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Wilderness turns 50 this year!  Actually, to be more specific, the Wilderness Act of 1964 turns 50 this year, in 2014. 

A group of wilderness minded organizations and individuals have formed a group called The 50th Anniversary National Wilderness Planning Team.  The team’s purpose, as stated on their website, www.wilderness50th.org, is to plan and implement events and projects specifically to “elevate the profile of wilderness during the 50th anniversary celebration.”

And, judging from the website, many great events have been planned all over the country.

I’ve added www.wilderness50th.org to my link list to the right of the blog.

Coincidentally, it is also the 90th anniversary of the designation of the Gila Wilderness as our first officially designated wilderness.  The Gila was established in June 1924 and remains one of our iconic wilderness units.

Kayakers in the Nellie Juan-College Fjord - Courtesy of the Sierra Club

Kayakers in the Nellie Juan-College Fjord – Courtesy of the Sierra Club

Alaska contains our two largest National Forests.  The Tongass is the largest and covers the ancient forests of Alaska’s Southeast.  The Chugach is the second largest, located in South Central Alaska, in and around the Kenai Peninsula.  There is an oddity about the Chugach in terms of our wilderness preservation system:  it is the only national forest in the entire United States without a single acre of designated federal wilderness!  That seems odd considering it is in the state of Alaska, the land of true wilderness.

It makes a bit more sense if we consider how different Alaska is than the rest of the country in terms of its land and size.  First of all, there are enormous national parks all around the Chugach National Forest, all of which are largely wilderness and managed as such.  You have Lake Clark and Katmai to the west.  You have Glacier Bay and the immense Wrangell-St. Elias to the East.  And, on the Kenai Peninsula itself, you have the Kenai Fjords National Park, the half-million acre Chugach State Park and the nearly as large Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park.  Altogether, these areas total about 20 million acres of protected wilderness in the form of national or state parks.  There is less need for federal wilderness areas in an area with such enormous national parklands managed as wilderness outside of the juristiction of the national forest.

Second, wilderness in Alaska should be considered with a completely different perspective than wilderness in the Contiguous U.S.  In the lower 48 states wilderness areas are typically sanctuaries of wild surrounded by civilization and development.  That green blob on the map indicating a wilderness area depicts a zone of “untrammeled” land typically bordered on all sides by roads, farms, towns and cities.  To put it another way, the lower 48 States have pockets of wilderness within a sea of civilization.  In Alaska we need to reverse our perspective 180 degrees.  A designated wilderness in Alaska may be surrounded by an even larger area of true wilderness without specific designation.  Alaska, in other words IS wilderness.  In Alaska there are pockets of civilization in a sea of wilderness.  When you consider, for example, at the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, you have to understand that, enormous as it is with its 8 million acres, it is but a relatively small piece of a wilderness mega-region that is Northern Alaska.  Sure there are a handful of native villages and a couple of dirt roads.  But, these are the pockets of civilization that dip into this immense wilderness that is Alaska.

A designated wilderness area in the Chugach National Forest would certainly add value to our wilderness heritage.  But, in an area with such substantial wilderness already, whether officially designated or not, to me this designation would be more important symbolically.  We should not have a national forest without a designated wilderness area. 

So what is this Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area?  The Fjord and surrounding wildland is on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula and on the western shorelines of Prince William Sound.  The Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is 2.1 million acres large, the size of Yellowstone.  The WSA was established in 1980 with the intention of congressional action to make it a full wilderness area, but for some reason it has languished in limbo.

It is a sea-to-sky wilderness with extensive sea-level shoreline and the steep mountains of the Chugach Range rising to great heights above the sound.  Glaciers fill some valleys, and verdent old forests grace others.  Here we find the northernmost temperate rainforest in the world.  Life in the sound and on land is abundant. 

The map below illustrates where this is.  It’s amazing that a 2 million acre area seems so insignificant on the scale of Alaska, but this really is just a relatively small chunk of the Prince William Sound area of Alaska.  This would be a fantastic real and symbolic addition to our wilderness preservation system.

For more information on this and other Alaskan wilderness efforts, visit The Alaska Wilderness League at  http://www.alaskawild.org/, also linked on the right side of the Home Page of this blog.

Alaska with inset for Prince William Sound and the Fjord

Alaska with inset for Prince William Sound and the Fjord

Organ Mountains Area with a dusting of frost.  Photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society

Organ Mountains Area with a dusting of frost. Photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society

President Obama has, once again, leveraged the executive power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate another National Monument in New Mexico, and it’s a big one.  It’s a half-million acre (496,000 to be exact) designation for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in Southern New Mexico.  It appears that the monument will be managed like wilderness (although that’s less clear with National Monuments than with Congressionally-designated Wilderness areas).

