An Interview with Craig Gehrke

Craig Gehrke is the regional director of the Wilderness Society. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2010.

Craig Gehrke

Bruce Reichert: Is the battle for wilderness different today than it was in the 1960's, when the first wilderness areas were established?
Craig Gehrke: I think the fundamentals stay the same, that this is an area that we should step forward and protect. I think the conflicts are greater because the population has grown and the uses of the land have changed. A good example: there weren't mountain bikes in 1964, and they're an issue now with wilderness. So I think fundamentally the approach comes to identifying an area and beginning to build a constituency for it. That has always been what we do.

BR: Back then we had Democrat Frank Church. Today we have Republicans Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson. What's changed?
CG: I think they are a little different only in terms of there is more of an upfront acknowledgment that Senator Crapo and Congressman Simpson want to address a lot of different problems right now through wilderness legislation.

There was a little bit of that when they did the Sawtooths and when they did Hells Canyon. The designation of a place, the protection of a place is always at the heart of the matter, but then they are also listening to all these other constituents saying, what can we do to make you comfortable with this? And I think there is more open acknowledgment that that is what you have to do these days.

BR: What do you tell a younger generation of Idahoans about wilderness?
CG: The places we kind of take for granted these days, like the Sawtooth Wilderness or the Hells Canyon Wilderness, didn't just happen. It happened because people spoke up and said we're going to affirmatively protect these places. And that's kind of what we tell people now; the White Clouds or the Owyhees that we want to see left alone, we can't just rely on their remoteness to do that. We need to come forward and take steps to make sure that Congress makes that designation as wilderness.

BR: When do we know that we have enough wilderness in the state?
CG: We'll know we have enough wilderness when there aren't a group of people who get behind an area and start promoting its protection, because that is always the way it worked. When those constituencies for areas don't start bubbling up, then that will tell me that that is enough wilderness.

I'm just glad that nobody has ever decided back in 1964 with the charter areas – well, that's enough wilderness, because if that had happened, we'd have dams in Hells Canyon now. I hate to think what the Middle Fork of the Salmon would look like had it not been put in the Frank Church wilderness.

Peoples' needs for wilderness change,and it really comes down to if somebody is going to promote Borah Peak wilderness, they will make it happen; the Pioneer Mountains, it will come up, and it will start to get legs, or it won't.

When people find special places, they will organize around for their protection. Scotchman Peak is a perfect example. It is a total grassroots effort out of Sandpoint to step forward and say, we want to see Scotchman as wilderness. It didn't come from me, it didn't come from an organized group to say let's go pick this one up. It was totally folks in the local area.

Owyhee Canyonland Wilderness AreaBR: How did the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness come to be in the original group of wilderness areas in 1964?
CG: The Selway-Bitterroot was a great example of why we wanted congressional designation of wilderness; the Forest Service was slicing chunks off the Selway-Bitterroot when they could still do that administratively. As they developed more of a timber attitude toward the land, it really helped galvanize people in Lewiston, in Missoula, in Hamilton, to start saying, we want to see the Selway- Bitterroot designated as wilderness. Folks came in and had a controversy about the Magruder Corridor, because there were proposed projects on both sides of the Magruder Corridor that went into what now is wilderness. Folks like Doris Milner in Montana and Mort Brigham in Lewiston come forward and said, that is wild country. We should be protecting it.

BR: The River of No Return wilderness in 1980 was quite controversial, wasn't it?
CG: It was very controversial at the time. There were pretty raucous town meetings about it, and it was tough, and I use that as a lesson now, that all the wilderness discussions have been controversial; but now 30 years later, I don't know anybody who would argue that that was a bad decision. I think people were glad that that happened.

I think we're seeing a lot of controversy with the Boulder White Clouds right now. Ten, 15 years from now, people are going to be glad we designated the Boulder White Clouds as wilderness. Had we not done that in Hells Canyon, I'm convinced there would have been more dams on the Snake River. So nobody I know is sorry we made the decision to protect Hells Canyon or set aside the Sawtooth Wilderness areas, and I think that is the way it is always going to turn out.

