Time Running Out for Lewis and Clark's Wild Lands

By J.R. Pegg

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, January 16, 2003 (ENS) - Much of the wild America documented 200 years ago by Lewis and Clark has disappeared or is under threat from development or pollution. Vast tracts of forests are gone, rivers have been diverted and polluted, and wildlife is crowded out of historic habitat.

Although there may still time to save some of the remaining species and wild places along the historic trail, conservationists celebrating the bicentennial of the expedition warned that this time is growing short.

forest

The Mallard-Larkins roadless area on the Lewis and Clark Trail is inhabited by Idaho's most important mountain goat population. (Photos courtesy Sierra Club)
"It really is double or nothing time in these lands that Lewis and Clark passed through," said nature writer and conservationist Rick Bass, speaking at the Sierra Club's launch of the expedition's 200 year anniversary celebration.

"It is going to be our last opportunity to protect these lands and this is a huge opportunity. At least we have it. But if we fail this time, that 300 year bicentennial will be a woebegone one at best."

"There is a huge natural heritage that we have squandered," added Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "But we want to protect the wildness we still have, and we want to take more of it back. As Lewis and Clark were great explorers, we can and need to be great restorers."

Wednesday's event in Charlottesville kicked off the far reaching bicentennial commemoration of Lewis and Clark's expedition, with events planned by many organizations all along the trail over the next two years. Launched in 1999, the Sierra Club's Lewis and Clark Wild America Campaign encourages people to visit the landscapes explored by the Corps and to become involved in efforts to save remaining species and places.

Jefferson

President Thomas Jefferson (Three photos courtesy National Park Service (NPS))
On Saturday, Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson located in Charlottesville, will host the nationwide observance of the 200th anniversary of the historic trek to the Pacific. Saturday night at the Charlottesville Performing Arts Center, a live multimedia presentation combines the sights and sounds experienced by Lewis and Clark and the tribes they encountered on the expedition. The performance marks the culmination of a week of activities.

At Monticello Tuesday, the National Park Service launched its Corps of Discovery II traveling exhibit and performance tent which has embarked on a four year journey across the United States. Following along the Lewis and Clark Trail and visiting cities and towns, Corps II will use a combination of mobile museum exhibits, live interpretation, and distance learning to reach out to its audiences.

Today the bicentennial exhibition "Framing the West at Monticello: Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark Expedition" will open in the Entrance Hall of Monticello. The exhibition will re-create the appearance of the "Indian Hall" in which Jefferson displayed items sent back by Lewis and Clark, and will remain in place throughout 2003.

But commemmorating the expedition is not enough for the Sierra Club, which is attempting to safeguard what remains of the once wild lands the explorers found.

"There is a risk that a wave of extinction will pass over the region that was explored by Lewis and Clark," said Dr. John Osborn, a physician, environmental historian and conservationist and Sierra Club's conservation chair for the Northern Rockies chapter. "We need to save these places and we can probably best do it within the context of this bicentennial that is starting this week."

Lewis

Captain Meriwether Lewis was President Thomas Jefferson's private secretary. (Photo courtesy NPS)
On January 18, 1803 President Thomas Jefferson sent a Corps of Discovery, led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to map and explore the vast new territory just acquired from France. During the two and a half year expedition, Lewis and Clark kept detailed records of what they saw, reporting an American landscape rich with diversity and natural beauty.

The Corps traveled some 8,000 miles from Virginia to the Pacific Ocean, mapping forests, prairies and rivers, and describing some 178 trees and plants and 122 animals, many new to Western science.

Clark

William Clark was a self-taught doctor. (Photo courtesy NPS)
But Sierra Club reports that at least 40 percent of the 122 animals documented by Lewis and Clark have some form of official designation warranting concern and protection. Some species, including the passenger pigeon, ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet, Audubon's bighorn sheep and the plains grey wolf are already extinct.

As part of its campaign, Sierra Club has targeted 33 special places along the trail for protection and restoration.

These include Nebraska's Niobrara River, Missouri's Fort Pierre National Grassland, the Garrison Reach of Missouri River, the Bitterroot Range of southwestern Montana, the Lochsa Face in Wyoming and the Columbia River Estuary.

All told, the goal of the campaign is the protection of some 56 million acres of remaining unprotected wild lands and protection of critical plant and animal species.

