In a Changing Environment, Wilderness Doesn’t Promote Tourism or Protect Public Lands

Some say the only solution to protecting public lands is to seal them within designated wilderness areas. Build an artificial wall, and our national treasures remain pristine forever. Erik Fernandez of Oregon Wild made this case in a pre-eclipse guest opinion, but the problem with this philosophy is it assumes our natural landscapes exist only in a static state.

Of course, they don’t. Public lands exist in a dynamic environment, always changing. Whether we “zone” our forests as wilderness or as a national monument, they will always and forever be vulnerable to real threats like drought, climate change, and catastrophic fire.

Should we draw human-made boundaries around dynamic ecosystems and hope for the best as Mr. Fernandez suggests? We should use science, responsible management, and common sense to make our lands healthy and resilient, keep them open to all, and support our rural tourism and natural resource-based economies.

It’s paradoxical to advocate for additional wilderness designations to promote Oregon’s “recreation economy.” The Wilderness Act is the most restrictive policy possible, and a disaster for any recreational activity that requires a road, temporary road, car, truck, camper, motor boat, or even a bike – all of which are explicitly prohibited by the Wilderness Act.

Mr. Fernandez and others argue their proposal to create 500,000 acres of designated wilderness around Crater Lake National Park would greatly enhance the experience for visitors. National forests outside the park have become unnaturally overgrown and impacted by beetle infestations. The Wilderness Act also prohibits any mechanized activity intended to improve the health and resiliency of our public lands – including non-controversial thinning of fire-prone forests. Most of the forests in this area are classified as being at high risk of catastrophic wildfire. Proponents of the Crater Lake wilderness proposal recently sued the Forest Service and stalled a public project near the park aimed at thinning overstocked stands, restoring meadows, and making the landscape more resilient to fire in the future.

Only a month later the Blanket Creek and Spruce Lake fires, which have burned thousands of acres immediately adjacent to Crater Lake, resulted in the closures of the famous West Rim Drive, popular hiking trails inside the park, and sections of the iconic Pacific Crest Trail.

In this case, prohibiting forest management activities to protect tourism at Crater Lake National Park doesn’t carry water. If Mr. Fernandez and other proponents of creating more designated wilderness areas believe humans should be left out of nature and that our forests should be allowed to burn unchecked, they should just say so. If proponents are satisfied with denying access to Americans who are physically unable to hike or backpack into wilderness areas, they should just admit it.

Protecting our public lands is something all Oregonians care about, not just those who want more wilderness. So, the next time you drive over to Bend on Highway 22 and see the burnt and dead forests near Mt. Washington, or are in Southern Oregon in the Kalmiopsis moonscape created by the massive Biscuit fire, or countless other Oregon treasures destroyed by the lack of management, ask yourself: is this really protection?

In a Changing Environment, Wilderness Doesn’t Promote Tourism or Protect Public Lands