, with strong support from Governor H.C. Baldridge: In 1930, Regional Forester Richard Rutledge designated the Idaho Primitive Area. Other primitive areas soon followed in the Sawtooth, Salmon River Breaks, and the Selway‒Bitterroot.

By the 1930s, the wilderness movement was thriving. But Forest Service regulations for designating and managing wilderness areas remained relatively weak until 1939. That’s when Bob Marshall—yet another Forest Service employee—drafted much tougher regulations for protecting wilderness areas. Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall, joined by a few others, founded the Wilderness Society in 1935.

By the 1960s, the Forest Service had built a system of wilderness, wild, and primitive areas extending to 14.6 million acres, an area almost the size of West Virginia. But something was missing: a common standard of wilderness management. Also, because wilderness designations received only administrative protections, they could be reversed. Wilderness was far from secure.

In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, providing permanent protection for wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act says in a few eloquent words that what we have today is worth preserving for future generations—that wilderness is, and I quote, “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

And again, Idaho played a key role, thanks to the visionary efforts of our own Senator Frank Church. Senator Church was the floor manager of the debate when the Wilderness Act passed the U.S. Senate by a lopsided vote of 73 to 12. The Forest Service’s 9.1 million acres of wilderness and wild areas became the core of America’s new National Wilderness Preservation System. The Selway‒Bitterroot Wilderness Area was one of the “instant wilderness areas” created by the Wilderness Act.

Today, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Aldo Leopold … Bob Marshall … Arthur Carhart … Frank Church … the framers and drafters of the Wilderness Act … we are privileged today to enjoy the benefits of their foresight. Since 1964, the National Wilderness Preservation System has grown from those first 9.1 million acres to more than 110 million acres—an area larger than California!

Today, America has more than 750 wilderness areas in 44 states and Puerto Rico, from the 6-acre Pelican Island Wilderness in northern Florida to the 9-million-acre Wrangell‒St. Elias Wilderness in Alaska. The Forest Service alone manages about 60 percent of the wilderness acreage in the lower 48 states. About 18 percent of the National Forest System is designated wilderness.

I will leave the specifics of Idaho’s wilderness areas to the panel discussion later this morning. The people on the panel were involved in creating Idaho wilderness areas and will reflect on their own experiences. Suffice it to say that the Wilderness Act of 1964 changed the rules of the game: Wilderness designation moved from being an administrative process within the Forest Service to becoming a legislative process through Congress. The Forest Service participates, but the decisions are made by your elected representatives, informed and influenced by the people they represent.

Challenges and Opportunities

So America has a tremendous record of success in protecting wilderness areas, and the Forest Service has always been part of it. But we also face tremendous challenges, not only in wilderness areas, but across landscapes of all kinds.

  • Climate change is gradually disrupting entire ecoregions, shifting plant and animal assemblages for generations to come. When the climate changes, many things change with it: temperature, precipitation, snowpack size, and runoff.
  • Add to this population growth, land use changes, water shortages, water pollution, air pollution, invasive species, and a host of other challenges, and America’s land managers are in a whole new problem environment.

Already, we are seeing major disturbances—devastating droughts, huge wildfires, and widespread insect outbreaks. All these stresses and disturbances are affecting America’s forests and grasslands on an unprecedented scale.

Wilderness faces special challenges, some of them involving visitor use, others involving iconic species such as bighorn sheep, still others involving climate change. A classic example here in Montana is high-elevation five-needle pines, such as whitebark pine.

Whitebark pine is an important food source for Douglas squirrel. The squirrel caches cones in middens that grizzlies use for food in the spring, when other food sources are scarce.

Whitebark pine propagates through seed caching by Clark’s nutcrackers in openings created by wildland fires. Wildland fire also keeps out competing shade-tolerant trees such as subalpine fir. Whitebark pine is therefore threatened by fire exclusion.

Another threat is an exotic disease known as white pine blister rust. Whitebark pine is also threatened by mountain pine beetle spreading to higher elevations due to climate change. You can see lots of dead whitebark pines up on the Selway‒Bitterroot, for example.

Whitebark pine illustrates the complexity of the challenges we face in managing wilderness. The pine depends on a web of interrelated organisms and processes involving grizzly bear and wildland fire, and the balance is being disrupted by indirect human impacts.

