The Attack on Wilderness from Environmentalists

My title may seem excessively harsh by some groups who are doing what they believe is the best way to protect public lands from industrial development. However, when you consider that we have only 2.7% of the lower 48 states in designated wilderness, while at the same time there are calls from many ecologists to increase protection to half of the Earth, then any concessions for lesser protection than Big W wilderness is unacceptable.

Increasingly we find many environmental groups, even those who profess to be advocates for wildlands, giving away wilderness protection before they have even begun any legislative or lobbying process.

It comes down to poor negotiating skills and what appears to be a generation that avoids confrontation at all costs. They are guilty of ‘negotiating against yourself”. They make a bunch of giveaways before they have even gotten to the table, often as part of some collaborative, and then agree to even more concessions as the process continues.

If these areas were in serious jeopardy from development and had little political chance of ever being protected as Big W wilderness, then it might make sense to go for some kind “halfway” designation at the negotiating table. However, I never say never. I’ve been very surprised over the years by the serendipitous nature of conservation politics. Things that seemed like lost causes or impossible dreams are realized.

Had you queried even ardent conservationists about the chances of getting more than 8 million acres designated as wilderness in the 1994 California Desert Wilderness Bill prior to its enactment, you would have few people who would have said it was possible. But it happened. However, if some of these desert areas had been previously designated as “Backcountry” or some other lesser status, I am certain few would now be wilderness.

Alternative designations used in place of Big W wilderness, whether they are called Backcountry Management Areas, Special Management Areas, Conservation Areas, Recreation Area, Wildlife Management Areas, etc., whatever the name, will undermine the Wilderness Act and severely limit future wilderness designation. To suggest these designations are as “good” as wilderness is not accurate. At least in the areas that have already been given these kinds of special designation, I would argue they provide less protection.

Not only do they have less legal protection, but in the public’s mind, they don’t deserve as much protection due to their name. All things equal, it is easier to defend wilderness areas against intrusions than other kinds of designation. The public gets the idea that something designated as wilderness is “special”, but if designated Backcountry, or whatever, it just doesn’t have the same imaginative power as Wilderness.

I see this as tragic because we are losing wildlands across the globe. And I cannot accept that conservation groups would assist in that loss of wildlands by proposing lesser protective status.  Maybe we will have to accept some lesser status designations due to the political process, but we should never be the ones advocating these lesser designations.

Many of these roadless areas are not going to be developed in any way in the next few decades (except for mountain biking trails). The reason they are still roadless is that they aren’t attractive for mining, logging, etc. So, in my view, keeping them with their Roadless Area Conservation Rule (RACR) status is acceptable until one can mount the political effort to designate them as wilderness.

Even for those areas that are not covered by the RACR status, many are not going to be lost as potential wilderness. But once they are designated as something other than wilderness, then I believe it will be much harder to get them designated as wilderness in the future.

For many of these areas, the biggest current threat comes from mountain biking. We find that mountain bikers are creating new trails, co-opting old trails and often are permitted to use existing trails with the permission of the Forest Service. Some conservation groups believe, if they propose other less restrictive classification for lands, they will gain mountain biker support for the areas they seek as wilderness.

In general, most mountain bikers are not avid supporters of wilderness designation, if it reduces or eliminates their use of these lands.

Although the presence of mountain biking does not disqualify an area for future wilderness designation, I am concerned that it creates a constituency for non-wilderness in any area with an extensive mountain biking use. I believe the Forest Service encourages mountain bike use because, in general, the agency is not supportive of wilderness designations.

By assigning lesser designations like “backcountry,” “special management area,” or other classifications to permit mountain bike use, as supported by some conservation organizations such as The Wilderness Society (TWS), Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), and many others, these organizations are effectively reducing the chances of future wilderness classification.

I am concerned that any lessor designation will only entrench mountain biking in many areas that should be designated as Big W wilderness. In other parts of the West, wilderness advocates have worked to limit, with varying degrees of success, mountain biking in the proposed wilderness areas. The main argument used is that allowing mountain biking will compromise the potential for future wilderness designation, which I believe is true. It creates mountain biker advocacy for no wilderness.

