Wilderness Wednesday: Does Wilderness Matter?

In a society preoccupied with electronic communication it comes as a ray of natural sunlight to read about Vermont families escorting amphibians such as frogs, toads, newts and salamanders across busy roads to the vernal pools in which they breed (Valley News May 11,’14). Concern for wild creatures is especially timely now since, on September 3, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. That law defined wilderness as an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character, without permanent improvements or human habitation, protected and managed by designated federal agencies.

To understand the commitment of environmental conservationists I conducted an e-mail dialogue with outstanding leaders in the field. My questions were focused on the growth of their intimate relationships with nature and their views about the myriad ways in which wilderness matters. They provide valuable ideas for today’s youngsters and their families.

Little Rock Pond, VT 

Little Rock Pond, White Rocks National Recreation Area, VT.  Photo: Don Dickson

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A Haven for Ancient Turtles

Turtle hatch puerto rico

"This stretch of beach is where Leatherback turtles lay their eggs, and the other stretch of beach is where Hawksbill turtles lay eggs," our local volunteer Ricardo pointed out to us as we stood on the wide sandy beach northeast of Luquillo, Puerto Rico.  This is the Northeastern Ecological Corridor, eight miles of beach and over 2,000 acres of forest, critical to the survival of leatherback and hawksbill turtles.
Leatherback turtles are an ancient species that have been in our oceans for over 50 million years.  Adults can be eight feet long and weigh 2,000 pounds. They are deep sea divers and have a flexible "leather" shell that withstands the crushing pressure of water thousands of feet underwater as they pursue jellyfish and other deep sea delicacies. Annually, female leatherbacks labor onto Puerto Rico's beaches to lay up to one hundred eggs some three feet under the sand. Sixty to seventy days later, baby leatherbacks emerge from the sand at night and make their way down the beach into the ocean.  

Unfortunately, over the last 30 years, leatherback populations worldwide have declined from an estimated 115,000 nesting females in 1980, to 35,000 today. In addition to the loss of beach habitat, ingestion of floating plastic bags, which look like jellyfish, is a likely factor in this decline. Light pollution from homes and resorts by nesting beaches can disorient turtles that rely on stars for navigation.

My family was extremely lucky to actually see a leatherback turtle hatch. We were on an evening walk on the beach and noticed in the distance two baby turtles making their way towards the sea!  We ran over to a nest where eventually fourteen emerged. The joy of seeing this gave my wife and I one of the greatest highlights of the trip, watching our daughter and son hugging each other, overwhelmed with the happiness and wonder of seeing such an ancient and hopeful sight.

A stunning beach with turquoise waters, wide sandy beach and breathtaking vistas, the Northeastern Ecological Corridor Reserve attracts not only turtles, but also investors with dreams of exclusive resorts. This area has for years been under threat of development due to its raw beauty. Fortunately a coalition of turtle advocates, community leaders, and biologists came together to form a grassroots coalition to protect the Ecological Corridor. Sierra Club volunteers, such as Cristobal, Alberto and Ricardo lead outings to educate and build community support for protecting this area in its natural state.

The dedication and hard work of local Puerto Rican community leaders and Sierra Club staff and volunteers paid off and last year the Corridor became a nature preserve. Yet much remains to be done.  The 2,000 acres of the Corridor is a patchwork of public and private lands. The government has eight years to put together land deals and management plans to realize the intent of a protected nature preserve, or it could revert back to unprotected status. The Sierra Club is committed to continuing to build community support and government commitment to create a nature preserve that balances public access with turtle conservation and economic growth for surrounding communities.

Seeing those baby leatherbacks struggle down the beach instilled in me an enormous sense of responsibility and hope -- responsibility to continue the 50 million year legacy of survival for leatherbacks, and hope from the deep commitment of many Puerto Ricans to protecting their natural heritage.

-- Dan Chu, Our Wild America director. Photo by Dan Chu of the turtles he and his family saw hatching.

Wilderness Wednesday: Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds

Idaho's Boulder-White Cloud Mountains form one of the largest unprotected National Forest roadless areas in the lower forty-eight states.  A land of superlatives, they contain some of the state's highest peaks, beautiful mountain lakes, and abundant wildlife.  Adjacent Bureau of Land Management lands to the east are a drier, more austere country whose mountains, such as Jerry Peak, contain sagebrush habitat which offers wintering areas for big horn sheep and other animals.  All told, this rich region provides habitat for the Canada lynx, wolverines, bighorn sheep, elk, bear, mountain lion, and wolves.   Its mountain goat herd is one of the most southerly naturally occurring herds in the nation and has historical significance as the livelihood of the Sheepeater Indians, who were driven from the area in the 19th century.  Salmon, which travel the farthest inland and to the greatest elevation of any Pacific salmon run, use the Boulder-White Clouds to spawn.  Such diversity of wildlife and habitat is a rare and precious resource in America today.