This area had a long road of advocacy to this point and the designation appears to be supported by the majority of the local residents.  We see more of these designations being justified in economic terms and this one is no different.  The new National Monument is calculated to bring in over $7 million in tourism dollars to the area.  While that may sound impressive initially, it’s really a pretty meager number.  But, whatever works to garner local support…

The real benefit is priceless and immesurable.  And, that is precicely why I believe we need the independent executive authority to designate national monuments.  When Congress will not act in due time to protect certain areas from future exploitation and degradation, we need the executive authority available to do the job. Because once wilderness is developed and/or exploited it is rarely, if ever, recovered.  The executive authority provides a national long-term interest to counter the typically local short-term interests of exploitation.  Some think of it as a “land grab” but these lands are already under federal administration to begin with (usually BLM or National Forest).  I typically do not favor independent executive authority in government in matters not related to national security or foreign policy.  But, land conservation must have an independent executive path because of the generational and usually permanent and irreversable consequences of inaction.

I, for one, believe in balance.  I don’t believe that every single acre of remaining public land should be restricted as wilderness.  We need some of our public lands to be available for other uses including energy independence (including clean energy–you can’t put windfarms and solar arrays in wilderness either).  But, I also believe that the current mix of public lands designation still favors exploitation too heavily and wilderness preservation too little.  We need more wilderness designation to establish corridor linkages between wilderness hubs and to increase the diversity of wilderness ecosystems.

Back to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks–The area represents rugged mountainous Sonoran desert near Las Cruces, NM.  Aside from its stark beauty and wilderness recreational benefits, it harbors significant biodiversity including some plant species found nowhere else in the world.  It has significant archeological significance with hundreds of sites including petroglyphs and evidence of past dwellings dating back hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years.  It has historical significance as the hideouts of Billy the Kid and Geronimo.  It has cultural significance as the backdrop for Western movies.  And, above all, it has natural significance as a large desert wilderness in need of permanent protection.

Here is a short production from Pew Environmental on this area and its recent National Monument designation:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bG4FISiRlvE

And here is a beautiful video from Amazing Places on our Planet demonstrating some of the outstanding scenery of the new National Monument:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwSx6UpIUZA

 

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 051

Fear and Contemplation

Trillions of vapor droplets drift across Colorado’s great southern valley.  They meet the uplift of the Blood of  Christ Mountains.  Heat rises.  Energy builds.  Light dances across the sky.  The Heavens roar.  The life force of Earth falls to the ground and the Wilderness rejoices.

I’m in my tent high in Southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains counting the seconds between the flashes and the booms.  At least ten wicked bolts strike within a mile.  I fear the lightning.  I haven’t always, but a few high country electrical storms have heightened my sense to the danger. “When I hear anyone say he does not fear lightning, I still remark inwardly:  he has never ridden The Mountain in July,” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

Awareness of my own mortality is further enhanced by the passing of my Father not three months ago.  As the rain pecks at the tent I think back to two days before he left this world, with his family there by his side.  He looked pleasantly amused about something, and with bright eyes and a clear voice he said, “I can see everything from the top side now and I’m okay with it.” It was a profound thing to say in my Dad’s typically understated way.  He was okay with it… It gives me great comfort to know that he was “okay” with dying.  We all are dying.  The question is:  how are we living?  But, I still fear the lightning.

My Dad taught me how to live much the same way he taught me how to build a proper campfire when I was little.  There are many methods to building a campfire, he said.  The method chosen matters little as long as the fundamentals are adhered to.  The first thing a campfire needs to thrive is good fuel.  Education is our fuel and my Dad taught me by example the value of a lifelong commitment to learning.  A campfire will quickly extinguish itself unless given plenty of space to breathe–too little oxygen and the fire is smothered.  This is personal freedom.  My Dad taught me the importance of being my own person and charting my own course in life.  To keep a campfire burning brightly it needs tending.  Not too much or too little.  A campfire needs a patient and watchful tender who knows when to help it along and when to just sit back and enjoy its beauty and warmth.  My Dad showed me how genuinely receiving and giving guidance with our loved ones provides our lives with greater meaning and purpose, making us brighter, warmer people.