I fear that this will become the “default” designation chosen by politicians and agencies for most roadless lands.

Yes, we might get some exceptional lands designated as wilderness, but what I have seen around the West is that many groups cave in and go for the “easier” designation because it is more “expeditious” and reduces controversy.

So, we have in Wyoming, TWS, among other groups, advocating for “Special Management Area” (essentially backcountry designation) for some Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) that have been proposed for wilderness for decades like the Palisades WSA, High Lakes WSA, and Shoal Creek WSA. We are not talking about “marginal lands” These are among the best roadless areas left in Wyoming. The only designation that any conservation group should be advocating is wilderness.

Similarly, in Montana, the Gallatin Range, which is the last, best roadless area in the Montana portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem at about 230,000 acres is being compromised-not by the loggers, miners, ranchers, etc. but the environmental groups!

The MWA, TWS, GYC, are proposing wilderness only for high alpine crest (rocks and ice) and lesser protection for low elevation wildlife habitat as “Wildfire Management Area or Recreation Management Area”. This despite the fact that numerous studies have demonstrated the critical role of low elevation areas such as the Buffalo Horn Porcupine area for wildlife. (See Lance Craighead’s study ).

A similar designation of some of the best “wilderness” in the lower 48 along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana was designated a “Conservation Area’ with the help of some of the same players mentioned above.  And in Oregon, the Sierra Club has proposed “Conservation Area” for Maiden Peak Roadless area, the largest roadless area left in the Cascade.

We see a similar trend in the southern Sierra where again The Wilderness Society, along with Sierra Forest Legacy, California Wilderness Coalition, some Sierra Club chapters, and others are supporting “backcountry” status for many roadless areas in the Forest Plan revision for the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests.

The idea of less protective status than wilderness has periodically arisen in the past. Back in the 1970s, there were efforts by some organizations to champion a “backcountry” designation for the eastern U.S. called “Wild Areas” with lesser protections in place of Big W wilderness. At that time, The Wilderness Society led by Brandi Brandborg and the Sierra Club’s Brock Evans fought this proposal aggressively and the idea was dropped. Too bad The Wilderness Society is now one of the organizations promoting such status.

I believe advocating for other than wilderness status is a very poor strategy for any place that could be designated as wilderness—that is not to say this may be an acceptable strategy for areas that could not qualify under the Wilderness Act.

However, if an area is good enough to be designated as wilderness, then I believe conservation groups must advocate for wilderness. You may not achieve that designation, but I am certain we will achieve more wilderness designation than if we advocate for half-way measures like Backcountry. I understand there are probably some places that will never be designated as wilderness. But we will never know how many of the RACR status areas could be wilderness unless we aggressively advocate for this status.



  1. Helen McGinnis Avatar

    I used to support the Wilderness Society, but stopped because I didn’t know what they were up to, besides asking for donations. Now I know!

  2. Sandy Lee Avatar
    Sandy Lee

    I used to support Defenders but stopped after they sold out protection for wolves. It is hard to know what group can be supported and worked for, as you pointed so many bargin away the land to get small concessions which do not help but ultimately damage the land and the environment.

    1. Denise Boggs Avatar
      Denise Boggs

      Support small grassroots groups that stick to conservation ethics and principles. I would argue none of the big DC groups do that anymore because they take money from industry and corporations. It’s shameful. George is absolutely correct in his article. Once wilderness is gone, it’s gone. We need to advocate for all that remains. The answer is always “no” unless you ask. The big groups don’t even ask any more.

  3. Barbara Moritsch Avatar
    Barbara Moritsch

    Agree 100%; whenever there is a “compromise,” the land and the wildlife (and ultimately, the humans) lose.

  4. snaildarter Avatar

    States are rarely good stewards of public lands, the Feds aren’t perfect but they are generally better than the states (Trump his goons are the exception) The problem is mountain biking is very popular and they have a big presence in most of these organizations. I have tried to negotiate between naturalist vs MT bikers a couple of times in the Sierra Club and it’s very difficult. I have a Mountain Bike and I am very careful to leave a light footprint when I’m in the woods, but a lot of MBers are into tearing up habitat I’ve seen MB trails where gasoline powered ATV couldn’t have done more damage. It’s all very sad. I’m also very afraid for Yellowstone if paddling is allowed. Just another way for humans to encroach on wildlife and when that happens wildlife is always the looser.