Boulder-White Clouds

Idahoans  have sought Wilderness protection for the Boulder-White Clouds for over thirty years,yet the area remains unprotected. 

Today we have a chance to protect the Boulder-White Clouds as a presidentially proclaimed national monument.  Monument designation would allow the entire region, including almost all of the East Fork Salmon River drainage to be managed under one comprehensive plan, instead of being governed by multiple Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management plans.  A monument could attract greater resources enabling managers to restore and protect habitat in a comprehensive way, manage recreation better, provide historical and scientific interpretation, and protect the area's wilderness values. It would also withdraw the area from future mineral leasing.  County governments in the closest communities of any size, Ketchum and Hailey, support a monument designation, as does public sentiment in Boise, Idaho's largest city.

Just three days ago Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune visited the Boulder-White Clouds with his family. There, we showed him our Idahoan hospitality and got to give him a tour of this area that so badly needs protection. The gorgeous and stunning scenery cannot fail to make an impression on anyone who sees it. Hopefully, the next time he visits the area it will be one of our country’s newest national monuments.

-  By Alan Hausrauth, Sierra Club Idaho volunteer


Public lands through a new perspective

In June, Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Carl Graham, Director of the Sutherland Institute, took the stage at the Heritage Foundation’s “Coalition for Self-Government in the West” panel where they jointly argued that all federal, multiple- use land should be immediately transferred to state control.  The coalition’s argument is based on the idea that states can manage public lands better than the federal government because they live there.

Heritage foundation public lands eventA seemingly compelling argument; however, let's take a quick stroll down memory lane. Early western states sold their new frontier (much of which rightfully belonged to indigenous communities) to the federal government because they didn’t know how to manage it. When those same lands were opened to private use in the early 20th Century, clear-cutting and unsustainable forest management scoured the West and nearly obliterated species habitat and fouled waterways.

These lands are public because they are jewels of the American heartland to be preserved for all people throughout the nation. People in New York and Tallahassee have an equal right to visit and preserve places like Yosemite and Big Sur, and other forests and wild lands in between. If states gobbled up these shared spaces they would take with them the unity of the United States.  It’s not just Americans in the East who want to keep western land public; in a recent study done by Colorado College, western states demonstrated a strong and growing support of federal public lands.

In that same study, voters agreed with Senator Bishop’s grievance towards the government shutdown’s implication for public lands. When the government shuts down it should not be parks and land access that is cut first! But taking away public lands is not the answer to that fight either! Local communities were estimated to have suffered $76 million dollars per day due to the last shutdown because of the loss of access to parks, monuments and other public lands.

One of the many reasons public lands should stay open and available to all Americans is because they generate huge economic benefits for local communities. Western public lands have generated a 345% increase in jobs in their bordering counties, whereas counties without federal public lands only saw an 84% increase. Locals who benefit from public lands also reap an average income of $2,180 more than their counterparts without public land. Property values also increased in areas that have public land because of the enhanced quality of life and recreational opportunities. A renewed study in 2014 of 17 national monuments confirms that even after the recession, the presence of these monuments is consistent with economic growth in their neighboring communities. The social, environmental, and economic advantages of public land literally run wild!

Though the Heritage Foundation and the Sierra Club may never see eye to eye on public lands issues, we can at least share and discuss our differing opinions. For the Coalition, lands are a means to resource extraction—timber and fossil fuels. For all Americans, federal public lands provide benefits for local residents and visitors alike, while safeguarding clean and healthy places for generations of Americans to come. 


-- By Lauren Van Vliet, Public Lands Protection campaign intern  



A Wild Day with Michael Brune

Last week my husband and I were happy to learn that Sierra Club's director and his family were coming to our very tiny town of Index, WA on their way to visit the Wild Sky Wilderness. As members for over 30 years, we had never been invited to meet the Sierra Club’s national director! Eager to meet Michael Brune and his family, we decided to jump on the invitation to join them and a small crew of Wild Sky advocates for lunch and a hike to Barclay Lake – a popular destination surrounded by the Wild Sky.   

