As I write these words, several key wild places are under threat. It’s time to buckle down and act.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. The threats to these wild places are big and complex. In some cases, they’ve been building for years; in others, what outdoors lovers notched as a victory years ago—or in one case, decades—has suddenly become under threat again. And processes—laws, policies, management plans, and lawsuits—move slowly. Saving these places is a long haul.
That’s the bad news. Now here’s the good news. First of all, you don’t have to be an expert—each of these places has a “quarterback”: an organization or coalition that has been organizing people, following the process, and navigating the detailed world of Environmental Impact Statements, Dam releases for salmon, and other details. The second is that all of these places have benefits more than just to wildlife. They provide real, tangible economic benefits that sustain people’s livelihoods.
Here’s where they are, and what you can do, and who to contact
Bristol Bay, Alaska
Why does it matter? Bristol Bay is in the southwest corner of Alaska—a remote, rugged place many of us will likely never visit. But even if we don’t we still benefit from it. Bristol Bay is far and away the greatest salmon fishery in the world. Alaska produces 80% of the world’s supply of wild sockeye, king and Coho salmon—and Bristol Bay is its largest fishery. Last year, the Bay produces 43 million salmon, worth $283 million alone—and that’s just the value of the fish, not the long economic ripple effect of fishing salaries and the investment in boats and gear. Alaska set Bristol Bay aside decades ago as a fisheries reserve.
The Threat? The threat is a proposal called the Pebble Mine, which would mine 11 billion tons of copper and gold upstream of Bristol Bay. Mining gold and copper is a nasty business, involving toxic mine tailings. After the Mount Polley Mine Disaster in 2014 when a dam holding back tailings failed and released arsenic and selenium into British Columbia’s Cariboo River, the Obama White House killed the Pebble Mine. But the Trump administration revived it. The money from salmon fisheries is worth far more than the revenue the mine would generate, but fish don’t have the same corporate lobbyists.
What’s Happening Now? The EPA recently released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that largely ignored studies that showed there would be no way to operate the mine without damaging salmon runs. Fishing and environmental businesses, including many outdoor companies, are likely to sue.
Who To Contact to Help? Save Bristol Bay
Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness, Minnesota
Why does it matter? The Boundary Waters is the most frequently visited wilderness area in the world. It holds 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 2000 designated campsites, and populations of moose, loons, and other wildlife in 1.1 million acres—and that’s only part of a larger wilderness complex that includes Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. Boundary Waters generates $913 million in tourism every year and 17,000 jobs in northern Minnesota.
The Threat: Another copper mine. This one is proposed upstream of the park just outside the boundary, upstream, on the Kawishiwi River. The copper here contains sulfide—which, when exposed to air or water, releases sulfuric acid.
What’s Happening Now? In a story that will sound familiar, mining leases were rejected by the Obama administration but reinstated by the Trump appointees.
Who To Contact to Help?
Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears’ Ears National Monuments, Utah.
Why does it matter? Immortalized by the writings of Edward Abbey and the explorer Everett Ruess, these monuments are a complex maze of redrock canyons that can absorb decades of backpacking, mountain biking, and canyoneering. In 1996, Bill Clinton, under the Antiquities Act, declared Grand Staircase-Escalante a National Monument; Obama followed suit with Bears’ Ears. In the ensuing years, outfitting businesses have sprung up in nearby towns like Kanab, Escalante, and Boulder, UT.
The Threat: In 2017, the Trump administration issued a proclamation shrinking the boundaries of the Monument that Clinton had established, and opening many areas inside the monument and outside the new borders to oil and gas drilling. But the threat is actually a threat to all National Monuments. Trump issued this by proclamation, without going through Congress. The Antiquities Act, which gave the President authority to create National Monuments with the stroke of a pen, didn’t give them the right to eliminate or shrink them—which means it could happen anywhere.
What’s Happening Now? This one will inevitably wind its way through the court system, which will be expensive for conservation groups. When the Governor of Utah refused to defend the monuments, despite a huge portion of the state’s economy coming from outdoor recreation, the outdoor industry flexed its muscles, moving the lucrative Outdoor Retailer trade show to Colorado.
Who To Contact to Help? Grand Canyon Trust
Willamette River, Oregon
Why does it matter? 70% of Oregon’s population lives along the Willamette River, which flows through the heart of Oregon: namely the cities of Eugene, Springfield, Corvallis, Salem, and Portland.
The Threat: Salmon populations in the Willamette system, with clear, cool spawning streams high in the Cascades, are dwindling due to the way the dams in the Willamette Basin are operated. What was once an estimated annual run of nearly 400,000 spring Chinook salmon up the Willamette has dwindled to a few thousand naturally reproducing fish. Most of the dams are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, which affect the movement of salmon, both as they head to the sea and return to spawn. The Corps has been slow to make improvements for fish passage and to adjust flows to allow salmon to move downstream and return from the sea.
What’s Happening Now? A coalition of fishing groups, river conservationists, and communities along the river are pressuring the Corps to improve their management.
Who To Contact to Help? Willamette Riverkeeper