These are tough decisions now, and they're controversial. People stake out their positions, and there are a lot of shots fired back and forth. In the end I can't think of a single area that people say, ah, that was a mistake.

BR: The trouble with wilderness for many folks is that it's not managed, and pine beetle infestations can do significant damage, which leads to massive wildfires.
CG: Managing better implies a tremendous amount of control of nature that I think ultimately has proved to be foolish. You can't log your way to getting rid of all the bugs out of the forest. Bugs have been there, and they will be there. The same way with fire; there is always going to be some level of fire.

The wilderness area is going to continue to be a place where we see what a forest is supposed to look like. What's a water shed supposed to act like after a big fire?

It's a laboratory, and it will always be a laboratory to find out what a forest is supposed to look like. We'll have lots of managed forests in the state. Eight million acres at least of national forest land that is managed to see what they do. I still argue that we need to learn something by watching what happens when we don't build roads, when we don't cut trees. What is the long term? Bugs and fire were here long before we got here, and they'll be here long after we're all gone.

BR: What's your perspective on filming in the wilderness?
CG: The Wilderness Act allows for, puts wilderness aside for educational uses, so I think part of the work that this public TV or other entities do to educate people I think is entirely appropriate in wilderness. I think everything else looks like, okay how does this fit in with protecting wilderness values? That is always going to be a threshold, but it would seem to me to be one that is going to be pretty easy to meet.

Now, I don't want to see reality shows filming in the wilderness under the guise of education, but that is going to be a common sense question. My first reaction was, the Forest Service approved helicopters to capture, radio collar, and track wolves last winter, and yet they are upset about a camera man walking into film something? Something is not right here. This is kind of arbitrary.

The Forest Service, to give them credit, is looking at that policy now. They've got a new draft policy out for a few months, and we've taken a look at it, and we think it really defines a lot better what is appropriate in wilderness.

BR: Mountain bikes have got to be a real problem for wilderness advocates, because they are not allowed in the wilderness, since they are mechanized. Is there a way to bring them into the fold?
CG: The way we've done it – and I'm not saying it is the perfect way – we've found the really high-use trails and said, okay this is not going to be wilderness. The Fisher-Williams Loop in the White Clouds is an example. That has been out of the conservation wilderness proposal for probably 10 years now, since this is a pretty widely used trail.

But there is just going to be kind of an inherent conflict because of the fact that they are mechanized. If you come up with a designation that is kind of "wilderness light," that would allow mountain bikes, as an organization we're not ready to embrace that yet, as a wholesale way to solve this problem.

So, we still think wilderness works, and the way to address the mountain bike concerns is try to sit down and find a way to exclude a trail based on long standing use. You are right, it would be a powerful constituency to get it on board, and we're just not quite there yet.

A group of motorbikers ride through a forest in the wildernessBR: How hard did the Wilderness Society have to swallow to support the Boulder-White Clouds proposal?
CG: We had to swallow pretty hard on Congressman Simpson's package, and maybe that defines it as a good compromise. Fundamentally, it is better than the status quo because we see areas permanently protected. We lost places – Champion Lake is a good example - one place that the agency had actually recommended for wilderness, but will be left out now because of snowmobile use in it.

And that is mostly what drove the Owyhee decision too; at some point you get to a package that says, yeah, this is pretty good.

BR: If no one is attacking or threatening the White Clouds, what's the need to designate it as wilderness?
CG: As a wilderness supporter, I see motorized recreation as being an attack. We see the escalating snowmobile use, trail bike use, escalating cross-country ATV use in some of the lower country as being the attack.

Places don't protect themselves anymore. A good example: when we'd first drawn a forest plan in the 1980's, we didn't pay attention to where snowmobiles went when they made wilderness recommendations, because the machines were not nearly as powerful as they are now, and we didn't worry too much about it. We got our clocks cleaned, because by the time they revised them, machines were going further and further into the back country; they had established far more use and they were a real problem then – and I'm not going to make that mistake again by thinking the land will protect itself. I have no doubt right now somebody is thinking an even more powerful motorized thing with wheels on it that will get somebody further into the back country that we will be dealing with 10, 15 years from now.