My Dad also instilled in me my love for simple, unpretentious, travel.  By the time I was fourteen I had visited 40 U.S. states but had yet to fly in an airplane.  Our way of travel was the open road by day and sleeping under the stars by night.  It was bologna sandwiches, chips and a Coke for lunch.  It was searching for the best campsite and burning marshmallows over the fire.  I loved it all.  My Dad never ventured from the road or the campground.  That my Mom did.  She brought me my love for the wilderness–casting lines in creeks and climbing peaks.

This is all reflection and contemplation which one tends to do much of after losing a family member.  One of the many reasons we need wilderness is because it is a place for contemplation.  Contemplation without noise.  We go to the wild to get back to basics.  To reflect.  To contemplate.  It makes many of us better people.  It helps many of us heal.

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 061

A Valley High

My campsite in wilderness solitude is on the edge of a high little valley a few hundred vertical feet below North Crestone Lake.  It is a wonderful place bordered on each side by rugged peaks.  Open meadows are perfectly complimented with stands of spruce.  A little stream flows quietly through the middle, clothed in yellowing willow.  At the head of this little valley a two hundred foot waterfall provides its calming melodies.  The falls commence with a straight drop over a rock ledge.  Then braids of white dance among boulders and shoot over slabs.  At bottom the falls is swallowed up by the green valley floor.  I sit here in this valley after the storm with the soft rush of the falls to my right and the retreating rumbles of thunder down valley to my left.

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 034

A Wise Old Fish

A big trout cruises the lakeshore casting distance from the rock on which I sit.  The water is so clear and still that it almost looks as if the fish is suspended in air, gliding along like a colorful miniature blimp.  It’s a cutthroat–I can see the crimson cheeks and heavily spotted tail.  It’s about sixteen inches and shaped like a football.  I cast to a point about six feet in front of it, couching to stay below the trout’s line of vision.  It seems to turn its head ever so slightly in acknowledgement of the enticing meal ahead.  But, it continues along, slowly, wisely.  I try again and again until I nearly drop my lure right onto its head.  The cumulous clouds are building and it’s time to head back to camp a mile down valley.  I decide to give it one more go, but by this time I’m rooting for the fish to win.  He’s earned my respect.  Once again the wise one passes on my offering.  I give my friend a salute and silently wish him well.  I can still see him swimming peacefully along as I look back down to the lake from 100 feet above.

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 042

A School of Foolish Fish

Back from my walk to beautiful North Crestone Lake, I still have my heart set on trout for dinner.  The little stream in the valley is filled with multitudes of brookies.  But, it’s difficult to fish because of the willows.  On the trail to the lake I noticed a very large pool near the bottom of the falls about a quarter mile up from my campsite.  Dozer and I make our way over.  As I creep up behind some willows Dozer tromps to the tail end of the pool for a drink and spooks a half-dozen trout.  I follow the fish with my eyes as they dart to the head of the pool seemingly in military formation.  More fish come into view.  As my eyes adjust I see no fewer than 30 trout.  I figure this pool must be the last good spot for a trout before the 200 foot barrier of the falls. It’s the end of the line for them so they just congregate and vie with each other for food.  With every cast I catch an eight or ten inch brookie.  I let them all go until one finally swallows the hook.  Dinner.

My Wild Neighbors

My campsite seems to be a crossroads for many of the valley’s residents.  Turning from my gaze upon alpenglow on the high peaks, I see a snowshoe hare, still clothed in brown, sitting and staring at me ten feet way.  It stares for a few more seconds and then bounds away daintily under the boughs of a small spruce tree near the campsite.  There is an unusually dark colored marmot who makes its home under a rock slab near camp.  It suns itself on the rock most of the day, occasionally sending its shrill whistle sound across the valley.  Under my “kitchen table” rock where I choose to eat lives a chipmunk who likes to poke its tiny head up over the edge of the rock to see what I’m up to before scurrying away.  A family of six grouse pay us a visit each afternoon.  I discover them when Dozer unknowingly wanders into their personal space.  Grouse will let you (or your dog) get very close to them before erupting into a racket of beating wings and chirps.  Dozer, startled, jumps straight up like a spring then gives a huff (the poor dog is mostly deaf and half blind with a broken sniffer… but his joints and muscles still work like a puppy).  The next afternoon I see the grouse again on the ground.  Six of them, silently blending in to the grass before they finally take flight to roost in the nearby pines.

