Emotions ran high at the Charles Brown Auditorium in Bishop Wednesday night, as about 900 people (county estimate) gathered to comment on the proposed Boxer McKeon Wilderness Bill that would place 430,000 acres in the Eastern Sierra under designated Wilderness. 370,000 of the acres lie in Mono County and about 60,782 in Inyo.
While there were real points made from both sides of issue at the meeting, the first hour of this public forum was marred by loutish behavior, catcalls, and disrespect.
Representatives from Senator Barbara Boxers office did not show up so Bob Haueter with Congressman Buck McKeon’s office led off the discussion. Haueter described how Boxers office had wanted 800,000 acres, but the number had been whittled down to 470,000 acres, which includes the 430,000 in the Eastern Sierra and another 40,000 in LA.
Motorized Access Advocate Dick Noles spoke first. He said the bill was not in the spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act and that the bill was going to be a big mistake. Loud applause followed. After that, civility at the meeting degenerated and the first hour could be described as ugly.
Despite requests for calm by Supervisor Linda Arcularius, those who stood in front of the crowd to speak in favor were met with boos and heckling. One Bishop resident, speaking in favor of the bill, mentioned that she had seen a lot of disrespect for the land. A loud “B-S-” came from the back of the room. It appeared that one corner of the room was especially intent on embarrassing themselves, but after an hour or so most of that crowd left.
Emotions on this subject continued to run high throughout the night, but for the most part the remainder of the crowd respected the time limit allowed for speakers to take the microphone.
The main points made by those in favor of the bill included preservation of the land in question, roads that people use are left out of the bill, and that the pristine lands are what drives the tourist industry.
Burned by the Desert Protection Act, those in opposition named roads and motorized access.
While there was much blanket opposition to all new wilderness, most of the specific complaints revolved around the proposed Wilderness in the White Mountains. There was also a fear of yet another layer of bureaucracy, a feeling that the damage to the land was exaggerated and didn’t need the restrictive protection of wilderness, as well as fear that roads would be closed. More than one speaker asked for stronger language in the bill to guarantee that the roads cherry stemmed into the Wilderness areas would stay open.
There were rumors that wilderness supporters were bused in, from out of the area. Perhaps they carpooled. Of those who spoke in favor of the bill, eight were from outside of the Eastern Sierra, including one woman who brought a letter from the Mayor of Santa Clarita supporting the bill. Three speakers opposing the bill were from outside of the area as well.
With those numbers in consideration, the speakers were close to dead even in support vs. the opposition. Roughly 55 spoke against the bill, while despite the openly hostile crowd, roughly 58 spoke in favor of the bill. Judging by the applause after the opposition, one could conclude either that they were the not silent majority or that the opposition was simply louder.
One thing is certain, designated wilderness and recreation on public lands is an issue about which the community feels strongly.