Over the course of American history, particularly the history of the American West, certain acts have made very easy the transfer of land into private hands. Under the various Homestead Acts of the nineteenth century, for example, one hundred and sixty acres of the public domain was all yours in exchange for “erecting a domicile” – which many decided to interpret as a birdhouse, before collecting their deed of land and moving on to “purchase” many other parcels in this way. By this, and a whole slew of other tricks, vast tracts of this country were stolen from the public domain and amassed in the hands of individuals. Legislation facilitating transfer of ownership in the other direction however has not, historically, been so easy to come by.
The Boomer lands transfer taking place up in the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness is thus something to celebrate, as here, for the first time since the 1980 signing of ANILCA, a private inholding in Southeast is being converted into Wilderness.
Property boundary marker that will soon be removed
This transfer was conceived of by Clay Davis of the Sitka Ranger District, as a mitigation measure for the Forest Service land that was inundated when the City expanded the Blue Lake Dam. Agreeing that “the non-Wilderness designation of the Boomer property is not consistent with that of the surrounding West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness area,” the City and Borough of Sitka accepted the Forest Service’s request to return these forty-eight acres to the public as Wilderness.
License to these acres has been held by the City since the 1970s, at which time the property was seized when two men staked mining claims there, but failed to pay the necessary taxes. The following decade, the land was leased to Boomer Exploration Inc. While within a few years the prospecting camp had been abandoned, the corporation’s owner had nonetheless managed to inflict lasting damage upon the land – blazing an illegal road through the adjoining Wilderness, scraping away soil and vegetation down to bedrock, and altering the natural water flow of the area. Three decades later, this harm done to the environment has barely begun to heal. I witnessed this last month when I, along with SCS co-workers Luke A’Bear, Esther Kennedy, and Matt Simon, paid a visit to the Boomer lands. Accompanying Clay Davis and Marty Becker, USFS hydrologist, up to the inholding, we spent two days working to revegetate the land and restore the watershed. The work was not glamorous – mostly hauling logs, moving moss, and spreading seed – but the project is without doubt one of which everyone should be proud. Due to the combined efforts of the City, Forest Service, and SCS, this land will soon stand as part of, and not apart from, the Wilderness that surrounds it.
And taken in light of the larger national climate, this local action is no small thing. Just this past March, Alaska’s own senator Lisa Murkowski proposed an amendment which would fund efforts to sell America’s public lands. Designated Amendment 838, its stated purpose is “the disposal of certain Federal lands.” Although not explicitly stated, it can be inferred – given Murkowski’s position and previous comments – that the wildlife refuges, national forests, and wilderness areas of Alaska would be among the first to be threatened; the Tongass, at present the country’s largest National Forest, foremost among the places to be jeopardized by mining, logging, and other private development, which could take precedence over, and probably preclude, the many outdoor pursuits and peoples that these lands now satisfy. The Boomer transfer being hammered out in Sitka stands in stark contrast to this; a reaffirmation of the public domain’s value in the midst of vehement voices speaking out nationally against it.
But the question must be asked: is the nation really opposed to these spaces? Do the people, for whom this land is being conserved and preserved, actually have the desire to diminish it? Or is it perhaps politicians, to whom money may have been pledged in exchange for corporate favors, who wish to do away with the federal protections on these lands? A September 2014 poll, showing that 72% of voters out West consider the public land of their own states to be “American places that belong to everyone in our country,” seems to indicate the latter, as it suggests that, to many, these places are as much a part of the cultural landscape of our country as its natural one; more than just protected spaces, these lands are engrained and coveted aspects of our national identity. Or as historian William Cronon puts it, “Although today we also protect Wild places to preserve biological diversity and other values, we should never forget how very deeply they are tied to American ideas of nation.” This movement to sell off our nation’s public lands is thus much more than an attack on natural spaces. At stake in this battle is our American heritage, identity, and, hopefully, our legacy.
It is in the midst of such contention that the Boomer lands join West Chichagof as Wilderness. That this tract of land is joining the public domain as Wilderness – areas accorded the highest level of protection offered by the federal government – makes the transfer even more remarkable. Thirty-five years ago, West Chichagof was designated Wilderness only in the wake of a thirteen year fight waged by SCS’s founders. The Forest Service, at that time very much a friend of the timber interests, had been their main foe. Today, conservation society, government agency, and city are all pulling together for the same end: the conversion of an inholding, where land was being abused by the few, into Wilderness, where land can be enjoyed, and must be respected, by all.
And so, contrary to Lisa Murkowski’s claim that Wilderness “locks up” land, the Boomer parcel will now be open to everyone. In the midst of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area, where anyone may hunt, fish, camp in good company, or, inversely, enjoy the solitude offered by such spaces, forty-eight acres will no longer exist where these rights are the privilege of the few. Come its official designation as Wilderness in about a year’s time, Boomer will be administered, as the 1964 Wilderness Act promises, for the “use and enjoyment of the American people;” indiscriminately, this land will soon belong to us all as American citizens. Given these democratic principles embedded in the language of the Act, it is no wonder that many people associate these wild places with what Cronon calls “American ideas of nation.” Just as America is supposed to be the place where any (wo)man can make it, equality and access for everyone is part of what defines Wilderness. Yet just as the American dream remains, for many, more rhetoric than reality, the work of Wilderness is not yet done. Realizing the Act’s promise that this land is meant for us all will take asking the same hard questions of Wilderness as we should be asking of American society at large: how do we ensure equal opportunity? Assist underprivileged populations in accessing new spaces? Lessen the gap between those who can enjoy the riches of this nation, Wilderness among them, and those who cannot?
The Boomer land transfer taking place in Sitka obviously will not answer all these questions; but it does indicate that Wilderness, and the values implicit in that designation, remain important to a wide swath of people. And for this, the new Wilderness being welcomed into West Chichagof really is something to celebrate.
Degraded area post hand restoration work
Be sure to keep checking the SCS website for more pictures from our restoration trip and more updates on the Boomer Lands transfer. Interested in other wilderness projects that SCS has going on? Feel free to email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to hear from you!