Wilderness Digest

June 2017 | Volume 23, Number 1

Compiled by GREG KROLL 


John Craighead Dead at 100

Famed grizzly bear biologist John Craighead died in his sleep at his Missoula, Montana, home September 18, 2016. He had recently celebrated his 100th birthday. His twin brother, Frank, died in 2001. The breadth of John Craighead’s experience and expertise in the natural world – with Frank and apart from him – is legendary. In 1998, the same year John received the Aldo Leopold Award, the twins were named among America’s top scientists of the 20th century by the National Audubon Society.

The Craighead brothers were born in Washington, D.C., on August 14, 1916. Intrigued by falconry and birds, they attended Penn State University and, at age 20, published their first of many articles for the National Geographic Society entitled “Adventures with Birds of Prey.” Both Craigheads received doctorate degrees from the University of Michigan in 1949. John moved into the academic world in the early 1950s when he accepted a position with the University of Montana, leading the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit for 25 years.

John and Frank Craighead wrote much of the text of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that was passed by Congress in 1968, even while they conducted a 12-year study of grizzly bears in Yellowstone. That study is credited with helping save the bears from extinction. In 2005, the University of Montana endowed the John J. Craighead Chair in Wildlife Biology.

No formal memorial services were held. The family spread John’s ashes in the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, area, where the Craighead brothers settled when they first came west as young naturalists. (Source: Missoulian, September 19, 2016)

Judge Upholds Olympic NP’s Maintenance Work on Historic Structures in Wilderness

A federal judge has agreed with the National Park Service’s decision to repair five historic buildings located in designated wilderness in Olympic National Park, Washington, holding that the agency “made a reasoned finding of necessity by determining both that the structures are necessary to preserve historic values in Olympic National Park and that it was necessary to repair each one.” The summary judgment rejected claims by Wilderness Watch that the National Park Service (NPS) had acted arbitrarily and capriciously in repairing the structures in violation of the Wilderness Act. In addition, the judgment agreed with the NPS that historic structures are not incompatible with a wilderness setting.

Olympic National Park encompasses an expansive and rugged landscape on the northwestern peninsula of Washington State. Within its boundaries there are 876,669 acres (355,000 ha) of designated wilderness, and within that wilderness there are 44 historic structures. “Many represent the activities of the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, and others embody the perseverance of homesteaders and settlers and recreational development in the Peninsula,” US District Judge Ronald B. Leighton noted in his 26-page ruling. Five of those structures were central to the lawsuit brought by Wilderness Watch: Botten Cabin (also known as Wilder Patrol Cabin), Canyon Creek Shelter (also known as Sol Duc Falls Shelter), Wilder Shelter, Bear Camp Shelter, and Elk Lake Shelter. Since 2011, the NPS has performed maintenance on those structures; in some cases, new roofs were constructed, decaying logs were replaced in others, and in one instance, a rusted chimney flue was replaced.

“The court’s ruling has far-reaching implications,” Chris Moore, executive director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, noted in a prepared statement. “It enables the National Park Service and other federal agencies that manage America’s wilderness to meet their stewardship mission related to historic and cultural resources in a manner that complies with the Wilderness Act. Washingtonians understand that the historic structures in our backcountry areas complement the wilderness experience.”

In his summary judgment, Judge Leighton noted that the NPS argued that, “Although historic preservation is subject to the Wilderness Act, it is indeed a purpose of the Act. It argues that because the Act charges it with preserving Olympic National Park’s wilderness character, which includes a devotion to its ‘historical use,’ and with complying with cultural resource preservation statutes, it can maintain historic structures in wilderness, so long as the means used are ‘necessary to meet the minimum requirements for administration of the Olympic Wilderness for the purpose of the Wilderness Act.’” He went on to note that the NPS “has a longstanding approach of preserving historic structures, subject to wilderness concerns. Even before Congress designated the Olympic Wilderness, the Park Service exercised its discretion under the Organic Act in removing structures that compromised the park’s wilderness character and preserving others.” (Source: National Parks Traveler, December 18, 2016)

Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Suffers Mounting Environmental ImpactsA drastic increase in overnight use of Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen has led the US Forest Service to propose a management plan to mitigate what officials say are mounting environmental impacts. The Forest Service said the plan is in response to public calls for action regarding the ongoing resource degradation and land management challenges.

Overnight visits to the area’s top 10 trails have increased 115 percent since 2007. The management plan, if implemented, would establish use thresholds for camping zones. If a sustainable use level is exceeded, a mandatory overnight permit system and other mandates – including a fee system – could be implemented, the Forest Service says. Kate Jerman, a spokeswoman for the  White River National Forest, said the plan represents a framework under which land management decisions will be made going forward.