  5. Kathleen Avatar

    Nie and Barns discussed the dangers of compromise and collaboration in “Wilderness: The Next 50 Years?”–a piece written at the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

    Excerpt: “We believe that three interrelated factors will shape wilderness designations in the future: extreme political polarization, trends in collaboration, and increasing demands for the manipulation of wilderness.”

    To see the same piece with footnotes, see “III. THE FUTURE OF THE WILDERNESS SYSTEM” starting on page 270, ARIZONA JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL LAW & POLICY [VOL. 5:237]

  6. Nancy Ostlie Avatar
    Nancy Ostlie

    George is exactly right about what is happening. The Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor described the new idea of “backcountry” as a designation allowing “low levels of existing development.” Motorized uses can be allowed, or not, depending on the area. She called it a “minimal, hands-off approach” where natural processes would be priority. She said that there would be no assessment of “suitable timber base” — no regularly scheduled timber harvest, but that timber could still be potentially harvested for example in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), for wildlife enhancement, conifer encroachment, and other reasons than timber production. Finally (from my notes) she said the idea would be to “preserve existing values” or uses, as a default, amended by public comment.

    An attendee spoke up to say this Backcountry designation should be formally used nationwide by the Forest Service.

    The good news is that the CGNF included a Plan Alternative (D) that maps almost every bit of recommended Wilderness possible, and it is time to promote it as the starting point for any negotiation.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I hate this smoke and mirrors approach. All it means is that little by little, our protections will be chipped away at, and to think that some environmental groups support it is concerning.

  7. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
    Mareks Vilkins

    grass-root environmentalists sound a lot like Trump supporters when they talk about the Feds / Big Business etc – everyone’s selling out core values just to get some crumbs falling from big guys table

  8. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    I think Mr. Wuerthner identified a real and on going problem with the behavior of “conservation” groups. I wish he would have expanded on the behavioral dynamics of these groups a little more.

    In my own personal experience many conservation groups do not want to be seen as “hard-ass” because they are afraid of losing donations. It is also amazing that so many people outside of federal bureaucracy have no idea about bureaucratic psycho-social behavior and do not press/confront agency supervisors to get real results.

    Federal field employees, especially those who do not make money for an agency are frequently under tremendous pressure not to do their job. Example: Forestry specialists, range technicians and minerals specialists make money for agencies by selling timber, forage and oil and gas- but wildlife biologists and archeologists do not sell species or sacred sites. This puts them at odds with the other employees that do make money and invites sanctions from supervisory personnel that are ultimately subservient to who ever has power over them (republican executive and legislative branches at present). Remember-if you want something from an agencies management then they will have to fear you more than the hierarchy of supervisors.

    When you get down to the nitty-gritty, the public tax payer is supporting the destruction of public lands by subsidizing logging, minerals and grazing activity on public land. Oil companies for example know that pipe line right of ways are cheaper on federal lands so they line up as many parcels of public land as they can. The forest service seldom if ever makes enough on timber sales to pay for its forestry program. Congress only permits the BLM to charge $1.41 per AUM of forage when the private rate is generally over $20.00 per AUM in western states.
    The BLM can only take in about one third the cost of its grazing program, the rest comes from you and me through taxes.

    I highly recommend that people interested in learning more about dealing with bureaucracy read the late professor Ralph P. Hummel’s book called “The Bureaucratic Experience” to gain insight on effectively getting real results from agency management.

    In closing, federal field biologists/botanists/archeologists must be allowed to do their jobs without fear of reprisal. Conservationists must be straight forward and persistent when dealing with bureaucratic systems. Instead of allowing the hierarchy of supervisors and congressmen to put pressure on you- you must put pressure on them. Otherwise our public lands will continue to be eroded and exploited and more species will join the passenger pigeon in oblivion.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner