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For the week of Dec. 8, 1999 through Dec. 14, 1999

Wilderness as a state of mind

Elkhorn conference draws Idaho politicians and wilderness philosophers

Express Staff Writer

"Because of the evil that is in the land, we will go to the forest and destroy the evil; for in the forest lives Humbaba whose name is ‘Hugeness,’ a ferocious giant…his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself."—Excerpt from Gilgamesh, the earliest known Western epic (circa 2000 B.C.).

Wilderness past, wilderness present, wilderness in the future and wilderness as an intangible state of mind—that’s what the first Frank Church Lectures, called Wilderness and the American Mind, addressed.

On Saturday, a group of wilderness philosophers, defenders and policy makers converged on Elkhorn Resort to discuss wilderness as a state of mind and the political reality of designating and maintaining wilderness as a physical place.

Among them were ex-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus; Sen. Frank Church’s widow and Sawtooth Society president Bethine Church; Nez Perce tribal leader Jaime Pinkham; author of Wilderness and the American Mind, Dr. Roderick Nash; U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Idaho Conservation League executive director Rick Johnson; and Pat Shea, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior for land and mineral management.

The event was organized and sponsored by the Environmental Resource Center (ERC) in Ketchum under direction from Dr. Lee Brown, past ERC director, and Molly Goodyear, current ERC director.

The philosophical approach

In keeping with the theme of the day, Wilderness and the American Mind, Nash, the keynote speaker, who is a professor of environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, jumped right into the topic. "I believe wilderness is a state of mind. It doesn’t really exist. It was created by civilization," he said.

And that state of mind has its beginnings thousands of years before Jesus Christ walked the earth, he said.

Historically, wilderness was depicted as in Gilgamesh, Homer’s The Odyssey and the Old Testament. It is an unknown, scary place, he said.

"Wilderness is the dark place under my bed," Nash said a child once told him.

As a Western society, that is the notion that’s held true until very recently, Nash said.

"Wilderness is our dark, reptilian root, the dark place of our civilization," he said. "Historically, wilderness is everything wild and awful."

And that sentiment has led Western civilization to conquer the wild, untamed land, he said. In the U.S., as part of a quest to conquer the barbarous wilderness, rivers were dammed, plains irrigated and land was (and is) bought and sold.

"Imagine the lack of humility here: We bought and sold the earth today," Nash said. "But that’s how it’s gone in this country."

Pinkham, offering his Native American viewpoint, agreed.

"The only one who can own the land is the one who created it," he said. "We (the Nez Perce people) took from nature only what we needed to survive."

Pinkham pointed out that Native American history is far removed from Western history in perception of wilderness. The Nez Perce lived in and from the wild country. There was no wilderness, he said.

Nash said that for America as a Western culture, "considering our past, the modern day environmental and wilderness movement is a miracle."

Today, Nash said, public perception of wilderness is changing. In (Interior Department official) Pat Shea’s words, it’s a "point of predictable recharge" for the planet’s nine-to-five soldiers. Or, in Nash’s words, it’s a "moral resource."

But the problems facing wilderness in the modern day, most of the speakers said, are the number of people, and their conflicting uses, on planet Earth.

"There are more and more people going to less and less wilderness," Nash said, comparing humans to a cancer.

Or, as Bethine Church said when she paraphrased the cartoon character Pogo: "We see the enemy, and he is us."

Policy is not Nash’s forte, and, as such, he presented different views from the politicians on what needs to be done to achieve a balance between wilderness and humans.

The politicians, former Gov. Andrus and Sen. Crapo, pointed to compromise as a necessity in officially designating wilderness.

Nash, however, said there’s been too much compromise already. He asked about the compromise of the buffalo.

"Where are the buffalo, Bill?" he asked.

"You talk about breaching the dams," he said, "hell, I’m going to breach everything. The wolves will be in Idaho. Antelope will be in Antelope Valley and salmon will be in the Salmon River."

Nash said he envisions three scenarios for the earth in the coming millennium: a trashed-planet-wasteland scenario, a controlled-widespread-gardened planet scenario or, his utopia, an island civilization where the planet’s population would somehow be limited to 1.5 billion people who lived in well thought out "habitats" (cities).

He concluded by saying there is no environmental problem. "The problem is human."

The political approach

Politically, wilderness is a hot topic that began in 1964 when Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, helped convince Congress to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act.

According to the act, an area must be bereft of roads to qualify as wilderness. In official wilderness areas, which Congress must designate, use is restricted to horse, mule or foot travel, and the areas are managed to promote natural, human-free ecosystems.

For those reasons, the issue is controversial among extractive industries such as timber and mining.

The River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho was created by Congress with the passage of the Central Idaho Wilderness Act on July 23, 1980. Sen. Church's name was added to the Wilderness in 1983, one month before his death. The 2.3 million-acre area, the largest designated wilderness in the contiguous United States, is now the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

Sen. Church’s wilderness preservation and conservation efforts are the reasons the ERC’s lecture series is named after him, explained past ERC director Brown.

Bethine Church kicked off the first Frank Church Lectures by praising the efforts of past politicians who have worked to preserve wild places.

"The history of this country is full of efforts to preserve wild places," she said, "but since 1980, no more wilderness has been designated in Idaho.

"All of you here today know we are challenged on too many fronts by those who think we’ve already protected too much land. This is no time to sit on our laurels but to look to the challenges ahead.

"The damage we as humans have done on earth in our short time is truly catastrophic. I am truly convinced that we have made many mistakes. In the words of Robert Frost, ‘we have miles to go before we sleep.’"

In short, Church advocated designating more wilderness, protecting the land and its resources for generations to come.

But the obstacles—"those who think we’ve already protected too much land"—abound, Crapo said.

Several of the speakers’ fingers pointed to Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, as a formidable obstacle.

"When you exclude the public from the process, it doesn’t work," Andrus said, talking about the procedure of designating wilderness. "You give the Larry Craigs in the world, who don’t give a damn, a chance."

The Idaho Conservation League’s Rick Johnson and Nash also criticized Craig, who environmental advocates see as an opponent of wilderness expansion.

Johnson, who said he is anxious to try to get the Boulder/White Cloud Mountains, north of Ketchum in the Sawtooth National Forest, designated as wilderness, is looking to Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to get those efforts off the ground.

U.S. Rep. Helen Chenowith, R-Idaho, and Craig just "delay, deflect and duck" the issue as much as they can, Johnson said.

"The wilderness is doable," Johnson said. "It’s time to do it, and the two Mikes can make it happen."

Crapo said making it happen won’t be easy, however, due to a predominantly Republican Congress.

"It takes 218 votes to pass a bill with the president’s support," he said. "That is a tall order."

There are 435 members in the House of Representatives.

Crapo said compromise is of the utmost importance in passing wilderness legislation.

"Environmentalists and extractive users have the same objectives," he said—a desire for a strong economy and the need to preserve nature.

A middle ground is absolutely achievable, he and Andrus said.


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