U.S. Rep. Dianna DeGette of Denver has seldom exhibited much of an inclination to trust American people and businesses to run their own affairs without the omnipresent guiding hand of government, but she certainly trusts trees to fend for themselves. HR 2546, The Protecting America’s Wilderness Act which she has sponsored is certainly ambitious, offering up some 1.4 million acres of federal land in the west on the altar of environmental dogmatism. But it is a little shy in the area of analysis of potential side-effects.
The bill designates some 600,000 acres in western Colorado and another 700,000 and change in the pacific northwest as “wilderness,” essentially barring any human activity that was discovered after the Stone Age. This comes on top of the roughly 111 million acres already similarly sequestered, collectively an area about the size of California.
It’s not entirely clear what is to be gained by all this wilderness. The platitudes offered by those who specialize in the ideologization of nature strike a misanthropic tone, suggestive of mankind’s wanton destruction of everything we come in contact with, and how the planet would probably be a whole lot better off we only we weren’t on it. A position which admittedly leaves little room for accommodating human needs.
There is certainly an easily compelling argument to be made that not every square inch of creation need be touched by civilization, and conservation is a worthy and admirable objective. But amid the echoes of arguments for the expansion of the pristine there are the warnings against over-doing it. A wilderness designation means letting the wilderness alone to do its thing. The wilderness’ thing, unfortunately, is often a lot more destructive than simply posing eternally for an Ansel Adam’s photograph. Fires, for instance, are a natural and regular occurrence, and the flames do not recognize boundaries, congressionally established or not.
During a House Rules Committee meeting on the bill earlier this month, Arkansas Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman, who happens to hold a master’s degree from Yale in Forestry, made this point quite succinctly, and added some others related to climate change which deserve far more attention than they have received. As Westerman pointed out, trees are by far the best tools available for the sequestration of the atmospheric carbon that is so disconcerting to those who view climate change as a grievous existential threat. Carbon, he explains, is stored in wood; it is released when that wood burns. Does it not make far more sense, he pleads, from a climate perspective to regularly harvest wood, replant trees, and try to keep them from burning up? Turning trees into tables rather than smoke might just fulfill one’s green obligation better even than weeping compassionately at a Greta Thurnburg rally.
These of course are grand philosophical debates that are unlikely to reach satisfactory conclusions on Capitol Hill in an election year, but other more acute considerations come into play as well. Another broadly overlooked consequence of widely cast wilderness designations turns out to be one of risk to our military readiness. Among the acreage slated for quarantine under Degette’s bill are five areas that happen to be located within the training area of the Army’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site (HAATS) located in Colorado near Eagle. This is the place where the army trains its helicopter pilots to fly and maneuver their aircraft at higher elevations; rather important, as helicopters operate quite differently at higher altitudes where the air — which is what keeps the things in the sky — is considerably thinner. Sadly, flying military helicopters most definitely counts as prohibited human activity that is inconducive to the bucolic pristine of a designated wilderness.
Rep. Scott Tipton, whose congressional district is the one in which Rep. Degette — who represents the most urban congressional district in the state — intends to plant her wilderness area in, has taken understandable exception to this, particularly the restrictions placed on HAAT. He has offered an amendment to the bill that would require Congress to study the impact wilderness designations in the West have on Department of Defense readiness. The amendment passed the house, offering some sliver of hope that common sense can still supplant demagoguery on occasion.
Tipton’s introductory call to slow down and examine at least some of the potential consequences of pell-mell wilderness designation are welcome and overdue. Some forms of conservation, taken to their extremes, do more harm than good — to the environment, the forests themselves, and to the people who inhabit the country in which that wilderness exists, and whom Congress is bound to represent.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.