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Why wilderness, why now?

Posted by Derrick Knowles at Feb 08, 2011 04:40 PM |

Big, imminent threats to wildlands like a proposed road and logging plan and mining proposals tend to really motivate the American public to voice their deep conservation values and demand protection of our special places. It can be more challenging to sound the alarm for the many wild places that may not face imminent destruction, but instead are losing their wild character and ecosystem integrity to the slow erosion and watering down of one wilderness after another.

Why wilderness, why now?

Damage to trail and meadow in Twin Sisters--no longer a once in a while problem in the special wild roadless areas of the Columbia Highlands. Photo: Jeff Juel

In 1969, a Spokane area firefighter was bear hunting in the vast roadless Salmo River basin in the extreme northeast corner of Washington when he came across some flagging amongst the towering ancient cedars the area is known for.

He followed them up and out of the basin and made a stop at the local ranger station where his suspicions were confirmed; the flagging was where the Colville National Forest planned to build their new road to get down to the Salmo to “harvest” those spectacular old-growth trees.

That hunter happened to be the President of the Spokane Mountaineers at the time. He went home and organized others to oppose this serious threat to one of the last strongholds for caribou and grizzly bears in the lower 48. The road plan was stopped, and 15 years later the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act finally protected the Salmo-Priest Wilderness from future threats.

Big, imminent threats to wildlands like the proposed Salmo Basin road and logging plan and oil/gas or mining proposals tend to really motivate the American public to voice their deep conservation values and demand protection of our special places. It can be more challenging to sound the alarm for the many wild places that may not face imminent destruction, but instead are losing their wild character and ecosystem integrity to the slow erosion and watering down of one wilderness after another.

Then when the day inevitably comes that the more visible and imminent threats to wild areas and wildlife—a uranium mine, salvage logging project, or a vast expansion of ORV trails perhaps—are pushed on the public, the argument is often made that the area just isn’t that wild any more anyway.

While I had always known the roadless areas of the Kettle Crest and places like Abercrombie Mountain were worthy of protection, it has been difficult to point to those imminent threats, like a ribbon of flagging winding up the Kettle Crest to some future timber sale that make wilderness designation so critical.

Over the past couple summers, as I encountered or heard about one ATV track after another pushing their way slowly into the wildest corners of the Columbia Highlands, from the summit of Abercrombie Mountain, to the Kettle Crest, it struck me that the threat to these places is not only the very real future prospect of development of even nature’s sweetest places, but the piecemeal erosion of wildness and damage to the land caused by an explosion of illegal ATV activity in northeast Washington and around the West.

The stamp of protected wilderness makes a statement for the future: these places are special and should be treated as such. 

While wilderness designation itself won’t keep ATVs from riding where they don’t belong, it is our best hope to pass something on to future generations of people and wildlife that will last and to put a stop to the threats we are witnessing today and the ones our grandchildren face in the future.

[More about the threats that drive us to push for wilderness designation and protection for special lands of the Columbia Highlands]

 

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