“We have been monitoring and collecting visitor use data in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness for many years,” Kay Hopkins, recreation planner for the White River Forest, said in a statement. “Every year visitation is record-setting and every year we are seeing more resource damage and in general a lack of ethical behavior from visitors.” Impacts to the wilderness area have included wildlife habituation to trash and campsites, tree cutting, fire scars, trash, human waste, and campsite hardening and proliferation.

Officials issued a Forest Order requiring the use of approved bear-resistant containers for storage of all food, garbage, and attractants in the entire wilderness area. “Outreach and education efforts about appropriate wilderness conduct have been extensive and exhaustive, dating as far back as 20 years,” the Forest Service said in a news release. “Trailhead data demonstrates that the majority of visitors to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are either from the Front Range of Colorado or outside of the state of Colorado, and despite widespread education efforts, degradation is still occurring.” (Source: The Denver Post, November 3, 2016)

Backcountry Cell Phone Coverage Expands in Yellowstone

Commercial cell towers located inside Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) now send signals to much of its wild backcountry, according to  maps and records obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This extensive cellular footprint contradicts official assurances that signal spillover outside developed areas would be kept to a minimum and coverage would not reach the vast majority of Yellowstone, according to PEER.

In 2009, Yellowstone issued a wireless and telecommunications management plan that stated that cell phone coverage “would not be promoted or available along park roads outside developed areas, or promoted or available in any of the backcountry.” Yellowstone technology chief Bret De Young acknowledges the occurrence of “spillover” cell phone signals into backcountry areas, but suggested the coverage maps exaggerate the quality of coverage in parts of the park.

At the summit of Mount Washburn, with its panoramic views, Yellowstone has transformed the historic fire lookout into a telecommunications hub, equipped with 36 antennae. When PEER filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the coverage map for AT&T’s latest installation there, park officials denied PEER’s request on grounds that the map was a “trade secret.” But agency lawyers overruled Yellowstone and ordered the map released. It shows that a substantial portion of the park receives signals from just this one location.

Yellowstone officials have issued permits for four other cell towers circling the heart of the park. When the coverage of all five towers is combined, there remains little of Yellowstone not connected, according to PEER. Additional coverage inside the park comes from towers just outside its boundaries, including those at West Yellowstone and Gardiner, Montana (near its west and north entrances, respectively), and on the Rockefeller Parkway in Wyoming (near its south entrance).

Meanwhile, the  administration of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, is pushing to permit construction of a new Verizon cell tower adjacent to the state’s largest tract of designated wilderness, according to PEER. Verizon wants to erect a 190-foot (58 m) “guyed telecommunications tower” supporting cellular 4G panels in the north unit of the park, which is 80% wilderness. The park has proposed no measures to minimize signal spillover into the wilderness lands. (Sources: www.peer.org, September 29 and October 27, 2016; Casper Star Tribune, September 29, 2016)

World’s Largest Marine Reserve Created off Antarctica

A remote and largely pristine stretch of ocean off Antarctica has finally received international protection, becoming the world’s largest marine reserve. A broad coalition of countries came together to protect the 598,000 square miles (155 million ha) of water. The new marine protected area in the Ross Sea resulted from a unanimous decision by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, composed of 24 countries, including the United States and  the  European  Union.South of New Zealand and deep in the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean, the 1.9-million-square-mile (492 million ha) Ross Sea is largely untouched by humans. Its nutrient-rich waters are the most productive in the Antarctic, leading to huge plankton and krill blooms that support vast numbers of fish, seals, penguins, and whales.

Some 16,000 species are thought to call the Ross Sea home, many of them uniquely adapted to the cold environment. A 2011 study published in the journal Biological Conservation called the Ross Sea “the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth,” citing intact communities of emperor and Adelie penguins, crabeater and leopard seals, and killer and minke whales.

The sea’s remoteness has meant it has largely escaped the heavy fishing and shipping pressures that have impacted much of the world’s oceans, although rising prices for seafood and the low cost of fuel have caused some fishermen to eye the waters as potential new grounds for exploitation. Some fishing already occurs there for Antarctic toothfish, a predatory fish that is sold as the highly prized Chilean sea bass. But beginning on December 1, 2017, fishing will no longer be allowed in 432,000 square miles (112 million ha) of the new reserve.

“The Ross Sea is probably the largest ocean wilderness left on our planet,” says Enric Sala, a marine biologist. “It is the Serengeti of Antarctica, a wild place full of wildlife … where humans are only visitors and large animals rule.” It is a place of “fish with antifreeze in their blood, penguins that survive the equivalent of a human heart attack on each dive, and seals that must use their teeth to constantly rake open breathing holes in the ice,” scientist Cassandra Brooks wrote during an expedition there in 2013.

