Protecting wilderness isn’t just for liberals

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s Policy Director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: published in the Everett (WA) Herald on March 30. 2008


A short drive east of Everett, 106,000 acres of lowland forest in the Skykomish River Valley are likely to soon win congressional designation as the Wild Sky Wilderness, the newest jewel in a treasure chest of unspoiled places that preserve America’s wildland heritage.

The impending designation of Wild Sky is a testament to the lasting bipartisan vision that brought forth the Wilderness Act of 1964, which preserves “untrammeled” lands where future generations can experience the sights, sounds and challenges of unspoiled nature.

Wilderness is woven into the culture of the Northwest. Nearly 10 percent of Washington’s land area, 4.3 million acres, are protected as they are — lush forests, stately mountains, wild rivers, and even an unusual formation of sand dunes taller than a 12-story building.

But 1964 was a long time ago, and America is a far different place. The population has grown, cities have spread out, the country is more diverse, and our lives are more dependent on technology than ever before. Ditto for Washington state.

When the Wilderness Act was passed, global warming was little more than an academic curiosity that only a few specialists were thinking about. Now, it is a specter that consumes political attention, from city halls in Washington to the halls of Congress in the other Washington.

What will become of wilderness in a hotter, busier, more urbanized, more crowded world? The Pacific Northwest Wilderness Conference, which opens Thursday in Seattle, will offer some intriguing ideas for everyone, from casual wilderness visitors to hardcore outdoors activists.

Here is a sampling of what’s on tap at the conference:

Global Warming.

Early signs of climate change already are apparent in Washington. Temperatures are rising. Glaciers are retreating. Large forest fires are more frequent. Don McKenzie, a forest researcher with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, will describe how a hotter climate may change Western wilderness areas. McKenzie’s studies have turned up evidence that climate change is likely to result in more and bigger fires in Western forests. You’ll also hear from Josh Lawler of the UW’s College of Forest Resources on how a changing climate that respects no borders will affect plants, animals and their habitats found in designated wilderness areas.


Is wilderness just for liberals? The history of the Wilderness Act and the conservative roots of stewardship would argue otherwise. Yet in recent years, a partisan split has afflicted wilderness advocacy. Speakers from Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and Republicans for Environmental Protection will talk about pulling wilderness away from the red-blue divide.

Changing demographics.

Hike through a wilderness area and chances are the vast majority of visitors that you’ll see are white. As the nation becomes more ethnically diverse, how will the joys and challenges of wilderness be brought to new audiences? Speakers from Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights and Seattle Public Utilities’ Environmental Justice Department will throw a spotlight on at-times uncomfortable topics regarding the conservation movement and ethnic diversity.

The conference will grapple with many other timely wilderness topics — the impacts of the growing popularity of motorized recreation on public lands, the spiritual obligations of stewardship, the intriguing idea of extending wilderness preservation to the natural marvels beneath the sea.

All the issues that the conference will raise touch on the future of wilderness — a bequest that was given us by our forebears and one that we hold in trust for future generations. How well we discharge that stewardship responsibility is in our hands.