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wilderness panel

The Wilderness Act of 1964 has no room for compromise in its standards, panelists at the 2015 National Wilderness Workshop argued on Thursday. From left are Steward Brandborg who helped get the act passed, George Nickas of Wilderness Watch and author George Wuerthner.

The word of law and the wants of man don’t mix well in wild country, a panel of wilderness advocates agreed Thursday.

In fact, Stewart Brandborg, who worked on the Wilderness Act of 1964’s passage through Congress and later led The Wilderness Society, warned against considering deals on its meaning.

“We must resist the fuzzy, fuzzy Neverland of collaboration,” Brandborg said. “We may invite people to deliberate with us, but we must recognize the primary value is the wildness of this land and the preservation of it.”

Brandborg said too many conservation groups were “infiltrated” by corporate business interests that used financial contributions to weaken support for the Wilderness Act’s principles.

“If you decide you’re going for purity, don’t get bogged down with types of uses,” Brandborg said. “Wild is wild.”

That left some in the audience of the 2015 National Wilderness Workshop uneasy.

The title of the talk was “Preserving the Founding Principles of the Wilderness Act in an Age of Collaboration and Conflict Resolution.”

With agencies like the U.S. Forest Service building entire forest management plans on the idea of collaboration, hearing such a firm denunciation prompted calls for flexibility.

Bill Hodges of the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards countered that while history is static, the present and future are dynamic and changing.

“Many of us build our audiences through collaboration,” Hodges told the panel. “Please don’t make it out to be the villain.”

Moderator Steve Kimball of the Society for Wilderness Stewardship and a former Forest Service wilderness supervisor said in his opening remarks that the pressure to change parts of the act for modern convenience was a challenge to be faced.

“The social climate of working things out can raise tensions between Wilderness Act principles and the desire for collaboration,” Kimball said. “We need to beware of erosion in wilderness standards. We’re starting to see wilderness areas resemble other backcountry areas. The difference is slipping.”

Panelist George Nickas of Wilderness Watch said the idea of “wild land” was a defining feature of the Wilderness Act. Recent efforts to equate it with recreation opportunities or wildlife management would distort the point of the act, which was to preserve places where humans aren’t in charge.

“We really have to get this right, or we won’t have any wilderness left,” Nickas said. “Some people are concerned the younger generation won’t share these values of wilderness. I don’t think the values of wilderness are changing. The fundamental belief goes on and on.”

And author George Wuerthner added that good concepts deserve to be preserved. While some have argued that the idea of wilderness or parks is an invention of white, colonial society, Wuerthner said that missed the point.

“The ancient Greeks came up with the idea of democracy,” he said. “A good idea is a good idea. In all cultures around the world, there is the idea that some sacred places should be put off from development.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.