Pause for a moment and close your eyes: it’s late fall, 1919 — exactly one hundred years ago. A 27-year-old U.S. Army veteran, Arthur Carhart, recently moved to Colorado to take the first Landscape Architecture position ever hired by the U.S. Forest Service. His assignment: plot new roads and cabins in the wild backcountry of the White River National Forest.
Camped at Trappers Lake during his summer survey, Carhart realized that the highest and best use of the surrounding land was for it to be left alone. That fall, during what must have been a challenging conversation, Carhart made the case for the area to be managed without recreational development. Against the odds, his boss agreed, marking a turning point in Forest Service philosophy and management. That area is now the Flat Tops Wilderness.
With Carhart’s encouragement, another early-career Forest Service employee, Aldo Leopold, helped establish the Gila Wilderness in 1924. Seven years on, a young Forest Service staffer by the name of Bob Marshall worked to designate the South Fork Primitive Area, later combined with surrounding lands to create the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Fast forward to 2019. The accomplishments of these visionary Forest Service leaders are celebrated and studied, their names gracing wildlands they helped protect. One thing is for certain: at the time, it took courage to choose wilderness.
It’s no easier to take the long-view today. Shrinking budgets, skyrocketing expenses, and ageing infrastructure conspire to make the work of Forest Service staff difficult at best – and this was the case before the current administration came into office.
In Montana, dozens of wild landscapes are in the crosshairs, threatened by bills that would remove wilderness study protections, by development that threatens lands sacred to tribes, and by thrill-seeking recreationists focused on adrenaline rather than critical habitat for a crowded future.
Yet America’s wilderness is more important today than it was in 1919. In the face of the climate and extinction crises, wilderness is a bulwark for biodiversity, clean air and water; an insurance policy for future generations.
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Who will be the Arthur Carhart of 2019? Which landscapes will rest on the shoulders of a single employee?
Just as was the case a century ago, a select few Forest Service staff have the power to decide the fate of wild landscapes that hang in the balance: the Crazies, Gallatins, Big Snowies, Big Belts, Nevada Mountain, Great Burn, and Sapphires, to name a handful. All should be recommended for wilderness designation by Forest Service leadership in ongoing and upcoming Forest Plan revisions.
In meetings, Forest Service officials often say to me: “Why recommend an area for wilderness when the chances for designation by Congress are so small?” In Montana, this is a fair question: only Alaska and Utah have suffered the same Congressional paralysis when it comes to federal public lands. Montana has not had a new wilderness area signed into law by a President since 1983. Only 3.7% of Big Sky Country is designated Wilderness. An additional 6% of Montana is roadless land managed by the Forest Service, waiting in purgatory.
All the more reason for agency staff to take the lead.
Carhart, Leopold, and Marshall acted without any intention for Congress to ratify the Forest Service’s early administrative designations. The Wilderness Act of 1964 was decades away. Management decisions belonged to the agency in 1919, as they do today. The Forest Service doesn’t need Congress’s blessing to protect important wildlands in perpetuity.
Grizzlies, mountain goats, wolverine, and bull trout are counting on us to see beyond ourselves. It’s time for the next Forest Service champions to come forward.
Zack Porter has worked in wilderness advocacy and stewardship for 15 years for nonprofit organizations and the U.S. Forest Service.