Monday, July 27, 2009

Wilderness Politics

Montana Senator Jon Tester has sponsored a new wilderness bill. Typically, it has caused those on the right to grouse about people being kicked off the public lands. But, as Jay Stevens summarizes, it's also causing some environmentalists to complain. Why? Because this land isn't unspoiled enough. Basically, it grandfathers grazing rights onto the land.

While I don't like grazing in the national forests or wilderness areas any better than any other environmentalist, there are several problems with this argument. First, it assumes that there is anywhere on earth that is not changed by humans. Second, it looks at wilderness designation as a zero sum game. It's either wilderness or it's not. Isn't reducing human impact on the forests a good goal in itself. The issue of grazing rights is a political problem. It could easily be mitigated by environmental organizations buying up their rights and retiring them. That idea has been floated around for some time and has caused an uproar among the cattle industry who has fought to make sure that those rights won't be retired (even by legal action). But the reality is that the economics of small-scale cattle grazing don't make sense for a lot of farmers. Beef overproduction has driven down prices while commodity prices have driven up costs. A lot of these cows could be moved off the range within the next decade.

Purity is not a positive trait for environmentalists, yet it has long been the default emotional state for the movement. Could Tester's bill be better? Certainly. Maybe it's not worth supporting. There is also some talk that it could be a front to open up non-designated land to the timber industry. But the issue of supposedly "untrammeled wilderness" shouldn't play a role here.