By Todd Wilkinson
I’ve heard it suggested that ”the wilderness movement” is dead.
I’ve heard some groups with “wilderness” in their names shying away from advocating for as much capital “W” as they can get protected, arguing they are only interested in pursuing things they deem “politically practical.”
Conversely, I’ve heard women and men, once young now old, who say the 21st-century cause of conservation doesn’t have the stomach nor the heart or chutzpah—as it used to—for doing what it takes to inspire the masses and pressure elected officials into safeguarding as much remaining roadless country as possible since so much is rapidly being lost.
And while I’ve interviewed some who insist talk of wilderness preservation is passé, and that the focus of public lands ought to be on maximizing as much use—be it for mining, energy development, logging, commercial outdoor recreation and trails as they can hold—there are young wilderness stalwarts who think differently. They are teaching their generations that defending special places is a virtuous endeavor, even if it means they can’t do everything they want inside of them.
Look no further than the deep red state of Wyoming, and there you’ll find a new emerging crop of young visionaries.
The Wyoming Wilderness Association, which is celebrating its 40th birthday with a rendezvous this weekend at the Murie Ranch in Grand Teton National Park, is in the midst of a revival. It’s staffed by a quartet of dynamic women—all rambunctious individuals drawn to adventure in the great out of doors, but who are also fierce advocates for citizens and wildlife in the future.
Wyoming Wilderness Association Executive Director Khale Century Reno from Sheridan and her colleagues Heidi Davidson, Shaleas Harrison and Peggie dePasquale (who is based in Jackson Hole) are smart, ecologically literate and charismatic. Having an affinity for rural people; some of them were raised on farms or ranches or in places with ready access to the woods. They kayak, ski, hunt, fish, mountain bike and play hard, but they recognize that where the wild things still are is where a heavy presence of people is not.
They are no different in their altruism from others of the past, who fought the good fight for land protection, wildlife, clean air and water—i.e. pushing back against the anthill mentality of we humans. As a result of their earlier sacrifice, they left us with wild places we are benefitting from in the here and now.
Just peruse the timeline at the bottom of this column. WWA’s notable list of achievements involves a diverse cast of characters who weren’t afraid to speak up, speak out, and show that political realities are created by the art of the possible, which often means dismissing things deemed impossible by those with no imagination.
Today, our national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, clean mountain streams and diversity of species would not exist had citizens pandered to what some defined as “political practical.” Indeed, when the Wyoming Wilderness Act was passed in 1984, protecting 884,000 acres as wilderness in the state, the total was more than politicians and resource extraction industries were willing to consider as acceptable. But advocates made the case.
In fact, former U.S. Rep. and Vice President Dick Cheney, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson and the late U.S. Sen Malcolm Wallop, counted passage of the bill as an important part of their legacy and gift to their constituents that continues to bestow dividends vital to the identity and character of many Wyoming communities.
Established wilderness and wilderness study areas, i.e. pieces of landscape that legally were supposed to be maintained by federal agencies in their roadless character, represent some of the best remaining spring, summer and autumn habitat for a range of species, from large mammals to breeding birds that annually migrate thousands of miles.
WWA has taken agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to task for allowing outlaw trespass in places like the Palisades Wilderness Study Area where some mountain bikers have threatened to blaze illegal trails if the agencies don’t capitulate to their demands.
Some of the wilderness study areas in Greater Yellowstone are wilder than most of the national parks in the West, if based on their wildlife; these WSAs, were they to exist in any Eastern states with less public land, they would be considered natural treasures yet some treat them as expendable.
Wilderness is not a land of no human use; it is a place where humans paradoxically can become reinvigorated by humbly accepting limitations on the magnitude of their impacts and personal ambition. It is about self-restraint, acknowledging that wildlife needs the terrain as its permanent home more than we need it for fun or extracting a merchantable commodity.
Today, the wilderness movement is no more dead than the conservation movement or altruism are. The next generation is stepping up and future generations will one day revere them for it. True legacies are not established by what you take when you had the chance, but the good things you leave behind. Congratulations Wyoming Wilderness Association.
The Wyoming Wilderness Association At 40: A Timeline and Its Key Players
1979– With the vision and enthusiasm of Bart Koehler and Howie Wolke, the Wyoming Wilderness Association was established to aid in passage of the Wyoming Wilderness Act, which had been years in the making and inspired by others considered heroic figures, including people today enshrined in the Wyoming Outdoor Hall of Fame.
1979-1980– A board of directors is established, consisting of Mike and Joyce Evans, Keith Becker (first WWA president) and Louisa Willcox who would go on to serve as program director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and become well known as a grizzly bear advocate..
1980-1984– The newly formed WWA team organized meetings, sent letters, recruited members, traveled to D.C. and put Wilderness on people’s radar across the state. Board member Louisa Willcox said WWA was successful because so many people from so many different walks of life participated. Two young women, Liz Howell and outfitter Meredith Taylor, were very involved in lobbying for the wild places of Wyoming as citizen activists in D.C.
1984– The Wyoming Wilderness Act passed as a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. and future Vice President Dick Cheney. The bill designated 884,000 acres as Wilderness bringing the total number of protected acres in Wyoming to 3.1 million. It feeds Wyoming’s reputation worldwide as a state that treasures its high caliber wildlands and they are the basis for a nature-tourism economy whose value continues to grow.
1984-1994– For 10 years after the passing of the Wyoming Wilderness Act the organization lay dormant, until Liz Howell of Sheridan spearheaded it’s return in 1994.