The marine protected area was created based on a proposal from the United States and New Zealand. Environmental groups and several countries had pushed for protections for the Ross Sea for decades. Over the past few years, however, two holdout nations emerged: China and Russia, which expressed concerns about putting too much ocean  off-limits to fishing or other uses, including the possibility of seabed mining. But 500 prominent scientists signed a letter urging protections for the Ross Sea. China changed tack in 2015, and Russia came on board in 2016. (Source: National Geographic, October 27, 2016)

Court Rules That the US Forest Service Illegally Authorized Helicopter Intrusions in Wilderness

A federal judge has ruled that the US Forest Service (USFS) illegally authorized the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to conduct approximately 120 helicopter landings in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to place radio collars on wild elk in an operation during which IDFG also unlawfully collared four wolves. As a result, the court ruled, the USFS and  IDFG are prohibited from using any data obtained from the illegally installed elk and wolf collars in future project proposals, IDFG must destroy the data received from the illegal collars, and the USFS must delay implementation of any future helicopter projects in the wilderness for 90 days to allow time for legal challenges. The Wilderness Act generally prohibits the use of motorized vehicles, including the landing of helicopters, in wilderness areas and requires the preservation of natural conditions.

The ruling by US District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmillconcludesthat the USFS violated the Wilderness Act and conducted insufficient environmental review by allowing IDFG to land helicopters in the wilderness in January 2016. In addition, the capture and radio-collaring of the four wolves was not permitted by the USFS. IDFG planned to undertake widespread wolf-killing by gathering location information on the collared wolves. The IDFG’s existing elk and predator management plans call for exterminating 60 percent of the wolf population in the heart of the River of No Return Wilderness to provide more elk for hunters and commercial outfitters.

The judge found that these circumstances present “the rare or extreme case” where an injunction requiring destruction of the illegally obtained radio-collar data is required, stating: “The IDFG has collected data in violation of federal law and intends to use that data to seek approvals in the future for more helicopter landings in the Wilderness Area. … The only remedy that will directly address the ongoing harm is an order requiring destruction of the data.”

At 2.4 million acres (970,000 ha), the River of No Return is the largest contiguous unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the Lower 48 states. It hosts abundant wildlife including elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wolves, cougars, and wolverines. It is one of the few wilderness areas of sufficient size to allow natural wildlife interactions to play out without human interference, and for this reason was one of the original  wolf  reintroduction  sites in the Northern Rockies. (Source: Earthjustice, January 19, 2017)

Global Witness Report: Honduras: The Deadliest Place to Defend the Planet

Global Witness, a London-based NGO, has published a report examining the involvement of government officials and foreign aid in violent conflicts over mining, hydroelectric, tourism, and palm oil projects in Honduras. The result of  a two-year investigation, the report includes several case studies and a series of recommendations for the Honduran and US governments. “We do an annual report to document the situation globally, and Honduras per capita has come out on top for the last few years. More than 120 land and environmental defenders have been killed in Honduras since 2010, so we wanted to investigate the reasons behind that,” Global Witness campaigner Ben Leather said.

The issue was thrust into the global spotlight in March 2016 when Berta Cáceres, a well-known Honduran indigenous rights activist and Goldman environmental prize winner, was gunned down in her home. She had been receiving threats related to her work with communities opposing the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in western Honduras, and suspects arrested in connection with her killing include individuals with ties to the Honduran military and to DESA, the company behind the dam project.

The new Global Witness report, Honduras: The Deadliest Place to Defend the Planet, examines the Agua Zarca case and other hydroelectric dam projects, a hotel and golf tourism complex in indigenous Garifuna territory along the northern coast, and mining and logging activities. Regardless of where the projects are located in the small Central American country of 8 million people, similar patterns of indigenous and human rights violations emerge. “What we’ve uncovered is that there’s an awful lot of corruption around these mega-projects, these big investment projects, whether that’s mining, whether that’s hydroelectric, whether it’s logging, or whether it’s luxury hotel projects,” Leather said. “These projects are being imposed on communities, which is why they need to mobilize in the first place. And then that same corruption means activists can be killed with impunity,” he said.

In some cases, allegations of corruption go to the highest echelons of the Honduran government. Hydroelectric dam project backers also include international finance institutions such as the Central American Bank of Economic Integration, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank Group’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

Although the Global Witness report focuses on Honduras, similar forces are at play throughout Latin America. Already this year, indigenous and community activists opposing hydroelectric dams, mining, and logging reportedly have been killed in Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. Isidro Baldenegro was a past recipient of the Goldman environmental prize. An indigenous Tarahumara community leader and farmer, he was awarded the honor for his organizing work to protect Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains from illegal logging. After years of threats, he was recently shot and killed. “He was threatened by people associated with the loggers, who were logging in his community. He was threatened by organized crime. But he was also imprisoned by the Mexican state, on charges that ultimately turned out to be false,” Leather said. (Source: mongabay.com, February 1, 2017)

Scotland’s John Muir Trust Releases a Short Film Celebrating Wilderness

The John Muir Trust (johnmuirtrust. org) has released a five-minute film based on the writings of native son John Muir. Filmed in the Scottish Highlands, it combines narration with stunning scenery: https://vimeo.com/190453307.