Wild Sky Wilderness_2

A decade ago my husband and I had the opportunity to see the beginning of a proposed wilderness, practically in our back yard.  The Wild Sky Wilderness was designed as a different type of wilderness, preserving low-elevation forest easily accessible for young families to enjoy hiking, camping and all kinds of outdoor recreation.  While the heavy lifting was done by others, we lent support locally through writing letters and staffing information booths at local events.  We were thrilled to see the wilderness bill passed and signed into law six years ago.  Our state has been heavily logged and it is right that we save some wild places for our kids and grandkids to enjoy. Our excitement to show the Brune family this backyard treasure and tell old stories about conservation was only surpassed by our eagerness to get outside and hike with the family. 

Sitting on a deck at the Outdoor Adventure Center’s River House in Index on an uncharacteristically warm and humid afternoon, we talked about matters from local to national import.  It was energizing to speak with others who never stop thinking about the health of our planet.  I was struck by the friendliness and openness of this group; their interest in our local efforts and the sharing of successes and challenges. 

After lunch we drove to the trailhead.  Michael and his wife Mary have three great kids, who are total troupers on the trail.   Ferns, nurse logs, and a shady trail led to Barclay Lake, a cold mountain lake that is surrounded by the towering peaks of Mt. Index and Barring Mountain. Volunteers and staff loved splashing in the afternoon sunshine, while socializing and strategizing together. Watching some of the seasoned activists explain the importance of snags, or the characteristics of the great Cedar trees was a real treat. We passed countless young families taking their kids to Washington’s newest wilderness, demonstrating the deep attraction people have to these wild places.

Our time with Michael and his family was a treat. It was with great satisfaction that we were able to share the beloved Wild Sky Wilderness with him and his family, and hope the family will keep returning to this special place.

-- by Susan Cross, Washington Sierra Club member 

Wilderness Wednesday: Mt. Shasta Wilderness Celebration

This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the creation of the National Wilderness Preservation System and the 30 year anniversary of the passage of the California Wilderness Act.  With the addition of 38,200 acres on Mt. Shasta, we are fortunate to be surrounded by the magnificent beauty of the Mt. Shasta Wilderness.

Mt. Shasta_GeorgeWuerthner041807

Photo courtesy George Wuerthner, wilderness.net 

The earliest effort to protect Mt. Shasta began with the Sierra Club founder John Muir’s 1888 proposal for a three to four-thousand acre national park.  John Muir wrote “…The Shasta region is still a fresh unspoiled wilderness, accessible and available for travelers of every kind and degree.  Would it not then be a fine thing to set it apart like Yellowstone and  Yosemite as a National Park for the welfare and benefit of all mankind?...” Muir escorted President Theodore Roosevelt through Yosemite in 1903.  Muir also lobbied for Mt. Shasta.  The next day Roosevelt directed the “Sierra Forest Reserve” to be increased all the way northward to Mt. Shasta.  On a later visit, Roosevelt exclaimed:  “I consider the evening twilight on Mt. Shasta one of the grandest sights I have ever witnessed.” 

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Fighting Illegal Logging with Your Cell Phone

Courtesy of Rainforest Connection 

Illegal logging accounts for up to 30 percent of all timber traded worldwide, harming communities, undercutting American jobs, and increasing carbon pollution. With criminal operations moving deep into remote areas of forest, fighting back may seem impossible. However, a new startup is proving that it’s possible to fight illegal logging with used cell phones. Rainforest Connection, based in California, has partnered with the Zoological Society of London to develop a real-time monitoring system that will be deployed in vulnerable African forests.

So how does the monitoring system work? The company, Rainforest Connection, recycles used Android cell phones, then powers them with a unique solar array that can generate power in the shade - key to operating in the understory of a rainforest. The phones are then placed throughout a forest, generally high in trees to avoid detection, where they function as listening devices. Each device detects the sounds of chainsaws up to two-thirds of a mile away and relays the data to Rainforest Connection’s online system, which is able to pinpoint the location of the sound. Once the location is identified, an alert is sent to local officials responsible for policing illegal logging, allowing them to respond immediately.

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Wilderness Wednesday: The Spirit of Waldo

It’s 4 AM, and my Grandpa is waking me up telling me to get dressed so we can eat breakfast and leave for the mountains. It’s 1959, I am 5 years old, and to me, my head had just hit the pillow to go to sleep when Grandpa started to wake me up. Surely there must be some mistake; surely I can sleep longer. I can smell the bacon cooking in the kitchen as Grandma gets breakfast ready and packs lunch for Grandpa and me, and I know it is time to get up. As I wake up, I remember Grandpa getting the boat ready and packing the camping gear in his 55 Chevy pickup the day before for our annual trip to Waldo Lake. It’s dark outside, and it seems like we are leaving in the middle of the night; something I would come to get very familiar with on the many trips like this I had with Grandpa going on fishing, hunting, and camping trips in my youth.


