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Monday, August 20, 2012

In Search of Wilderness

Leaving Seattle on I-90 east, the gray clouds barely visible through the towering fir trees, I was lulled to sleep. I awoke an hour later to a cloudless blue sky stretching far over a flat, dry, dusty landscape. A sea of sage floods our view and our nostrils, and it becomes clear that the next few days will be hotter and dustier than what we were used to.

We journeyed to eastern Washington in search of wilderness. Our mission was to seek out two different expanses of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and take inventory of any “Wilderness characteristics” that these lands might possess. The goal of the mission was to document these “Wilderness characteristics” in hopes of demonstrating to the BLM that these expanses of land should be managed as congressionally designated, permanently protected Wilderness. Known as a “citizens inventory” in BLM speak, this process is sanctioned by the BLM. Washington Wild decided to conduct a “citizens inventory” of the BLM lands spread throughout eastern Washington on behalf of our 10,000 members and supporters. 

On this first trip, we ventured into two BLM-managed areas known as Beezley Hills and the Duffy and Douglas Creek Recreation Areas. These parcels of land were well over 5,000 acres of contiguous land, a requirement set by the BLM for lands that are eligible for a “citizens inventory”. The process of surveying these lands involved traveling previously marked roads within the land boundaries and taking photo evidence of their current condition. We found that more often than not the roads were hardly usable and, if anything, could be considered a hiking trail or a thruway. We also assessed the land for its “naturalness” and “potential for solitude.”  Both of these qualifiers relate to the properties of Wilderness and the experience one could have while enjoying these lands. Finally, we noted any human disturbances and potential for passive recreation (recreation that does not involve any use of mechanized equipment).
 
On day one, we visited the area known as Beezley Hills, which is located to the northeast of the town of Quincy, Washington. After some navigational confusion and roads that seemed to end too soon, we stumbled across a gate with BLM insignia upon it. The hilly geography of this area seemed to hold a huge amount of potential for hiking and other recreation, and most importantly, for solitude. There were several places deep in the sage brush where one would be hard-pressed to locate any sign of civilization.

Days two and three brought us to a new piece of land, the Douglas and Duffy Creek recreation areas. We found many challenges with accessing this area, and found our attempts thwarted on more than one occasion. We did successfully test the waters of Douglas Creek in a well-deserved swim break, as well as on another occasion when we found the creek to flow directly over the road, rendering it impassable. This area was clearly designated for recreational use, and it was understandable why. The presence of water brought shade trees and wildlife, and the surrounding hills brought an open expanse of untouched grassland, ideal for aimless wandering.

The most memorable sight of the trip for me wasn’t the potential wilderness characteristics of the BLM lands, of which there were many, but rather the areas that had already surrendered to large-scale cultivation of one or two crops, which brings with it many unintentional negative impacts, including topsoil depletion. As we drove through the flat land en route to our destinations, clouds of dust flanked the roads - massive clouds that evoked the smoke of a forest fire. These plumes of dust loomed ominously in the distance until we crested a rise in the landscape and saw their origin: a tiny tractor, putting along on its day’s work.

Some clouds, however, weren’t caused by intentional upset of the soil, but rather simply by the wind. Tall dust twisters were common, miniature tornados that stirred a mixture of fear and Wizard of Oz wonder. Lacking vegetation to keep the dirt where it belongs, the vulnerable soil lays exposed to the whim of the elements. One of our most precious resources, topsoil, is literally going up in smoke, and it is no wonder we need more protection of the lands located out here. We can’t afford to lose all of our future to the wind.

Washington Wild plans to conduct “citizens inventory” on at least four more BLM managed areas located in eastern Washington. After conducting the inventories, WW will send a report to the BLM documenting our findings. WW will make recommendations on which areas have enough “naturalness” and “opportunities for solitude” to be managed by the BLM as “lands with wilderness characteristics”. Eventually, these lands will be nominated for permanent protection as a federally designated Wilderness area. WW hopes that this work will help introduce our statewide supporters to the lesser-known public lands that the BLM manages and that hold tremendous natural beauty and opportunities for passive recreation. Please consider joining Washington Wild today and help us venture into this new territory and expand Wilderness protections to more areas in our great state. 

Phoebe Reid is an Education Intern for Washington Wild. She is currently pursuing a Geography and Environmental Studies degree at Dartmouth College and hopes to pursue a career in sustainable international development and food systems.

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