1994– Howell, Koehler and Tom Dougherty brought WWA back by using the old WWA letterhead in their successful efforts to oppose the Shoshone National Forest’s attempt to eliminate its Inventoried Roadless Areas.
WWA and a group of 10 conservation organizations submit a proposal to the BLM suggesting which lands they believe should be designated as Wilderness. This document was titled “Citizen’s Wilderness Proposal for BLM Lands.” It does not result in designation but it helps prevent lands from being degraded or opened to illegal trespass by motorized interests.
This rebirth was kindled in Sheridan and the organization headquarters is still located there 25 years later.
2003– After almost a decade of behind the scenes organizing with WWA, Howell successfully moves WWA out of its ad-hoc identity and establishes the group as a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Globally-renowned engineer Tom Wianko and wife, Sybil, of Teton Village were the first monetary supporters to help bring back the organization with an original gift of $30,000. The Wiankos host Meredith Taylor, Willcox, John Spahr and Lisa Robertson at a fireside chat in their guest cabin.
Before announcing the comeback, Howell gathered with other conservation groups and laid out her plan. All agreed a state based Wilderness group was needed.
With Howell leading the charge, an all-star team board of directors comes together including: Cheryl Phinney (Board President); Jason Marsden (Vice President of the Board); Louise Lasley (Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Treasurer of the Board); Jen Lamb (NOLS, Secretary of Board); plus Dr. Bruce Hayse; Dave Waggoner; Erik Molvar (Biodiversity Conservation Alliance); John Spahr; Al Sammons (Back Country Horsemen); Meredith Taylor (Wyoming Outdoor Council); Leila Bruno; Craig Cope (Former Wilderness Manager of the Bighorn National Forest); Claire Leon, Margi Schroth (HF Bar Ranch); and three original founding board members Bart Koehler (who had been associated with The Wilderness Society and Greater Yellowstone Coalition) and Mike and Joyce Evans.
All WWA work at this time was fueled by volunteers and interns. Soon afterward,, the Bighorn National Forest Plan gets underway in 2003, and WWA was there to ask questions, ground-truth data and monitor forest management.
2004– In honor of 40 years since the Wilderness Act of 1964, and 20 years since the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984, WWA publishes the book, Ahead of Their Time. They hired Leila Bruno and Broughton Coburn to compile writers from around the state to highlight important Wilderness heroes from Wyoming history. After the book was compiled WWA took it on the road doing library talks and bringing the writers and actual heroes, including people like the late Tom Bell, to public events around the state.
Aaron Bannon, now the Wilderness Coordinator for NOLS, volunteered and then became Howell’s first paid employee in 2004. WWA works to resubmit the “Citizen’s Wilderness Proposal for BLM Lands” in collaboration with other conservation groups, but again, it does not result in designation.
2005– The Shoshone National Forest embarks on revising its forest plan Indigenous leaders join in the push for protecting public lands. Arapahoe and Shoshone organize a march to protect the Red Desert.
2006– WWA works with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance,
biologist Deb Patla and Merlin Hare to file a lawsuit against the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and Bridger-Teton National Forest and successfully reduces helicopter skiing user days on that landscape.
2008– Margi Schroth of HF Bar Ranch shares a mailing list of her dudes (clients) and they all weigh in on the Bighorn National Forest Revision Plan along with many other public comments. The plan recommends Rock Creek Roadless Area as Wilderness.
2011– WWA works to resubmit the “Citizen’s Wilderness Proposal for BLM Lands” in collaboration with other conservation groups for the third time, highlighting its value for wildlife, yet it still does not result in designation. Still not a single acre of BLM land is designated Wilderness in Wyoming.
2011– Scoping begins for 3.6 million acres of lands in the Rock Springs Planning Area’s management revision process. WWA submits scoping comments, wilderness inventories and works to ensure wildlands and wildlife habitat have adequate protections in the updated plan, as energy development proliferates and biologists note that some key wildlife ranges are lost to impacts from drilling and roadbuilding.
2013– WWA completes a two-year inventory of over 450,000 acres of potential wilderness-quality BLM lands in Wyoming to update earlier inventories conducted in the early 90s and to provide the BLM with a suite of new data. Tony Ferlisi and current board member Jennie Boulerice lead the charge on BLM management work in Lander.
2013– To help celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014, WWA creates the Youth Ambassadors for Wilderness program, a statewide leadership mentorship program to build the next generation of wildland stewards.
2014– Shoshone National Forest Revision Plan is completed after 9 years of scrutiny from WWA organizers including Aaron Bannon, Sarah Domek, Sarah Walker and WWA board member Dick Inberg. A highlight is that the highly contested Dunoir Special Management Area outside Dubois would remain without mountain bike access.
2016– Wyoming county commissioners launch the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLA) to make recommendations for wilderness study areas, some of which have suffered from illegal trespass from motorized recreationists and mountain bikers without enforcement from federal land managers.
2018– Khale Century Reno steps in as the new Wyoming Wilderness Association Executive Director. WPLI wraps up in Wyoming and many say it is almost a complete failure. Recommendations for five counties are in the process of being drafted into a bill; very few acres of identified Wilderness Study Areas were recommended for Wilderness.
2019– WWA celebrates 40 years of wildlands protection in Wyoming.
About The Author
The New West, Todd Wilkinson
Todd Wilkinson has been an award-winning journalist for more than three decades and is best known for his coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He also is author of several critically-acclaimed books. His column, The New West, was not long ago named best column for small-town newspapers in America. He is founder of the non-profit, online journalism site, Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) devoted to probing the intersection between people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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