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The Wilderness Act Part III: The Future Of Wilderness

Stephen Baboi

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The landmark environmental law requires that wilderness areas remain roadless and untrammeled by people. As part of our series on the law, EarthFix reporter Cassandra Profita visited a proposed wilderness area in the southeast corner of Oregon. She explains why it's harder to create wilderness now than it was half a century ago.

Hansen: "Echo!"

Chris Hansen calls out into a desert canyon in Southeast Oregon's Leslie Gulch.

Hansen: "Hello!"

Nothing but the faint echo of his own voice calls back. The towering cliff walls surrounding him meet a sprawling expanse of sagebrush above. It's a rich reward for less than a mile of hiking.

Hansen: "You can see all these colors: Browns and rusts and greens and mixed with the blue bunch on the hillside and the blue sky above. It's just an awesome place to sit and look around and take in."

Hansen is working with the environmental group Oregon Natural Desert Association to put a wilderness designation on this canyon and 2 million acres of the public land surrounding the Owyhee River.

Hansen: "How could you not visit this place and say how is it not a national park? How is it not a place we haven't protected yet?

Credit Stephen Baboi / Earthfix
A short hike from a gravel road in southeast Oregon's Leslie Gulch road puts you in a steep-walled red rock ampitheater. It's just a sliver of the proposed 2.1 million-acre Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness.

But five years into the effort, a wilderness designation for the Owyhee Canyonlands still seems a long ways off. A committee formed by local leaders voted unanimously against the idea. And no one in Oregon's Congressional delegation has agreed to turn it into a wilderness bill. Congressional approval is required for wilderness designations, and that's hard to come by these days.

Rowsome: "There are 33 current wilderness bills that are pending in this Congress."

Alan Rowsome is a policy advocate for the Wilderness Society. He says the rate of wilderness designation has dropped off in the last two decades. And now, it's at a near standstill.

Rowsome: "We have passed one wilderness bill through this Congress, but that's the only wilderness bill that's passed in the last five years, since 2009."

Rowsome says finding new wilderness opportunities is a challenge as more of the country gets developed. Eighty five percent of the country’s wilderness was created before 1990. For places awaiting designation, getting wilderness bills through Congress is a bigger roadblock than it used to be.

Wyden: "It's definitely much, much harder."

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden says passing wilderness bills is harder, for one, because it's so easy for senators to block any bill.

Wyden: "And second, of course, there are powerful special interests who often are lined up on the other side, and they'll say things like "Oh, we don't need any more of these kinds of places. Oh, we already have enough."

Credit Cassandra Profita / Earthfix
Oregon Natural Desert Association has proposed a 2.1 million acre wilderness area in the Owyhee Canyonlands, but it's a long way from congressional approval.

But, he says, in his 30-plus years in Congress, it's never been easy to pass wilderness bills.

Wyden: "I don't know of a single wilderness bill that wasn't a very tough, hand-to-hand kind of battle."

In many places across the Northwest, the battle over wilderness starts long before the bill gets to Congress. With proposals including Washington's Olympic wilderness, Idaho's White Cloud wilderness and Oregon's Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness, the first fight is for local support.

Malheur County rancher Bob Skinner starts the engine of his airplane. He has more than a thousand cows spread out across his own land and some of the public land within the proposed Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness area. The landscape here is so vast and rugged, he flies a plane to check on the cows grazing on public land where he has a permit known as an allotment.

Skinner: "This is the south side of our allotment."

The plane offers a bird's eye view of the Owyhee's deep canyons and rolling desert plains. Skinner says that geography is protective enough. A wilderness designation is not only unnecessary, he says, but it could close roads that people need to fight wildfires and restrict ranchers from grazing.

Skinner: "You see all this? This will all be wilderness, and we're going to fight it for everything we're worth."

Local veterinarian Julie Weikel is on the other side of that fight. She's on the board of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. And she wants a wilderness designation to protect the Owyhee from things like oil and gas development and reckless ATV drivers.

Weikel: "This is a chunk of country that's not too damaged yet. Because it's desert country, it can easily be harmed."

And at 68, Weikel says, she doesn't want to wait too long to see it protected.  

Weikel: "I'd like to see this in my lifetime, darn it. I'd like to be able to tell my grandkids I tried to help keep this place for you guys. Now take care it, darn it."

Weikel says the Wilderness Act has done a good job of protecting special lands. But, she says, if that option takes too long or doesn't get enough local and political support, she'll be looking at other options.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix

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