Restoration is key. Healthy, resilient forests and grasslands provide a whole range of benefits to Americans—clean air and water, carbon sequestration, habitat for native fish and wildlife, erosion control and soil renewal, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more. Our job at the Forest Service is to help sustain the ability of America’s forests and grasslands, both public and private, to deliver a full range of values and benefits for generations to come.

And wilderness has a vital role to play in restoration. Of course, we are limited in the direct actions we can take to restore wilderness areas. But we can often restore wildland fire to fire-adapted ecosystems in wilderness areas. And that, in good part, is what we need to do to protect and restore whitebark pine.

And, because direct human impacts are low in wilderness areas, these areas have much to teach us about restoration through careful monitoring and scientific study.

  • Wilderness areas can provide baselines for how climate change and its impacts are affecting natural systems … for how fire regimes affect natural systems … for how ecological processes function in natural systems, including hydrological processes and interactions between predators and prey.
  • Wilderness areas can also provide baseline measures for ecosystem health that we can use to help restore degraded ecosystems elsewhere.
  • But as the fate of whitebark pine shows, even wilderness areas can be subject to ecological degradation. We have received hundreds of proposals for taking action to restore wilderness ecosystems, and our scientists are developing a decision framework incorporating law and policy, ecological understanding, and ethical considerations.

As forest health continues to decline, especially outside of wilderness areas, the importance of wilderness will only grow.

  • Already, the wilderness areas managed by the Forest Service provide 5 percent of the water supply in the lower 48 states, even though they make up less than 3 percent of the land area. Their importance for water purification and delivery is growing.
  • So is their importance for biodiversity and as refuges for wildlife in general and for threatened and endangered species in particular. For example, species such as grizzly, lynx, wolf, and wolverine can be found in sufficient numbers for scientific study only in wilderness and roadless areas.

New Wilderness Designations

So why don’t we have more designated wilderness? We already have an area of wilderness larger than California, but over half of it is in Alaska. In the lower 48 states, about 2.7 percent of the land area is designated wilderness. That’s an area about the size of Minnesota.

So more than 97 percent of our land area in the lower 48 is open to uses of all kinds. A lot of it is protected from development, but it is not protected as wilderness. And that could be a concern, because once you use wilderness for something else, it is gone forever.

America has the capacity to turn wilderness into timberland, timberland into farmland, and farmland into a shopping mall. We also have the capacity, as the national forests in the East so dramatically show, to restore degraded lands to healthy, resilient forests. We can use those restored forests for recreation, for clean water, for wildlife … for a whole range of values and benefits.

But, as Aldo Leopold knew, we can never again use the land for wilderness, not within our lifetimes, not within the lifetimes of our great-great-grandchildren. As Leopold put it, “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.”

Meanwhile, development pressures are rising. By 2060, America’s population could grow to half a billion people, and we could see a net forest loss on private land of up to 37 million acres. By 2030, we also expect to see housing density grow on about 57 million acres of private forest land.

Many housing developments will be intermixed with public lands. That will promote land uses incompatible with wilderness, such as impoundments, utility corridors, transportation corridors, and job-creating activities like mining and timber harvest. Population growth and technology development will promote demand for outdoor recreation that is incompatible with wilderness, such as motorized uses. The growing wildland/urban interface will also promote concerns about restrictions on fire suppression. It will promote a public desire for keeping all options open rather than designating an area as wilderness.

Fortunately, we still have a lot of “blank spaces on the map,” as the Forest Service’s roadless area inventories have shown. Idaho alone has more than 9 million acres of roadless areas on the national forests. But our record of giving those blank spaces permanent protection has been spotty. The last wilderness legislation enacted for National Forest System lands in Idaho was in 1980—more than 30 years ago. The five wilderness areas and 3.9 million acres designated by Congress happened in the first 16 years of the Wilderness Act—and nothing has happened since. Numerous bills have been introduced in Congress for additional wilderness in Idaho, but not one has been signed into law.

We did achieve additional protection for roadless areas through the Idaho Roadless Rule adopted in 2008. I am pleased and proud to have been part of that effort as regional forester for the Forest Service’s Northern Region at the time. We worked with stakeholders representing a wide spectrum of interests to adopt a rule with strong public support, and we finally put an end to controversy over the roadless rule, at least in Idaho.