The Future of Wilderness
Guess who owns 618 million acres of American wildlands? You do!
You own red-rock canyons, white-capped mountain peaks and turquoise rivers, desert plains and alpine meadows. You own Arctic tundra, southern wildflower fields and cool northern forests. All these wild places are part of your “great American backyard.”
This year, 2014, we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. No other environmental law, except perhaps the Endangered Species Act, so clearly articulates an environmental ethic and sense of humility. This law creates a way for Congress to designate wilderness areas, which represent the nation’s highest form of land protection.
No roads, mechanized vehicles, or permanent structures are allowed in designated wilderness. A wilderness area is to be managed to preserve its wildness, meaning that these special places are to be free from human control, manipulation, and commercial exploitation.
EcoFlight celebrated 50 years of being wild by focusing on Wilderness (with a big W) with our Flight Across America program, designed to empower and inspire young adults. Over 200 high school, Navajo and college students - who will be the future caretakers of our wild lands - learned about the benefits of wilderness firsthand from educators as diverse as Huts for Veterans, the International Mountain Biking Association, ATV users, water managers, elected officials and ranchers. Students learned to appreciate diverse voices and different opinions on wilderness, and flew with great wonder and giant smiles over our majestic wilderness lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
At the heart of much of our work for the wild and in the wild is Wilderness. This summer, everywhere we went conservation groups were tipping their hats to the creators of the Wilderness Act, and the accomplishments of so many hard working organizations and individuals.
Much of our current crop of wilderness bills have been put on hold due to elections and partisan politics but the landscape waits for no one. Without protections of some kind, we have been losing valuable wildlife habitat for the last couple of decades, as we hem and haw and bid homage to the committees of Washington.
Soaring into the wild blue yonder and over the magnificent, daunting, imperiled, inspiring, titillating spectacle that is our planet earth, I believe there just have to be places left untrammeled, and left to nature.
Recently on our Flight Across America (our young adult program) we visited Durango in Colorado, home of a pending wilderness and landscape protection bill called the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act. Our students were greeted by ranchers, conservationists, water managers, a diverse array of folks. They learned about democracy in action, how politics and decision-making should work, and the big C word: Compromise. Nobody gets exactly what he/she wants, but they each get something they can live with. Well, typically when you have two senators and a representative in favor of this kind of bill, it is a slam-dunk. Not these days. The bill went back to committee in Washington and the representative from Colorado was told to change a few words that essentially changed the essence of the bill. Rather than fighting the committee, the representative is currently supporting the Washington folks, and not his constituency, nor what is good for the land.
My feeling is that a representative is elected by and therefore represents the people, and not the party. My feeling is that the efforts that went into this bill, and other Wilderness bills across the West, have been exemplary, and the bill deserves consideration and passage in the terms in which it was originally conceived. My feeling is that if these representatives (and it happens in both parties) cannot heed their constituencies, then they need to work for their parties in another capacity. Our students learned the value of and the arguments against wilderness. Our students learned that by working together, people can reach agreement, and that by working together they can reach compromise, and solutions that really work for everyone involved.
The Roan Plateau soars thousands of feet above the valley floor near Rifle in western Colorado. It is prized for its scenic vistas and wildlife habitat - and also for the estimated 8.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas locked in its rocks. The Roan Plateau has been a priority for EcoFlight since the drilling boom began over a decade ago. Hundreds of flights through the years working with diverse communities, local, state and federal government officials and concerned citizens have helped to get us where we are today. At last we have some protections in place for the Roan, one of the four most biodiverse areas in Colorado.
In October a wonderful collaboration of Colorado politicians called on Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, to help finalize a settlement for the Roan after years of litigation over oil and gas drilling on the Roan. “This agreement represents the collaboration of the oil and gas industry, environmental organizations, many local governments, the state of Colorado and our respective offices,” Hickenlooper, Udall, Bennet and Tipton wrote in a letter sent to Jewell.