My times with my Grandfather going on these adventures are my most cherished memories, and though I didn’t know it at the time, they formed the foundation of who I would become as a man. How very fortunate I am to have his ever present patient guiding hand to show me the way through the mystery of life. Through him, I learned about the forest and the wisdom of learning through observation. Through that observation in the solitude of countless trips, the forest revealed its secrets to me, and my connection with nature was made.

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Organizations Come Together to Celebrate Kids and Youth in the Great Outdoors

GOA week tent

Members of NOLS Expedition Denali teach young campers how to pitch a tent 

During my second full week as a Sierra Club intern I was lucky enough to participate in Great Outdoors America Week, a week dedicated to raising awareness around outdoor issues by advocating for public lands and connecting people with nature to members of Congress and the Administration. I had a great time educating leaders on Capitol Hill, especially spreading the word about the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act!  I met wonderful volunteers from Sierra Club chapters across the country and became acquainted with some of our nation’s leaders in outdoor recreation, education and health. Though I loved every action-packed second of GO America Week, my favorite event hands down was the Outdoors Alliance for Kids’ Youth and America’s Great Outdoors event.    

The OAK youth event was held along the Anacostia River at Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Maryland. The scenic Bladensburg Waterfront Park, maintained by the Prince George’s County Department of Park and Recreation, provided an ideal backdrop for the day's activities. 

Spearheaded by the Outdoors Alliance for Kids and Minneapolis-based adventure travel organization Wilderness Inquiry (an OAK member), the event served to spread a message of ensuring outdoor opportunities for kids, youth, and families everywhere.

 Check out a round-up of the day on Storify! You can also read a full write-up of the day from the Outdoors Alliance for Kids

We hope to see you at next year's Great Outdoors America Week!

-- by Tia Watkins



Wilderness Forward

Brune road tripThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, one of our country's greatest tools for protecting America's wild places. Signed into law on September 3, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System and set aside an initial nine million acres of wild lands for the use and enjoyment of the American people.

Over the past 50 years, and as a result of America's support for wilderness, Congress has added nearly 100 million more acres to this unique land preservation system - in 44 out of 50 states and Puerto Rico.    

The 1964 Wilderness Act defines "Wilderness" as areas "where the earth and its community of life...appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable..."

Today, this original idea of wilderness is as salient as ever. Wild lands and natural systems filter the air we breathe and the water we drink; they generate fertile soils, control pests that destroy crops, provide habitat for wildlife, sequester carbon pollution and control floods. They also contribute to the multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation economy and provide important opportunities for people from all backgrounds to connect with nature. In today's busy world, protected wild places provide solace and peace.

As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune embarks on a family summer road trip this week through wild places in the Pacific Northwest (follow along right here!), he'll get to experience some of these scenic wild places first hand -- though with three kids the solace and peace may be harder to find. Thanks to the enduring legacy of the Wilderness Act his family, and countless others, will hike, camp and enjoy spending time together away from it all in our great outdoors.  

Prairie creek state parkThere remains an urgent need to safeguard places "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." But as we look to the next 50 years of protecting our wild places the idea of wilderness must also grow and evolve.

Mounting threats, from climate disruption, dirty fuel extraction, and an increasing disconnect between Americans and the outdoors, make it necessary to expand our thinking about protecting special places. In the coming years, our country's leaders must prioritize protecting  local parks and nature closer to home,  national monuments and new formally designated Wilderness areas. All of these areas play a critical role in the future of America's natural heritage.

My first Wilderness experience was as a Boy Scout in California. Spending four days on a Wilderness backpacking trip in the Klamath Mountains at the age of 13 changed my life forever and put me on a path to be a conservationist. The art of survival during those days in the wild also built a sense of confidence that I could take on seemly insurmountable challenges and prevail.

Wilderness is a living legacy. For it to continue to thrive, it's time to recognize that wild is where you find it. We need to increase opportunities for all Americans to explore the country's wild places, whether on a family road trip like the Brunes or an afternoon picnic at the neighborhood park. Once someone has experienced the power of the great outdoors, near or far, it's hard not to be moved to protect and defend it.

-- Dan Chu, Sierra Club Our Wild America director

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