Mike Beagle is nobody’s idea of a tree hugger. He grew up hunting and fishing around rural Eagle Point, Oregon, and was a star defensive back for his high school football team for four years running before he joined the U.S. Army and served as a field artillery officer with the 9th Infantry Division.
But Beagle’s love of the land belies stereotypes and led him, when he returned home in 1989, to found Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, an all-volunteer organization with members in forty states whose goal is to “keep public lands healthy and accessible.” It’s a mission that increasingly has led Beagle and many like him across the United States to realize that the things he values give him common cause with people across an array of political labels.
For the Hewlett Environment Program’s grantee Campaign for America’s Wilderness, partners like Mike Beagle mark a deliberate return to the roots of the wilderness protection movement, born with deep bipartisan support when Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Campaign for America’s Wilderness, founded in 2002 specifically to create a nonpartisan agenda for wilderness protection, has had great success in recent years with a grassroots strategy: broadening its constituency by involving a range of sportsmen and other people in the local, often rural, communities near the lands to be protected. These days, the Campaign has working relationships with everyone from hunters in New Mexico and anglers in Oregon to county commissioners in Idaho and rural town mayors in more than a dozen states.
“If you trace wilderness history back to the beginning, it has always been a bipartisan issue,” says Ken Rait, the campaigns director for the Campaign for America’s Wilderness. Rait notes that the Wilderness Act itself was introduced by Congressman John Saylor, a conservative Republican from western Pennsylvania, and by Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, an archetypical liberal Democrat.
“Our mission is to work with local groups to protect as much wilderness as possible, and sometimes environmentalists don’t make the best spokespeople,” says Rait. “People in these areas don’t appreciate wilderness bills being beamed at them from over the hill.”
Protecting the Wilderness from the Bottom Up
Wilderness lands are saved from the bottom up, Rait says: “Local people identify areas that are precious to them for natural, recreational, spiritual, sanctuary reasons, and they develop local proposals to protect those values. We help provide the campaigning skills-outreach, coalition building, economic analysis, public opinion research, communications skills-when and if they are needed, and help the local partners make the connection to the national policymaking process.”
It’s also more effective at the other end of the process, he observes: “Often the areas we want to protect are in the congressional districts of very conservative members, and Congress doesn’t want to take action against the wishes of the local congressperson.”
All that makes sense to Beagle.
“We’re open to working with the Campaign,” he said recently from his home in Oregon. “We’ve worked together behind the scenes a lot of the time. The Campaign people don’t rant and complain about specific politicians. They have a refreshing viewpoint-and that’s how you get things done.”
Rait and Doug Scott, the policy director for the Campaign, together tell the story of how the movement to save wilderness lost its way.
Rait says most successes in protecting federal wilderness land came in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when the work went into what he termed “a virtual slumber.” Scott says part of the reason was that the rise of then interior secretary James Watt and the increasingly polarized political environment in Washington, D.C., made additional progress under the Wilderness Act all but impossible.
As a result, Rait says, groups working to gain wilderness designations on federal lands started to rely less on the Wilderness Act and more on other approaches, like the Endangered Species Act, and later, President Clinton’s ability to make protection designations under the Antiquities Act, none of which offer protection as complete at the Wilderness Act.
“We were created because we thought our community was losing fluency in winning wilderness designations,” Rait says. “And that’s crucial because that’s the gold standard for land protection.”
The Rebirth of a Broad-Based Movement
Today Rait says local collaborations include working side by side with Trout Unlimited in Oregon to support the proposed Copper Salmon Wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and, in New Mexico, with hunters in the New Mexico Wildlife Federation to save the “spectacular wild lands” in Doña Ana County. In addition, the Campaign has joined with the Washington Coalition of Citizens With Disabilities in Washington State to protect the Wild Sky Wilderness in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
The Campaign also has worked with vintners and outdoor clothing and gear manufacturers in California to protect pristine lands of the north coast of California and the eastern Sierra.
Scott, who has worked on wilderness issues for forty years, says broadening the movement and working to support grassroots efforts has resulted in a “renaissance” for wilderness protection: “There is now a degree of vibrancy in the grassroots wilderness movement that’s unparalleled.”
He says that legislation to protect more than 1.8 million acres of land around the country currently has passed initial hurdles and is being considered in Congress-more than at the midpoint of any previous congressional session-although he acknowledges that not all of it would be likely to find its way to enactment.
To Rait, the key is to ignore the labels and come together over common goals.
“If you had told me ten years ago that I’d be talking to a rural board of county commissioners about wilderness, I would have thought you were crazy,” he says, recalling a recent trip he made to Alaska to do just that. “But we feel very strongly that wilderness is something that’s very much in their interest. It won’t create their economic future, but it will be part of it.”