BR: What did the Owyhee wilderness legislation signify to you?
CG: I think it really signified that people who thought they had nothing in common could sit down and come up with a joint proposal that each entity got something and could move it forward together. It showed that a really almost seemingly impossible collaborative effort could succeed.

BR: It also seemed to make your organization a force of moderation.
CG: Personally, I had to bring the Wilderness Society to a long-term collaboration with people who appeared pretty remote that we were going to get there; and I think both the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society pushed the envelope to the edges of the comfort for the organization when we started this. As we kept getting more and more accomplished, the organizations clearly kept supporting it.

BR: So you matured?
CG: I think that is accurate. I think we said we need to be more open to different ways of doing our work. We still stand up occasionally and file a lawsuit over something, but I think we do more seriously think the investment in a more collaborative approach is at least worth exploring when these difficult issues come up. I think the point that we grew up, we tried things differently, is a fair statement to make.

BR: You may have succeeded, but didn't you also take off the table a great way to raise money?
CG: It is hard because we still get people who don't renew their membership because they think we are too moderate now, and that is the breaks. We're not going to please everybody all the time. People are free to make that choice.

The group is behind the Owyhees and behind the White Clouds. We have taken a lot of hits from other groups to the left of us, and we'll continue to do that, and we just had a respectful parting of the ways with those groups that we might have worked closer with back in the '80's. That's just the way it is going to be, because we think we've hit on something here to actually get things done; and it is certainly tough, but I feel if we're getting results, it is worth trying it, it is worth sacrificing some folks who think we're not standing up enough, because ultimately it is not about whether you are pure enough or whether you are mean enough, but what you actually get done on the ground.

BR: What is the lasting legacy of the Owyhee Initiative?
CG: Landscapes like the Bruneau Canyon or the East fork of the Owyhee are just spectacular, and they are always going to be that way now. Nobody is going to come in with a dam proposal, nobody is going to come in and want to open up a mine someplace in there. I think that is going to be the legacy.

Again, folks step forward and say this place is special enough it deserves to be left alone. We're going to manage it for that. We're going to put it up to a higher standard than regular BLM land and work to protect it. I think that is going to be the lasting part of the Owyhees.

BR: How do you keep a user group from coming in at the last minute and torpedoing the collaboration?
CG: A proposal will be able to take that kind of hit or it won't. We had some of that with the Owyhees the first time it was introduced in Congress. We had groups like American Rivers come in with some strong concerns, complaints about it. We had to go back and fix that.

At some point your proposal becomes solid enough that you can take the hits. It is frustrating to think you've worked – again, in the case of the White Clouds – for 10 years, you've gotten agreement with most of the players here, and yet at the last minute something comes up, and you get derailed. The best you can do is say, okay what can we deal with here? Do they have a point that we have to deal with? You evaluate it, and you keep moving forward. But it is frustrating. We've had it done to us. We've done it to others, too. That is the process, as imperfect as it is.

BR: What is next for wilderness advocates in the state?
CG: I think in the immediate future we want to see the White Clouds cross the finish line, because it is certainly time for the White Clouds to be designated as wilderness.

We're involved in other collaborative efforts for the Clearwater Basin. Looking at the lands of the North Fork, Clearwater and some of the tributaries of the Selway and we've been meeting. It has been going on for almost 3 years now, trying to kind of replicate what we did in the Owyhees, and we're hoping that in the next session of Congress we'll have a proposal ready.

Scotchman's Peak would be ready to go if the Montana side could come together, but there could be a proposal for wilderness for Scotchman's Peak soon.

BR: You've got to be one of the most patient people in the world.
CG: You've got to take a very long view of this and not get too fixated on the politics of the moment, because they will change.