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 024

Aspen

My Dad was always curious about trees and he was particularly fond of the aspen which makes its most glorious displays in the state of Colorado.  Every fall photographers and sightseers head to the Colorado high country to see the brilliant gold of the turning aspen.  The Elk Mountains, Northern San Juans, and parts of the Front Range are particularly well known for aspen viewing.  The Sangre de Cristos are not.  So, I was surprised to be hiking through one of the biggest and densest aspen forests I’ve ever seen on the western flank of the Sangres.  From the trailhead near the “new age hippy” town of Crestone all the way up to about 10,000 feet was almost entirely aspen.  It was still a green forest in late August with just a few leaves here and there on the higher trees just beginning to turn.  Hiking back down through this forest of aspen I looked for the appreciation that my Dad saw in these trees.  Perhaps it is because they are an anomaly–a high country deciduous tree in a world of dark green conifer.  The leaves are light green (or bright gold in fall), the bark is a delicate and smooth white.  They grow faster and live shorter than pines.  They grow from root, not seed.  They are an anomaly and yet what would Colorado be without its aspen?  They are an anomaly, a bit like my own Dad… And, what would I be without my Dad.

Thank you Dad.  I love you. 

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 021

The largest as yet unprotected contiguous roadless land in America (outside of Alaska) is the Boulder White Cloud Mountains in South Central Idaho.  For several decades now, efforts and legislation to protect much of this half-million acre wonderland has languished in state and congressional debate, but the effort continues.  The addition of a 300,000 + acre wilderness to our preservation system would be one of the most substantial additions to our wilderness system since the 1980’s, and it should be done. 

The Boulder-White Cloud mountains are a bright and vivid Rocky Mountain environment.  It’s home to the headwaters of four rivers that run sparkling clear in this area.  Some of these waterways see salmon migration all the way from the Pacific, some of the longest salmon migrations on Earth.  Elk, deer, bighorns, bears, wolves, mountain lions, lots of trout, lots of trees, and soaring mountains.  It’s all there now and needs official protection forever.  However, the details of current proposals may be going too far to try to accommodate all interests.  Many wilderness advocacy groups are against CIEDRA (Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act) because it seems to be folding a more limited form of wilderness protection into a larger complex of increases in non-wilderness-like recreational and use designations.  But, this is the nature of wilderness preservation efforts in the 21st century.  It’s complicated.  More inclusive of different interests, more creative, more collaborative.  And, perhaps slower and more diluted from the original intention of wilderness preservation.  Can there be degrees of wilderness protection within the wilderness preservation system?  I tend to think the opportunity for that is limited before we begin to compromise what it means to call an area “wilderness.” 

But, some form of official protection for this area is needed.  The link below is a quality production by PEW Environmental on the efforts to protect this beautiful area:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAN1Qe6Xhd4

Location of proposed Boulder White Clouds Wilderness - Courtesy of Boulder White Clouds Council

Location of proposed Boulder White Clouds Wilderness – Courtesy of Boulder White Clouds Council

Boulder White Cloud environment - Courtesy of Idaho Conservation League

Boulder White Cloud environment – Courtesy of Idaho Conservation League

We drove south last fall through Colorado’s San Luis Valley, on our way to see the historic city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  As we crossed the state line into New Mexico, I had the feeling of traveling back into the old world of the Southwest.  New Mexico has a unique character–in its land and its people.  Towns are still called villages.  Native American settlements are Pueblos.  There is history there–long history.  Santa Fe’s recorded history reaches back into the 1500’s, older than Jamestown.  Unrecorded history much longer than that has unbroken generational ties.  Nearby Taos Pueblo, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.  Here I looked at adobe homes continuously inhabited for 1,000 years.  New Mexico is different.

As we drove south on Hwy 285, I didn’t realize it then, but we were traveling near part of the territory that would, in a few month’s time, become a great new National Monument.  In March 2013, President Obama leveraged the 1906 Antiquities Act to create the 240,000 acre Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument.  The monument, now a protected land, encompasses the depths of the Rio Grande Gorge as well as the heights of surrounding highlands like 10,000-foot Ute Mountain.  It extends from the Colorado state line south well into north-central New Mexico.  It is a critical wildlife cooridor and a place with special meaning for many generations of local people, native and non-native.

Pew created a nice video production for this area:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vj7iHTMa4ac

For extensive background on this national treasure and the efforts to protect it, check out http://www.riograndedelnorte.org/

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument Map

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument Map

The Rio Grande Gorge in the monument

The Rio Grande Gorge in the monument

 

New blog added!

I came across, “Mountain Man Am I” and added it to my links.  Check it out.

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