An Interview with John Freemuth

John Freemuth is a senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy and a political scientist at Boise State University.

John Freemuth

Bruce Reichert: What do you think has changed since 1964 in terms of wilderness?
John Freemuth: We've all aged, so even the generation that was active then doesn't use it as much as they used to. But I think we've entered into the area of what I call 'high tech' recreation, 'thrill' recreation, 'experience' recreation.

I am not a particular fan of some of the drivel that I see in Outside Magazine that just encourages consumerism of all of this stuff, and the ecological reasons to protect wilderness I think remain, but if we've kind of lost that human context and we're more interested in just being outside, then it is a different era than it was in the '60s and early '70s, I think. And right, wrong, or indifferent, things change.

Look at the Park Service debating where to put cell phone towers in Yellowstone. Park Service friends of mine tell me about calls they'll get on cell phones: which trail do I take? The instant dispatching of rescue, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars because someone stubs their toe and they've got a cell phone with them. And just that whole context: everybody wants to be in a different space besides where they currently are. 'Guess where I am? I'm in the middle of nowhere in the Grand Canyon; here's a picture,' if you've got service and all of that business. That's really different than a long time ago.

So are they there in the tradition of the peace and quiet of the wilderness or the thrill of the wilderness? Where they go is kind of interesting in the politics right now, and to me it's all about what we're able to accomplish. Of course, there is more room for more wilderness, but we're doing it in a different context than we were 30 years ago.

Frank Church River of No Return signBR: What's your take on the latest efforts to stop the Boulder-White Clouds proposal of Congressman Simpson?
JF: This is politics in America. It is always been that way. People tried to blow up the Constitution when we were trying to write it. There are people who do that strategically. The lawsuit always remains as a tool. There is goodwill that happens, but I think everybody understands that it is all in the context of strategy, too, right or wrong.

I'm biased toward the notion of people sitting down and talking and trying to find common ground. I remind people, it's not exactly similar, but if we didn't have that mindset we never would have had our constitution, the Great Compromise, the House and Senate and so forth. And so my own biases are, it is better to talk than blow things up.

BR: Both sides say they have polls that suggest the majority is in their camp.
JF: Back when Senator Craig was senator, Rick Johnson of Idaho Conservation League went to the senator's office with some polls that showed where Idaho was on some certain issues. Rick was astute enough to have a Republican pollster do it, and it got Senator Craig's attention. So polls become that strategic tool again. But this also strikes me, timing is everything in issues like this. We all know that, but at some point this is a leadership deal. Polls are polls, and if people want this to happen, they'll say polls be damned, we'll do as much listening as we can, but we want to do this.

BR: Interestingly, the entire Idaho delegation seemed at one time to be behind the Boulder-White Clouds proposal until Governor Otter's letter.
JF: That's always been a rule of wilderness. The delegation has to be behind it, and for a long time that was impossible in Idaho really since the last thing that Senator McClure was able to do. So that was a remarkable breakthrough in a way, and it's kind of fascinating that the Governor would do what he did, seeing that kind of uniformity. Maybe that's why he did what he did. He goes, I've got to do this now because their congressional colleagues are going to look at this and go, well, if you guys are for it, that gives the rest of the members of Congress the ability to move forward and gives them some cover, because they can say the state is for it. That was very remarkable.

I think you've got four fairly pragmatic conservatives there that want to solve problems. They don't want to spend a lot of tax dollars doing it, don't blame them for that, but they want to solve things, and so that is an interesting dynamic we maybe haven't had in Idaho for a while.

Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness AreaBR: Sandra Mitchell with the Idaho Recreation Council said there are ways other than pure wilderness to get what folks want, even in the Boulders.
JF: That may be possible. After all, I believe in Yellowstone National Park, there is no wilderness, but everybody understands that the National Park Service will manage it as such; thus Congress probably doesn't feel the need to do that. I'm not sure that is possible in some people's minds, because if it is not wilderness, and I think that is as much a legal symbolic thing to people, then who knows how it can slide even further away from that? So I think that will be difficult.

I know what she is talking about. In a class of mine we sort of conceived this notion of a 'back country recreation area' concept; it wasn't our idea out of the blue. So intellectually, I can see what she is talking about. The question is: is part of that just necessary to be in wilderness for ecological, spiritual and those human kinds of reasons?

BR: If wilderness advocates could find a way to bring mountain bikers into the fold, that would be a powerful force. Could that happen?
JF: That's an astute political analysis to me. If you can take the mountain bike folks, and say what you want is different from the motorized folks, and find a way that they can live with something that then brings them into the coalition, that is a big move, I think. And I gather the mountain bikers are actually split on this. Some of them are sort of traditional wilderness types, and others are younger, probably more in the kind of experiential side of the whole thing. And that's who we are right now.

BR: As a political scientist, what was your take on the controversy over allowing filming in the wilderness?
JF: Under this logic Ansell Adams wouldn't have been allowed to go into the wilderness to take the pictures that helped create the Wilderness Act. It was his pictures in part that provided some of the impetus to pass the Wilderness Act.

I know the Forest Service pretty well, and a lot of those guys are friends of mine; they have had great leaders. That is probably a sign of a changed culture in that agency, where the astute managers – they are still there, I think the Chief is certainly that way – have been replaced sometimes by people who are more bureaucratic. It happens at universities, it happens everywhere, but that was kind of a ludicrous decision, if you read the Wilderness Act.

It used to have, and still does – I had dinner with the Chief as part of the Andrus Conference – it has great leaders still at certain levels, and it has risk takers and these kind of larger-than-life outdoorsy; but now there's sort of a bureaucratic culture.

I don't think they reward the kind of risk takers that they used to. It's more about people who punch tickets to get into positions of authority, without really experiencing what it is to be in that agency. They've had their budgets cut a lot, they've lost good people out of frustration, and that sort of sets the stage for this in a way, a kind of inside-the-office interpretation of a rule rather than the historic context from Ansell Adams to you guys and about why it is important to be out there.

BR: One question I hear a lot, why can't the state manage these lands?
JF: To me there's an historic reason why they don't, but this is pure politics, okay? If the state managed these lands, there would be different outcomes, different winners and losers. Some people celebrate that. Other people don't like that idea, and it is that simple. Can the state do it better? No. Would the state do it worse? No. But it would be different.

People forget Idaho doesn't have a lot of experience with the kind of multiple use management that the Forest Service does. State parks could do some things, but they are a tiny little agency. The Department of Lands manages the Idaho lands for revenue production. That's a trust. Some people like that idea, but you may get different outcomes unless you could conceive of a different kind of trust. I think it is really more that there are different winners and losers in that kind of outcome. And I think people also forget that this was national land before it was state land. It was not ever taken away from Idaho.

BR: Are you worried about what the future holds for wilderness?
JF: No, but I will remind people that a good friend of mine, Gregg Cawley, a professor at Wyoming, was at a conference once and a Forest Service guy got up and said, God created wilderness. And Greg said, actually that is not true. God creates trees. Congress creates wilderness.

So, in that sense, we all have to remember wilderness is a legal concept as much as it is an outside concept. I think the politics right now is clearly to at least keep what we've got in the system the way it is. But it could be abolished tomorrow. It's a law. You abolish the Wilderness Act, and there's no more wilderness, and people need to remember that.