Wilderness Act turns 50

Advocates call for more wilderness in Central Oregon, rest of state

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published Aug 31, 2014 at 12:01AM

Go wild

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Oregon Natural Desert Association, among other agencies and organizations, are holding events, including:

• “The Meaning of Wild and Untrammeled” movie showing, Forest Service, 5 p.m. Sept. 26 at McMenamins Theater, 700 NW Bond St. in Bend. Cost $5.

• Wilderness Celebration, BLM, Sept. 27 at Reynolds Pond east of Bend. More details to come.

• Wilderness Weekend, Oregon Natural Desert Association, Sept. 18 to Sept. 20, various locations around Bend. More details at onda.org/get-involved/events/wilderness-weekend.

Nearly 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson, LBJ, took his pen to the Wilderness Act of 1964.

The six-page law that turns 50 on Wednesday laid out the rules defining and guiding wilderness areas: “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” A half-century later, the law remains intact, and while wilderness advocates celebrate the milestone, they would like to see more land come under its protection, particularly in Oregon.

“Oregon in not doing as well as other states,” says Brent Fenty, executive director for the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

Most of the wilderness areas across America are found in the West. Comparing the amount of wilderness in Western states shows Oregon lagging behind, said Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator for Oregon Wild, a statewide conservation group, in Bend.

In Washington, 10 percent of the state’s land is designated wilderness, California 15 percent and Idaho 8 percent, he said. Oregon has 4 percent.

“Oregon has a very green reputation, but unfortunately in terms of protecting wilderness that isn’t a reputation we have lived up to,” Fernandez said.

Congressional clog

Adding more wilderness anytime soon could be a challenge. Designating a new wilderness takes congressional approval and, in recent years, wilderness bills haven’t made it to the president’s desk.

“Washington, D.C., just hasn’t gotten the job done,” Fernandez said.

The 112th Congress, which served from 2011 to 2013, didn’t designate any wildernesses despite about two dozen bills proposing new and expanded wilderness. The current 113th Congress, which runs until January, has designated one wilderness so far — the 32,500-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan.

For Oregon there are new wilderness proposals on the table, including a couple in Central Oregon. The Oregon Treasures Act of 2013 — introduced in February 2013 by Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, a pair of Oregon Democrats — proposes the designation of 8,500 acres around Cathedral Rock, along the John Day River, and 9,200 acres near Ashwood, northeast of Madras, to be called Horse Heaven. They’re waiting for a vote by the Senate.

Even getting a proposed wilderness to be considered by Congress takes groups working together to find local support for a plan. For Cathedral Rock that has meant a conservative rancher, a Christian camp and the liberal-leaning Oregon Natural Desert Association joining forces. The plan isn’t without controversy, with the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners pulling its support for the proposed wilderness in 2011 over questions about public access, but it has made it out of congressional committee. Time is ticking away, though.

“If the Senate doesn’t do something with it by January then we have to reintroduce it,” said Matt Smith, vice president of Derby Smith Partners of Bend. The company owns Cherry Creek Ranch, which would trade land with the federal government to create Cathedral Rock. “So I’m not optimistic.”

A hunter, trapper and Republican, Smith said he hasn’t always been a fan of locking up land as wilderness, but now he supports the notion.

“I think those wilderness protections are going to become more important if we are going to have any wildlife and wild areas left,” he said.

While wilderness areas are most associated with the U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management also oversees wilderness, including the Oregon Badlands Wilderness near Bend and Steens Mountain Wilderness in Harney County. The agency also has numerous wilderness study areas, lands it is managing as de facto wilderness since a 1991 report identified them as potential wilderness, around Central Oregon. As with Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven, making any of these an official wilderness would take a vote in D.C.

“Only Congress can designate a wilderness,” said Berry Phelps, a wilderness specialist with the BLM in Prineville.

What is wilderness?

Almost 50 years since LBJ signed the Wilderness Act on Sept. 3, 1964, the significance of the legislation endures , said Marilyn Miller, a former Central Oregon leader for the Sierra Club, a national conservation group.

“I think it is one of the most important acts that has ever been done,” Miller said.

What’s important are the lands the act protects, according to wilderness advocates. By rule, the lands are set aside with restrictions on motorized vehicles, development, mining and logging.

“To me, wilderness represents a place where people can go to refresh their souls,” Miller said.

Fenty, the leader of the desert association, shared her sentiments.

“There are few constants in this world,” Fenty said. “These wilderness areas are a constant that helps one generation connect to another.”

The Wilderness Act wasn’t the only monumental piece of legislation in 1964, said Karen Brand, a recreation official for the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests. The 88th Congress also approved the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination. The history shows lawmakers at the time were thinking of the people coming after them, said Brand.

“It was a different time and place 50 years ago, but they did a great service for us to have these areas designated,” Brand said.

Wilderness is part of the draw of Bend, with the often-visited Three Sisters Wilderness Area to the west and the emerging Oregon Badlands Wilderness to the east. One of the original wildernesses, the Three Sisters Wilderness dates to 1964. The Badlands is much younger, with the 111th Congress making the designation in 2009.

Part of the beauty of a wilderness is how it should remain the same, Brand said, aside from natural changes.

“I really hope each and every time I go to a wilderness area it looks like it did 50 years ago and it will look the same 50 years from now,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com