Common Sense appears in Arizona Wilderness Debate         

Published: 08.30.2007

Let's not make areas too restricted

Sportsmen and others who appreciate wildlife and wild lands should oppose creating yet another wilderness in the Tumacácori Highlands.

Only careless thinking or lack of familiarity with existing Forest Service policies could allow anyone to believe a wilderness designation is really about preventing urban sprawl, all-terrain vehicle abuse, power lines, development of National Forest lands or proliferation of forest roads. These issues can be better addressed through other means that would yield fewer unintended consequences.

The principal effect of a wilderness designation will be obstruction of activities designed to restore and maintain wildlife populations and forest health.  

Whether a specific area will benefit from wilderness status depends on the threats facing that area. The principal threat to the Tumacácori Highlands is the flood of smugglers and illegal immigrants. Literally tons of discarded clothing, backpacks, drinking containers and other refuse have left much of this formerly pristine area looking like a public dump. The best protection in the short term would be a reduction in illegal border traffic and a massive cleanup of the mess.

In the longer term, land and wildlife agencies will need to fight fires, carry out controlled burns and conduct research and wildlife-management activities. But restrictions designed to guarantee wilderness connoisseurs that their visits are free of all human sights and sounds make restoration activities more difficult and costly to perform.

As an example, volunteers clearing brush and invasive trees to improve wildlife habitat in wilderness are typically forced to work with hand saws and shears instead of gas-powered chain saws that could accomplish more work faster and with fewer people.

Wilderness restrictions apply to all activities including repair of damage to the landscape. Instead of helping to fix the damage, a wilderness designation will only make fixing the damage more expensive and less likely to be accomplished.

Conflicts inherent in attempting to manage the same land for both wilderness and wildlife have long been subjects of discussion in academic and professional journals. Preservationists favor a hands-off approach to public lands and wildlife, while active-management proponents believe organic elements of the landscape should be managed to some degree, especially where human impacts are already interfering with natural processes.

Many of today's disputes over public-lands policy reflect the differing opinions in these camps as well as the political and cultural tensions between citizens groups aligned with each.

The concept of wilderness is more legal and sociological than biological. Because they are often used as tools in lawsuits, wilderness designations effectively transfer decision-making from natural-resources experts to lawyers and judges.

Wildlife advocates should be especially concerned that lands managed under a wilderness designation give priority to the human wilderness experience above the needs of wildlife. Even on wildlife refuges, where one would expect wildlife to have priority over any other purpose, "wilderness values" trump wildlife.

Currently two wilderness organizations are suing the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge to force removal of two water tanks that were constructed to help save a declining herd of bighorn sheep. Even though the refuge was originally established for sheep and only later designated a wilderness, the suit asks for protection of wilderness areas "from actions that may diminish their wilderness character and ecological value."

This case is merely representative of many lawsuits and administrative challenges filed over the years by preservation activists using wilderness status as a legal footing.

Sportsmen do agree with wilderness activists on one point: the Atascosa, Pajarito and Tumacácori mountains are among Southern Arizona's finest treasures. However, we have learned from experience that some laws restricting human activity can actually harm both land and wildlife by enforcing a policy of neglect that ignores this area's specific needs.

Our wildlife and wild lands deserve better care and treatment than what wilderness designation allows.

Write to Larry Audsley at

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