This settlement is the result of a decade-long battle over the Roan. On November 21st, 2014, Sally Jewell and BLM Director Neil Kornze announced the settlement that removes the threat of drilling from much of the top of the Roan Plateau. The BLM had auctioned off thousands of acres of mineral rights leases in 2008, allowing drilling on the federally managed areas of the plateau and around its base. The auction pulled in $114 million - then a record for a lease auction in the Lower 48 states. But a coalition of our hardworking partners sued the federal government seeking to halt action on the leases. In June 2012 a U.S. District Judge ruled that the BLM’s management plan that supported the lease auction was flawed. She ordered the agency to craft a different management plan, essentially ordering the parties back to the drawing board.
In keeping with our FLAA theme, we traveled to Jackson, Wyoming, in search of Wilderness. Lively conversations were had with wild lands advocates Ann Harvey, Ed Zahniser and Youth Ambassadors for Wilderness students. Then we loaded up the planes to show off the stunning aerial views of the Teton and the Gros Ventre Wilderness Areas. It just so happens that right outside of Jackson, which is the gateway to Yellowstone, there are more spectacular wild lands known as the Palisades Wilderness Study Area, that are under threat. The Palisades WSA is an essential landscape, worthy of protection not only due to its intrinsically wild nature, but as a necessary protection to allow wildlife a refuge and respite from an ever expanding ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ resort community. This is a resort community with unparalleled wildlife resources, and some of the most majestic scenery in the world.
The WSA is threatened by the Teton-to-Snake Fuels Reduction project of the Bridger-Teton National-Forest, a tree-cutting and prescribed burning project, all in the name of wildfire protection. If the project is allowed, it would compromise the wilderness character of the Palisades and diminish its chance of getting the protections it deserves. This land of ever-deepening valleys acts as a buffer to the crowds hustling into Yellowstone, and provides some lower level winter range habitat for wildlife.
The planes were filled with students and press and included great commentary from Ann Harvey, an individual who felt a ‘call to action’ to preserve and represent this special place by speaking up and making an impact on the process to protect it. The wilderness stature of this special place was undeniable from the air, and made all the more noteworthy because of its close proximity to both the town of Jackson and the ski resort.
EcoFlight and our Flight Across America student program were thrilled to have the opportunity to meet and talk with Ed Zahniser, Howard Zahniser’s son, in Jackson Wyoming about the idea of Wilderness, together with Wyoming Wilderness Association’s Youth Ambassadors for Wilderness.
Howard Zahniser is considered the primary author and chief lobbyist for the Wilderness Act of 1964. Ed Zahniser, an author and poet in his own right, recently retired as the senior writer and editor of the National Park Service Interpretive Design Center.
“It was so moving, so inspiring to hear these young folks express their eagerness to step up and defend America’s wilderness. It gave the flight over Wilderness Study Areas a wildly hopeful aura—with this new generation’s enthusiasm still ringing in our ears. My father would’ve been all smiles to witness their energy and their articulate determination to protect this wild legacy we share with all 314 million Americans.” – Ed Zahniser.
So, why is coal a problem?
•Air pollution: China’s increase in coal consumption has led to crippling pollution levels in some of China’s cities, reaching levels several times above what the World Health Organization considers healthy. Carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion represent a quarter of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
•Wastes generated: Ash, sludge, toxic chemicals, and waste heat create even more environmental problems.
•Water Usage: Coal plants need billions of gallons of cooling water per year per coal plant, and the associated water discharge is harmful to wildlife.
•Fuel supply: Mining, transporting, and storing coal levels mountain tops, and pollutes the land, water, and air.
We all use electricity. Is there really an alternative? The answer is, yes. We even have an answer for climate deniers! As physicist and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Amory Lovins, says: “You don’t have to believe in climate change to solve our pollution and economic problems, “Everything we do to raise energy efficiency will make money, improve security and health, and stabilize climate.” RMI believes in innovative change, emphasizing design and strategy, and leadership within our country.
EcoFlight works with multiple partners flying coal. Flying landscape disturbances, waste pilings, water impacts, and air pollution. Coal is big in Montana, in Wyoming and in the Four Corners area of New Mexico. Coal is in our back yard here in Colorado. Coal is hopefully not here to stay.