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Wilderness hows and whys

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Want to know more about wilderness? Here's the skinny on the importance of this vital protection for our state's remaining wild places.

Deer Creek Roadless Area on the Colville. Photo by Eric Zamora

Wilderness frequently asked questions

1. We need a balance that includes wilderness and sustainable forestry on the Colville National Forest.

Wilderness protection for roadless areas, along with areas already identified for responsible forestry, would provide a balanced approach to managing the Colville National Forest: protecting wildlife habitat, providing recreation opportunities, and supporting jobs in the timber industry.

2.  Less than 1% of Washington's wilderness legacy is found in Northeast Washington.

Less than 3% of the 1.1 million acre Colville National Forest is designated wilderness (the Salmo-Priest Wilderness), representing less than 1% of all wilderness in the state. There are, however, 19 inventoried roadless areas that meet criteria under the Wilderness Act for possible future designation. Only 2.6% of the contiguous United States, an area about the size of South Dakota, is protected as wilderness. Wilderness provides the strongest protection for pristine public lands. Pressures on our natural resources are steadily growing as our population rapidly increases and development spreads across the landscape. As wild, natural areas become increasingly rare, we must keep the ones we have intact today for the health of ourselves and our children.

3. Wilderness designation ensures at least some of our public lands will be safeguarded for the future.

As our region’s population increases and former farm and timber lands become more developed, our remaining backcountry lands become even more valuable as remnants of our once vast wilderness heritage. Wilderness is a place where we can connect with the past and where we can be reminded of how the American frontier helped to shape our values of freedom, self-reliance, and perseverance. These undeveloped, untamed lands provide an opportunity for us to experience the challenges that helped shape our forefathers and unique, American culture. Over 100 years ago, much of northeast Washington was wilderness. Today, our remaining roadless areas are all the wilderness we have left. Just because an area is a designated “roadless area” has not kept them from being developed in the past and won’t keep them from being developed in the future. Only Congressionally designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964 offers the security we need for these rare, ecologically significant landscapes.

4.  Wilderness provides habitat security for wildlife and higher-quality hunting opportunities.

Many animals, including bears, lynx, wolves, wolverines, caribou, and other wildlife rely on the wild forests of the Columbia Highlands. They need wild lands as habitat to find refuge from increasing development and human pressures and as a crossroads for moving across larger landscapes. As climate change continues to alter our forest ecosystems, these wild areas will become even more important havens of safe passage for wildlife on the move. Wild forests also provide large, naturally burned areas, meadows, and wetlands free of noxious weeds. These are important feeding areas for deer, elk, moose, and other wildlife. Millions of birds use wilderness for nesting and wintering grounds and resting places when migrating. In wilderness, hunters also find what are becoming increasingly rare opportunities to get away from roads and traffic to pursue bigger bucks and bulls in more traditional ways in the backcountry.

5. Wilderness areas protect traditional recreational access.

Hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, horse packing, hunting, fishing, berry picking, camping, skiing, snowshoeing, and even wheelchairs are allowed in wilderness areas. More than 12 million people visit wilderness each year on their own or with a guide. Two-thirds of the Colville National Forest is open for motorized use and mountain biking. Though mountain bikes and motorized vehicles are not allowed in wilderness areas, new trails  and infrastructure are proposed in recreation areas  outside of wilderness to help replace any trail mileage that otherwise might be lost by wilderness designation.

6.  Cattle grazing and improvements for livestock are allowed in wilderness.

Existing grazing activity and/or range developments should not lower an area’s eligibility for wilderness. Both the Wilderness Act and Forest Service manuals state clearly that grazing that occurred before an area was designated as wilderness “shall be permitted to continue subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture.” The Forest Service policy follows the Congressional Grazing Guidelines, which specifically state that the number of animals allowed to graze should remain at generally the same level as they were prior to wilderness designation. “The maintenance of supporting facilities" is also permissible in wilderness areas.

7.  Designated wilderness areas stimulate economic development for neighboring communities.

Wilderness designation ensures that the scenic mountain backdrop of many small towns will be maintained as an asset to continue to attract tourists, retirees, and new businesses looking to relocate to these areas with a high quality of life and nearby recreation opportunities. An increase in the value of private property adjacent to wilderness areas is also well documented, as is having an official landscape designation like “Wilderness Area” on the map as an added draw for the region.

8.  Wilderness helps maintain secure flows of clean water for fish and wildlife, drinking, irrigation, and ranching.

Healthy populations of fish and wildlife and many of our region’s farms, ranches, and towns rely on the mountain backcountry as their source of water. The towns of Orient, Metaline Falls, and others get their drinking water from roadless areas and wilderness. Maintaining the integrity of these lands through wilderness protection is a cost-effective way to secure our fresh water supplies for the future.

9.  Thousands of miles of wilderness trails are maintained every year.

Thousand of miles of trails are maintained in Washington’s designated wilderness areas each year using traditional hand-tools like crosscut and bow saws and horsemanship skills of packers. Because of declining federal funding for trail maintenance on both front-country and wilderness trails, volunteer groups have stepped up to help keep public trails open and to lobby to restore funding for our nation’s trails. In the summer of 2009, for the first time in several years volunteers from several groups opened up all of the trails in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness.

10.  Motorized routes in designated wilderness should be traded out.

There are several one-way motorized recreation trails within the Twin Sisters Roadless Area and other roadless areas in the Kettle Range. However, these trails are not part of a larger, legal motorized trail system, and they have been identified as routes that could be traded for other motorized loop trails or technical trails nearby. Converting any motorized trails in areas designated for wilderness into non-motorized trails would make them ideal for wilderness recreation activities and wildlife and would help create a better, more connected motorized recreation trail system.

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