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Lewis & Clark: What's Left, What's Lost? - 2002-06-08

Early in his term as America's third President, Thomas Jefferson signed a treaty with France that in a penstroke, doubled the size of the United States. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase which included uncharted territory stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, would later be carved up into 15 U.S. states. In 1804, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore this wilderness and to chart the shortest route to the Pacific Ocean. Their journals are a record of the native peoples, flora and fauna found along the way. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, a new study uses the journals of Lewis and Clark as a blueprint to examine the current state of the American wilderness and ways to protect it.

The journals of Lewis and Clark paint a picture of the American West prior to settlement. They describe in meticulous detail native peoples and hundreds of new plants, animals and mineral resources of the American West.

The explorers paddled down the Missouri River into a land of unspoiled abundance where birds darkened the sky and herds of bison grazed. In a new dramatized documentary of the Lewis and Clark expedition produced for public television, Meriwether Lewis describes how deeply this new land impressed him.

But a new report released by the Sierra Club, a private environmental group, finds that forty percent of the animals discovered by Lewis and Clark have been lost, are dwindling in number, or are near extinction.

Mary Kiesaw directs the "Lewis and Clark Campaign" for the Sierra Club. She says razing forests, damming rivers, plowing prairies and paving over this natural heritage have left only pockets of the wild America explored by Lewis and Clark. "Where we once had 100,000 grizzly bears there are [less] than 1,000 left," she says. "The grizzly bear is still on the endangered species list and its habitat is still critically threatened. In addition to that, damming has reduced the Missouri River. At Omaha, [Nebraska] it is one-third of its 1803 width. Ninety percent of the old growth forests in Oregon and Washington are gone. In the plains and in the prairies only one percent of the tall grass prairies is left. Many of our wildlife, our salmon, bear, bison, wolf [that were] plentiful in [the time of] Lewis and Clark now struggle to survive on degraded habitat."

Mary Kiesaw says the Sierra Club "Lewis and Clark Campaign" has targeted for restoration and protection about 23 million hectares of wilderness habitat in the Great North American Prairie, the Northern Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest. "Future generations should be able to explore the great American West and enjoy its natural abundance with the same sense of excitement Lewis and Clark felt 200 years ago," she says. "And while much has changed along this historic route of discovery, there are still many beautiful and critical wild lands and wildlife that remain. We don't think that we can go back and protect everything that's out there. But we do think that we can protect many of the places that are still left, and we can restore many habitat areas for wildlife."

Volunteers mobilized by the Sierra Club help put the plan into action. Among them is Matt Finer, a Washington State University graduate student who is studying the impact of fragmented habitat on native plants and insects.

Matt Finer works and hikes in the Pacific Northwest wilderness that borders the Lewis and Clark expedition route. He is especially concerned with the fate of the last remaining roadless areas on public lands. His mission is to save an area adjacent to the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, left out of a 1984 Wilderness bill.

Finer: "I'm part of the team, the Eastern Washington Team, where our goal is to get an Eastern Washington Wilderness Bill through Congress in the next couple of years. So, what we're trying to do right now is to ramp up efforts to educate the public about these roadless areas, these no-mans-lands that could be either wilderness or clear cut in twenty years."
Skirble: "How do you as a Ph.D. candidate at Washington State University go about doing this?"
Finer: "First of all I have the (Ph.D.) research project to deal with, but any free time I get it really comes down to education and exploration. We try to get down to the Wenaha-Tucannon and just really get in and explore these unprotected roadless areas.
And then secondly, we try to educate people about the area. We have a pretty big field trip planned for next month. We're going to bring people down and show off the area. You get them down there, and they can see these river valleys which are just incredible. You have these old growth ponderosa pines, these huge trees and gorgeous river valleys and lush ecosystem in a relatively dry area, that's the first step in inspiring people to save this area. At the same time as soon as you get to any ridge top or along a road you see the alternative which is clear cut logging. It's a real possibility."
Skirble: "Why are you doing this? Why are you so involved?"
Finer: "I'm involved for a couple of reasons. First of all I love the area. I'm overwhelmed daily out here. But, more importantly anyway, I am an ecologist. I know that our last best chance of saving bio-diversity as we know it in this country is to save these last roadless areas [and we can] save the grizzly bear, save the gray wolf, save the lynx, save the fisher, [and] save salmon."

Matt Finer and Sierra Club grassroots activists in nine western states are working to save that legacy. Campaign director Mary Kiesaw says the Lewis and Clark journals and the story of the expedition give us something that we can relive. "We can visit these places," she says, "but we can also protect them."