Wild lands, wild laws 

From Henry David Thoreau onward, Americans have dedicated a lot of writing and not a few laws to the preservation of wild places. In the halls of Congress and from the studies of innumerable authors, an enduring legacy has been carved. Activists and writers alike have long seen the 1964 Wilderness Act as "nature's Bill of Rights."

So it makes sense that this week's Wilderness Conference should combine the interests of lawmakers and scribes.

As Janet Rose, the director of one conference sponsor, Wilderness Watch, puts it: "There just seems to be a lot of syn-ergy here. We realized we could pull in a lot of people who don't necessarily have activist leanings."

Of course, many writers do have activist impulses. And the conference, which brings together such luminary voices on the national scene as Rick Bass, Dick Manning and Barry Lopez, along with former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and ex-Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, should mark a gathering of the sort Missoulians are used to.

The seminars and symposiums, which take place from Friday, July 18, through Sunday, July 20, include "Spreading the Word on Wilderness," "Literature and the Activist Agenda--New Perspectives," "Technology and Wilderness," and a host of roundtables focusing on policy particulars.

Lopez, author of the National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams, will read from some of his new work and take questions on Friday evening at 6:30 at Caras Park. Udall gives a keynote address on Saturday at 11 a.m. in the University of Montana Gallagher Business building.

"One strength of the conservation movement has always been the strength of the writing," Udall noted in an interview with the Independent this week. "We've had the good fortune to have such eloquent writing on nature become a large part of our national thought."

Wilderness Watch, Rose says, was founded in 1989 to influence the management of established wilderness areas--places where people could visit but leave no permanent trace. Those areas were created under the 1964 Wilderness Act, and include more than 103 million acres nationally and 3.4 million acres in Montana alone.

Rose says the group got started because management decisions, which govern the lands that Congress had designated, were being ignored.

"Until we started there was a void on wilderness management," she says. "We became the citizens' voice--and their eyes and ears on the ground. We've got to manage what we've got, and not just keep looking at how to get more, because you can't necessarily restore a wilderness once it's been ruined."

According to Wild-erness Watch's policy director, George Nickas, the '80s were a time when wilderness managers mistakenly decided that use was taking a downturn. That impression, he says, allowed them to relax, instead of looking at ways to solve problems in those areas.

This issue, Nickas says, has been compounded by the inclination of managers to manipulate the natural areas under their watch rather than to protect their biological integrity. For example, he says, fires were fought, noxious weed control took place and, in some cases, exotic species were introduced to places they didn't belong.

As population growth has increased the pressure on many designated wilderness areas, Nickas says, these problems have been exacerbated.

"We see the Wilderness Act as nature's Bill of Rights," Nickas says. "These are supposed to be places where we restrain ourselves. The law is clear. We are to have areas free from direct human manipulation."

Udall, who fought to pass the original Wilderness Act as well as the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, says that the current Congress seems bent on undoing the conservation victories. But the former Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations also says he's seen plenty of ups and downs over the past three decades.

"There's no question that in 1994, we found ourselves going down a new turn in the road," Udall says. "But there have always been seasons in conservation politics."

Udall says he's excited to be arriving at a conference where he will share the spotlight with Lopez. Originally, he says, he was pleased to team-up with poet Gary Snyder--who had to bow out for personal reasons. But Lopez, in Udall's words, is "out of the same pattern."

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