Great letter from Arkansas Wilderness Pioneer - Tom McClure Feb 26. 2013 | Comments (0)
102 Ruth Lane
Rogers, AR, 72756
February 25, 2013
Mr. Kevin Cheri, Park Superintendent
Buffalo National River
402 N. Walnut Street, Suite 136
Harrison, AR 72601
Dear Mr. Cheri,
Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with Chris Tullgren and me on Friday. Please pass along my thanks to Chuck Bitting and Tony Collins for being at the meeting as well. I now have a much better idea about the wilderness management plan for the Lower Buffalo Wilderness, and the planned burn scheduled for March, 2013.
I appreciate very much the commitment that all three of you obviously have to taking care of the Wilderness. I also appreciate your willingness to listen to our concerns and ideas. I know Chris does too.
Regarding the burn, I am still opposed to it and ask that you please consider canceling it. It seems to me that an ongoing program of burning in the Wilderness is not in keeping with the intent of the 1964 Wilderness Act. I can see where fire might need to be used to reduce fuel on the forest floor in the immediate area of a house that is very close to the wilderness boundary. I think fire should also be considered as one possible tool, if mechanical efforts fail, for use if there happened to be a severe outbreak of some kind of invasive, nonnative species, like kudzu. But aside from these unusual situations, I think wilderness should be managed by allowing nature to take its course. And that includes allowing lightning fires to burn. If there is a worry that such a fire could damage nearby private property, then the fuel loads could be reduced by a prescribed fire at the junction of the Wilderness and the private land. This “reduced fuel zone” could be on the private land, on Park Service land outside the wilderness, or as a last resort in the wilderness itself, but only in the immediate area where it borders private land, and of the minimal size necessary to provide a suitable firebreak.
I know there is a concern about losing some of the glades in the Wilderness if prescribed fire is not used. And I agree that may happen. But there are many other glade communities on public lands in the Ozarks that are not in designated wilderness, in other parts of the Buffalo National River, The Ozark National Forest, and the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. There are also glades in some Arkansas state parks and wildlife management areas, as well as in some Missouri state parks and Conservation Department lands. Almost all of these can be managed by prescribed fire to help promote glade ecosystems. There are also glade communities present over much of the Ozark region on private lands, where landowners could be encouraged to use fire, or other means, to provide better habitat for glade dependent species.
The wildlife habitat that is provided in a wilderness will no doubt be different that that being supplied in a managed landscape. Nature is unpredictable and future conditions are unknown. But different is not necessarily bad. By allowing the forces of nature to shape the land by lightning fires, wind storms, and ice storms, we will be able to get a better picture of how nature functions on its own. Nature will craft its own mosaic, always changing, and probably unlike what would be seen on surrounding lands being managed and impacted by people.
Some species may do quite well in wilderness. Some species may need wildness more than others. Some may need old trees “den trees” more than others, or logs on the forest floor. Some may be able to find food better. Some may be able to avoid predation better. Some may be able to reproduce better.
How big will the trees grow? What will the soils be like? What plant and animal species will be there and in what numbers? How will they interact with each other and how will they be dependent on each other? If solitude is maintained in the Wilderness, how will less exposure to people affect animal behavior? What will the streams there have in terms of biological diversity, clarity, and water flow volumes? What undiscovered species will show up in the future? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I think we owe it to this and future generations to manage the Lower Buffalo and our other wilderness areas in ways so that we can, over time, have the opportunity to discover some of the answers. Nature will teach us if we have the humility and patience to just sit back and watch.
The Lower Buffalo Wilderness offers an opportunity to see what happens without prescribed fire management, or other intervention by people. The unmanaged wilderness is valuable as a control, or baseline area, that can be compared to areas all across the Ozarks that are managed in various ways. Other wilderness areas in the Ozark National Forest and Mark Twain National Forest are also valuable for this same reason. The total acreage of all the designated wilderness areas in the entire Ozark Region is only a tiny fraction (less than 2%) of the total land area of the Ozarks. So areas like the Lower Buffalo Wilderness are rare, and the opportunity to have a large wilderness area like this in this part of the country is rare. As you know, the combined Lower Buffalo Leatherwood wilderness area is about 60 square miles (39,000 acres) in size, more than twice as large as any other wilderness area in Arkansas or Missouri. It is a wilderness area of regional and national importance and should be kept as wild as possible.
Another concern I have about the current management of the Lower Buffalo is what seems to me to be an overabundance of marked trails. In looking at the National Geographic map, there appears to be a trail extending out almost every major ridge, with several going all the way to the Buffalo River in at least 7 different locations. I know the arguments about providing trails to protect damage to traditional pathways through the forest and to primitive camping areas due to overuse, and I would like to learn more about the recreational challenges you are facing. But with that said, I think the BNR has an obligation in the 1964 Wilderness Act to protect the opportunities for solitude, and physical challenge. Every time another trail is marked on the ground or marked on a map, the opportunity for solitude and the wildness of the place, is diminished. My preference would be to keep the few wilderness areas that we have in the Ozarks as wild as possible. And in my opinion, that means keeping as few marked trails as possible in the Lower Buffalo and other wilderness areas in the BNR, and also in the wilderness areas of the Ozark and Mark Twain National Forests.
It doesn’t mean that people can’t go into the Wilderness, on foot or on horseback. It just means that you go in under the terms of the Wilderness. The intent of the Wilderness Act is to provide solitude and physical challenge, not to make it easier for the visitor to cross it in a day’s time. Horse trails and foot trails can be put in other places, and have been. Why make wilderness just like the more developed areas where so many trails already exist, and which are open to the addition of more trails? As far as providing access to a wilderness, I largely agree with what Wallace Stegner wrote in his “Wilderness Letter”, “But those who haven’t the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply look in……..they can contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of the earth is still there……..We need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
In addition, the Lower Buffalo Wilderness already has exceptional accessibility to the Wilderness by way of the Buffalo River itself. The Wilderness is unusual in this regard by offering river travel as another means of seeing and enjoying the Wilderness. The Buffalo River is a trail in its own right, that is already there, maintains itself, is floatable for most of the year, and can transport a visitor on a 20-mile trip through the heart of the Wilderness. In my view, other trails (hiking and horse) in the Wilderness will only decrease the opportunity for solitude for the visitor who accesses the Wilderness by way of the Buffalo River.
What kind of framework should be in place to make sure the Lower Buffalo Wilderness has the best management possible? It seems to me that there should be some kind of format for regular public involvement, so that all interested parties can discuss on an ongoing basis how to manage all three wilderness areas in Buffalo National River. This format should include staff members from the Ozark National Forest as well, who deal with planning and management of wilderness areas there. I know they will be wrestling with similar issues in the future, especially as their management plans are reworked in the next round of forest planning. We might as well start looking at these issues now and think about how the National Forest wildernesses should be managed in the future. Of course, two of these National Forest wilderness areas, Leatherwood and Upper Buffalo, are contiguous with National Park Service wilderness areas. So it would make sense for both agencies to collaborate where possible in the management of these two connected wildernesses, one at the extreme upper part of the Buffalo River and the other one at the extreme lower part. It is a great thing to still have wild country at both ends of the Buffalo. Our challenge is to keep it that way.