The U.S. Forest Service was founded on the idea of conserving the nation’s wild country, and it will continue that mission even as the opportunities to do so shrink, according to agency Chief Tom Tidwell.
“Once you use wilderness for something else, for our generation or future generations it’s gone,” Tidwell said during a lecture at the University of Montana on Tuesday. “It can shrink, but not grow.”
But Tidwell said we need blank spaces on the map to, as conservationist Wallace Stegner put it, preserve the challenge against which we as a people were formed. Those places defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964 serve as both places of human refreshment and ecological reserve in a landscape that’s getting ever more crowded.
Tidwell was one of several speakers to visit Missoula this winter as part of the “Room to Roam” Wilderness Issues Lecture Series, celebrating the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary. He was Region 1 forester in Missoula before taking the Forest Service’s top job.
Several different divides must be bridged before wilderness land designations can be resolved, Tidwell said. There remains a deep split between those who insist on “clean” wilderness bills that only involve additional acreage added to the system, and bills like one U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has authored that combine new wilderness with new logging or recreation compromises.
And there are a lot of people who support keeping inventoried roadless areas and proposed wilderness areas “as is,” with no new roads or motorized use, but who also object to the official “big W” federal wilderness designation. Others question what authority the Forest Service has to designate de facto proposed wilderness areas in the first place.
“Why would I propose adding more wilderness when we can’t take care of what we have?” Tidwell asked. “I think we’re improving the care of those areas, and there’s no question we need more. We also need a stronger support base for wilderness. I think we do an outstanding job of engaging the public, and the forest planning process is the right place to do that. We’ll continue to do the job until Congress acts.”
But he acknowledged the Forest Service needs to get better at amending its plans to deal with new challenges and anticipating some of those challenges before they burst. Audience members specifically asked how the Forest Service could square the Wilderness Act’s requirement to leave natural processes alone with Idaho Fish and Game agents using federal cabins and airstrips in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness this winter to base wolf-killing operations. They also asked about the growing problem of aircraft fly-overs that some said ruined the quiet quality of the backcountry.
Tidwell responded that non-conforming uses needed faster responses. But he added the Forest Service has an obligation and history of managing public lands based on what the public wants.
“I do think we are the right agency to do this, and we can do it with the public,” Tidwell said. “That was true in 1905, and it’s more true today. The only difference is there’s more people around.”