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Friday, July 3, 2009

Conservation Voice: Ken Gersten

posted by Amber Benson

Rambling Thoughts on Wilderness

Twenty five years may seem like a long time. But here in Washington people like you and me have been working to protect wild lands since the early 1900s. Still there is a lot to celebrate with the passage of the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act.

Work on the 1984 Washington State Wilderness Act started in 1976 as soon as the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Act passed. Or maybe each bit of protection was just a step along a continuing road to a goal that keeps changing--. We saw wildlands protection with the creation of Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks. The Wilderness Act of 1964 gave us additional acreage and another tool to preserve wilderness. It was followed by North Cascades National Park and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

But the 1984 bill was a little different. Past Previous efforts, both in Washington and elsewhere, were focused on a single area or localized group of areas. During the late 1970s the US Forest Service conducted a nationwide inventory of roadless areas, resulting in a set of Wilderness recommendations that was totally inadequate. But the mood in Congress was to try to end the debate by passing state-wide wilderness bills.

Many of us knew then and history has shown that the debate did not end then. And it still is has not ended. But the work in the early 1980s was special. It was a state-wide grassroots organizing effort composed of lots of local efforts. I don’t know if this is correct, but former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal is credited with saying that “all politics is local.” Here in Washington, in terms of wilderness, that means that whichever Congressional Representatives has an area in his or her district have significant influence over whether what will it can be be designated as Wilderness in their districts. That means local organizing is needed, to convince Representatives to propose designations, which is what we did. So if you were part of the local effort to protect the Mt Baker area or the Boulder River or the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth or the Clearwater or any of the other areas in the Act, you deserve a special thank you today. If you were in Seattle or some other part of the state your work was still essential. Senator’s, who are as important as House Members, represent the entire state, and our Senators in 1984 played important roles in passing the 1984 Act.

So where does that leave us today? We are back to protecting areas one at a time. The Wild Sky Act was just the first and I look forward to celebrating the 25th anniversary of it’s passage. But we have many more areas to protect and a very different political environment.

This week, Al Franken was declared the winner of the Minnesota Senate race, giving the Democrats their first filibuster-proof majority in recent memory. Progressive Democrats also control the House of Representative and we have an environmentalist in the White House. So it should be easy to get areas protected, right?

Wrong. With the economy, health care and war at the top of the agenda, a Supreme Court vacancy and the Bush agenda to undo, Congress and the President have a very full plate. We also must remember how technology has changed the process. We used to communicate with Members of Congress by mail. We would get lots of folks to write letters and the Member’s staff would read them and track the mood of the folks back home. As phone calls got cheaper we flooded them with calls. But now they get flooded with everything including email, calls, tweets, etc. And we are far from the only interest group. So we need to work harder and better to get our agenda at the top of their agenda. How do we do that? The same way as always, --we organize. Nothing has changed but the tools.

When I helped found the WWC 30 years ago, my mantra was “organizing is the key to success.” I still believe it that is true. But what is organizing? I have been told that Cesar Chavez, the leader of the Farm Workers organizing efforts would say, “you talk to one person, then another person, then another person.” And that is what we need to do. And each person we talk to needs to be asked to communicate with their elected officials and help get others to do the same.

If we do enough talking we will get wilderness protection to the top of the agenda, just as we did with the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, the North Cascades National Park Act, and, 25 years ago, with the Washington Wilderness Act. So let’s celebrate, renew our energy and go back for more.

-Ken Gersten
Co-founder, Washington Wilderness Coalition

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