Introspection needed on Wilderness Study Areas

Joseph Scalia III
Joseph Scalia III
Guest columnist

We preserve wild land because of its aesthetic value, its beauty and its evocation of the sublime. These are human values apart from any biological or economic considerations. We preserve the wild because it is greater than us, because — no matter how fine the gifts culture brings — wilderness gives us a way beyond culture’s limitations.  

We preserve wilderness for its awe! 

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is introducing the “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act,” saying of wilderness study areas that “Public lands that are only accessible to a few are not public at all,” while then claiming that his bill “is not about whether you are for wilderness or against wilderness.” Yet his rhetoric is divisive, pitting Montanan against Montanan, and indeed paints the idea of wilderness as something that locks people out, excludes children and families, and is thus not public.   

His legislation would abolish four and a half Wilderness Study Areas in Montana totaling nearly a half million acres of divinely primitive landscapes. He twice claims in a Dec. 9 column in The Great Falls Tribune that the Forest Service has designated those lands “not suitable for wilderness,” supposedly in accord with the 1977 Montana Wilderness Study Act. In point of fact, the Forest Service has made no such designation. That bears repeating: the Forest Service has not deemed these lands “not suitable for wilderness.” Is the Senator aware that, or why, he is misrepresenting this basic fact? 

In a sort of “ah, shucks,” good-ol’-boy Montana language, he cites being a fifth-generation Montanan who thereby knows how wilderness designation locks out families who just want to “load up their rigs” and drive the high ridges of our backcountry, how it “has prevented generations of family traditions from continuing — including mountain biking, motorcycling, snowmobling and ATV’ing.” That’s like my saying that because I’m an eighth-generation Louisianan, that I can determine that cutting ten thousand miles of massively destructive saline-intruding canals through Louisiana’s brackish wetlands equates with protecting public lands for public use. It’d be like saying that the existence of a few tiny wetlands oil wells generations ago equates with what now takes place in the Gulf of Mexico.  

As an eighth-generation Louisianan, I can sadly say that my birthplace’s “Public Use of Public Lands” has caused its millions of acres of wetlands to dwindle — die and fall into the water — by more than a third! What will Senator Daines’ family be saying about our wilderness when it has been here for eight generations? Or will it be abolished, roaded, logged, mined, drilled and picnicked on by those families with their pick-ups loaded for a fine time together?

When the Senator proposes to abolish the WSAs in question, does he know the basic flaw in the “Share It” aphorism, and that its companion term, “Balanced Use” disappears the reality that the land is cumulatively used in a progressively unbalanced way every time we further civilize primitive lands?  

A Walker Errant, as Thoreau proposed for a hero more noble that the Knight version, has no quiet land to walk when a motorcycle or an ATV can roar by at any moment; to unqualifiedly call that sharing is misrepresentative. To claim that putting logging and mining roads into these Wilderness Study Areas is somehow justice for the public is dangerous public speech, inciting greater enmity between opposing social groups, in a society in greater and greater need of real dialogue.  And to claim that opening these lands to extractive industry and to the very powerful and high-impact motorized recreation of today is somehow, ah shucks anyway, just goin’ back to being a good ol’ Montanan who loves the land, that is rather foot-loose and fancy-free with language at a time when we so need disciplined sincerity. 

It’s a kind of demagoguery that sows hatred and oversimplicity of thought. It appeals to the basest of desires, prejudices, and fears. 

Senator Daines is clearly an intelligent man. He must ask himself whether he is settling for solutions that are beneath him. I believe he is capable of much better.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D. is a psychoanalyst and social critic. He was President of Montana Wilderness Association in 2006-2008, and is a former Board Member of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Dr. Scalia lives in Livingston. He has lived in Montana since 1980.