From the remote Spotted Bear Ranger Station, District Ranger Deb Mucklow spends each summer overseeing more than one million acres within the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
The Lower 48’s third-largest wilderness complex has become a star attraction for Northwest Montana.
But as the Spotted Bear District ranger, Mucklow emphasized the difficulty in balancing human activities with the integrity of the primeval area during a recent presentation hosted by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation.
“Wilderness is something that each one of us has a special meaning and value for,” Mucklow told the crowd of roughly 40. “I thought it would be important for me to share some of the recent controversies and past controversies that I’ve had.”
Per the federal Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness areas receive a high level of regulatory protection, with permitted uses mostly limited to hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and riding horses. Motorized equipment, mechanized vehicles (including bicycles and wagons) and installing structures are explicitly prohibited, with some exceptions.
Because of this, Mucklow said that putting out wildfires is a major source of controversy. Conservationists have criticized the Forest Service over fire suppression tactics including fire retardant, gas-powered sprinkler systems to save bridges and helicopters to drop water, cargo and firefighters.
“I hesitate to show you this, but I will. You see a color difference here?” she asked, pointing to a slide showing a portion of forest that burned during the massive 2003 wildfires. “There was a drop of retardant on that, so we’re going to have retardant residuals for a few seasons before Mother Nature steps in.”
Recent changes in technology also pose novel problems for wilderness officials, with new tools that allow isolated wilderness users to call for help.
Mucklow recounted several episodes of hikers who had unnecessarily activated the emergency function on their check-in device, which often calls for a medical helicopter to airlift the distraught person from the wilderness.
In one case, she said forest officials even received backlash for allowing a medical helicopter to rescue a man who had been repeatedly attacked in his tent by a black bear, although she conceded that the man failed to keep all his food in a bear-safe location.
Media coverage of several such helicopter episodes prompted some environmentalists to start calling the district “the Disneyland of the wilderness,” a label Mucklow laughed off.
She added that backpackers have brought in battery-operated hand saws and other power tools, as well as propane-heated showers, which tend to fall in a legal gray area as far as wilderness regulations are concerned.
“They’re not illegal, and you can’t regulate that kind of thing, but where does our land stewardship and those ethics come in, and how do you educate those folks?” she asked.
Mucklow said “the Bob” serves as a flagship model for other wilderness areas in the United States as land managers devise strategies for mitigating human impacts, although she noted that the system of surveys her office uses for gauging visitors’ attitudes is far from advanced.
The Forest Service mailed out surveys in 1970, 1982 and 2003-04 to determine data such as the most-used trailheads, rates of return, encounters with other visitors and motivations for visiting. Looking at those three sample years, the results paint a rough picture of how expectations and perceptions have changed over the half-century since official wilderness designation.
While most of the responses were relatively stable over those years, Mucklow noted that visitors to the wilderness are increasingly “older, more experienced and higher-educated,” particularly during the two decades between the last two surveys. A full 62 percent of those surveyed had four-year college degrees or higher.
Another noticeable shift was that wilderness users are trending toward shorter, more frequent stays.
“In 1970, the typical number of nights [spent camping] was 5.1, compared with 2004 to an average 3.3,” Mucklow said. “I think in today’s society, the hurry-up mode and people’s schedules and time frames where it’s ‘go in, go out,’ maybe we don’t take as much time to stop and enjoy the view or enjoy the roses. Sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves that wilderness can help us do that.”
Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.