Are Big Environmental Groups Selling Out the Environment?

A longtime activist accuses big green groups of abandoning the fight to keep the wilderness wild.

(Photo: Drew Rush/Getty Images)

Jan 16, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

In the book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed tells her story of hiking 1,100 miles from Southern California to Washington. That journey—depicted in the new movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon—ultimately healed Strayed from a mess of woes. She learned, as she puts it at one point, that “being amidst the un-desecrated beauty of wilderness meant I too could be un-desecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me.”

Score one for the United States government: That trail winds through dozens of areas officially protected as wilderness by the Wilderness Act of 1964. The act defines wilderness in part as those places “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” That goes for women, too. Since President Johnson first signed it into law, the Wilderness Act has permanently protected about 100 million acres of land from logging, motorized recreation, or other forms of development in an area larger than the state of California.

Now, however, that wilderness is at risk, under attack from the very groups that should be protecting it, according to Howie Wolke, a longtime wilderness advocate and guide. Wolke worked for Friends of the Earth before cofounding the radical environmental group Earth First! In 1979. “A deep malaise afflicts wildland conservation,” he, told a recent conference devoted to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. He went on to praise local activist groups for acting as the guardians of nearby wilderness areas. Then he added: “But these outfits are routinely undercut by a relatively small cadre of big national and regional groups with big budgets, and often with obscenely big salaries for their executives. Real activism that highlights education and organizing wilderness defenders has been swept aside, replaced by collaborative efforts to designate watered-down wilderness.”

Wolke’s criticism comes at a moment when environmental groups generally are under criticism for abandoning former ideals, such as the absolute protection of species, in favor of policies that focus on working with local communities and developing the social benefits of protected areas. While this shift has many advocates, who regard it as the only practical way to keep protected areas from being overwhelmed by increasing human populations, federally designated wilderness has always belonged in a separate, more sacred category.

These wilderness areas often represent the last vestiges of pre-settled America, undisturbed for all of recorded history. That’s not something to trifle with, according to Wolke: “Once you lose it, it’s gone.” Federal wilderness is generally high-quality wildlife habitat, especially for species that are sensitive to intrusion, or for those, such as wolves, bears, and other large carnivores, with extensive home ranges. Wilderness can also serve as a reservoir of genetic diversity for repopulating developed areas, and it protects watersheds, aquifers, and air quality. Least important, it provides a place where people can come to experience the benefits of being in nature, both spiritual and physiological.

But according to Wolke, groups like the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Audubon Society are doing more harm than good when it comes to wilderness protection. “Unfortunately, I am not simply talking about honest differences of opinion over strategy. I’m talking about the big greens actively working against conservation, routinely teaming up with corporate exploiters and other anti-wilderness constituencies. There’s a fine line between strategic differences and actually working to oppose grassroots conservation; and that line is now routinely crossed,” he said.

The Wilderness Society, he said, “opposed the efforts of Wilderness Watch and local conservationists to keep Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore wild” and supported the National Park Service’s plan to run motor tours through this designated wilderness. (Wolke serves on the Wilderness Watch board of directors.) It encouraged the Bureau of Land Management to allow ranchers to use ATVs in the Owyhee Canyons Wilderness in Idaho. It also “supported an extremely absurd Forest Service plan to burn nearly the entire Linville Gorge Wilderness in North Carolina! Of equal shock value, a couple of years ago, TWS staffer Paul Spitler produced a paper entitled Managing Wildfires in Wilderness. That paper supported logging, road-building and bulldozing preemptive firebreaks in designated wilderness.”

Those sorts of action add up, according to Wolke, to a loss of commitment to wilderness and the Wilderness Act, a pattern of creeping intrusions into designated wilderness areas and a sense among federal wilderness managers, as a post on the Wilderness Watch website put it, that Congress will “bail them out of unlawful actions when they are caught.”

The main problem, Wolke said in an interview, is that the Wilderness Society and other major conservation groups are no longer grassroots organizations, as they once were, but instead now have top-down structures with decisions made in Washington, D.C., by “people who do not have a real close association on the ground, with the land.” Without a “visceral, personal connection” to wilderness, Wolke said, it’s much easier to compromise.

“Our job is to push, pull, cajole, embarrass, and encourage the agencies and politicians to support new wilderness designations and to keep designated wilderness wild,” he wrote in published prepared comments for his talk. “Our job is not to rubber-stamp agency plans or to appease congressional Democrats.”

Stewart Brandborg, who was president of the Wilderness Society when President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act and for 13 years afterward, agreed with Wolke. “I’m deeply concerned about the failure of the national environmental groups to mobilize the public in support of aggressive campaigns for preservation of the wilderness,” he said in an interview. He thinks groups such as the Wilderness Society should be acting through state and local entities to build teams of citizens “who will work tirelessly” to protect more wild lands. The “ultimate strength” of the movement, Brandborg said, “lies in citizen activists who see the critical urgency of gaining dedication of these lands as wilderness.” Without these citizens, he said, the movement will ultimately fail.

But Amy Vedder, a Yale lecturer and former senior vice president of conservation at the Wilderness Society, countered Wolke’s charge of inside-the-Beltway indifference. “The people I was working with,” she said, “were almost uniformly deeply committed to wilderness. I think it’s an organization that has tremendously passionate people who care very deeply for wilderness.”

She noted that getting new areas designated as wilderness has become a messy process, held up by the deeply polarized climate in Congress and the resulting legislative gridlock. Congress designated two million acres across nine states as wilderness in 2009. But it failed to designate any additional lands over the next five years, despite multiple bills proposing new wilderness areas.

What can voters do to change that? To get a sense of the value of protected wilderness, take a page out of Strayed’s book and go for a walk in your closest wilderness area. Beyond that, said Wolke, write to your representatives in Congress.

“This is very old-fashioned, but it works, because politicians worry about votes,” he said. “Say that you want public lands that qualify to be designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964, without special provisions and with maximum acreage.” Writing letters to local newspapers helps, too, because congressional staffers often read and relay those to their bosses. “Make an annoyance,” Wolke said, speaking from experience. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”