Chief among the threats to these wild places and their species are continued mining and logging on federal lands. But this should offer a ray of hope to conservationists because "we still own much of this land," Pope said.

river

Nebraska's Niobrara River (Photo courtesy Sierra Club)
This campaign is a direct effort to get people reconnected to a love of wild places, he explained, and to get more Americans directly involved in efforts to protect and restore them. Change must come from the grassroots, Pope said, and this is why the single most important policy issue is the debate over the public's ability to comment on government rules and regulations.

"There is this premise in Washington that the American people are getting in the way of the bureaucracy that is trying to manage our public lands," he said. "But these are our lands. We want to know what is going on and we want our opinions to count because we own these lands."

The interrelation between habitat and species protection is vital and evident all along the Lewis and Clark trail, conservationists said at yesterday's event. Grizzly bears, bison and salmon offer key examples of how habitat destruction has altered the lands once seen by Lewis and Clark.

In the early 19th century, the Great North American Prairie of Nebraska and the Dakotas covered some 400 million acres and featured immense herds of bison, and abundant populations of black tailed prairie dogs, black footed ferrets and interior least terns.

bison

Bison, or buffalo, once covered the plains in great herds.
But today the undeveloped prairie has shrunk to only 550,000 acres, and these species have all suffered. Only some 20,000 bison remain in the wild, and prairie dogs only inhabit one percent of their former range. The black-footed ferret has only recently been reintroduced into the wild, and only some 5,000 interior least terns remain.

Those involved in this campaign and the celebration of the bicentennial see it as a vital opportunity for educating the public on the importance of protecting wild spaces and instilling in them the sense that this must be done now, and not later.

"Mother Earth gives us everything. It gives us life and takes care of us when we die. The animals are a part of us regardless of if we think of them as a living thing or something that is just running around on the plains," said Darrel Martin, vice president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council.

"We need to protect the lands that we have for the buffalo and teach the people coming across the trail that we need to protect what is here," Martin said. "We don't need to develop it any more, we need to take care of what we have and savor it."

Osborn spoke of the continued threat to wild salmon populations throughout the Northwest. Lewis and Clark encountered rivers bulging with salmon, but only one percent of the five Pacific Northwest salmon species that existed then still remain today.

"We can use this bicentennial to either eulogize or to save the salmon," Osborn said, adding that the solutions are available. Sierra Club and others believe removing four dams on the lower Snake River, along with increased funding for the Columbia Basin Salmon Plan are two critical steps to reviving the wild salmon population.

The path to saving and restoring grizzly bear populations is equally clear, according to the Bass.

"There is this incredible layer of stresses that conspire against the grizzlies in the contemporary world; the mining, the clearcutting, the road building and development of the back country," Bass explained. "But basically all the grizzly bear needs to have a chance is big, wild country in which people won't kill it."

Bass lives in the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana, an area that once supported 100,000 grizzly bears. There are now less than 1,000.

The panelists also called for a celebration of the spirit of Jefferson, who urged that the Corps not just seek trade routes to the Pacific, but use the expedition as a journey of scientific discovery.

Pope

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope (Photo courtesy Sierra Club)
Two hundred years later, Pope said, "we might wonder if we've been the stewards of the land Jefferson would have wanted us to be."

The current administration, Bass said, seems to want to "discourage scientific discovery."

"We need to hold the current president to this standard of the past," he said. "Clearly it is not an issue with the current administration. They are coming hell for leather against these last little gardens where we still have the full compliment of species and diversity of landscape. They are willing to crush local communities that reside in these landscapes, native and non-native.

"These are public lands that we still own," Bass said "and this needs to be an issue in barbershops, in restaurants and around family dining tables."

Panelists did point to several success stories as signs that the tide of destruction and extinction can be turned. Elk, beaver and pronghorn sheep have all recovered since the turn of the 20th century.

"There has never been a time in human history when more wild animals were being restored to more places from which humanity has expelled them than there is right now," said Pope.

There is still enough wild America along the Lewis and Clark trail to save its lands and species for centuries to come, said Sierra Club president Jennifer Ferenstein.

Americans have to get out and see for themselves the wonders of the trail and become more active in seeking protection, she urged.

"There are so many ways to reach out and to make the Lewis and Clark and Corps of Discovery's trip real, and to create that awe that will last in people's minds for generations to come," said Ferenstein. "That will be the seed that we will plant today that will allow us to protect these areas well into the future."

For more information on the campaign and the array of events connected to the bicentennial, see: http://www.sierraclub.org/lewisandclark

The official Lewis and Clark Bicentennial website: http://www.lewisandclark200.org

The Lewis and Clark Project at the University of Montana is at: http://www.lewisandclarkeducationcenter.com