Wilderness made me a better American.
One day, I sat on top of Hay Butte in the South Dakota Badlands and looked out over Tyree Basin to the west. In the distance, I saw a small herd of bison. In the far distance, buttes and grasslands swept off toward the Black Hills.
And I thought to myself how lucky I am to live in this big, beautiful country. I thought of how this land helped to shape us as a people – the great eastern forests, the fertile prairies, the Great Plains, the mountains that form the spine of this content, the deserts, and our thousands of miles of coastlines. I reflected that I owe this great country my best efforts to protect these places – places that are important to us as a nation and to our character, even if we can’t all go there.
But some people seem to hate the very idea of wild places. Why?
Is it that these lands could be put to more profitable use and are being wasted? Is it that these lands represent something scary, like dense forests and wild animals? Is it that we can’t drive our cars into these lands? Is it that these lands are defended by people we just don’t like?
Protecting America’s wild places used to have broader support a few decades ago. I came across a full-page ad in the April 1966 issue of National Geographic titled, “How to keep a forest from becoming a neon jungle.” The text of the ad began:
America’s wild and beautiful lands are going fast. Each newly born baby has one-quarter acre less of such land to enjoy than the baby born a moment before.
What environmental organization placed this full-page ad? It was the Sinclair Oil Corporation.
Some people complain that we should put our public lands to multiple uses, not “lock it up” as wilderness. The thing is, we already do apply the multiple-use concept to most public lands and, in law, wilderness is one of those uses. The Multiple-Use and Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 prescribed managing national forests for different values and purposes. It specifically listed outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife and fish. The law includes a passage specific to wilderness:
The establishment and maintenance of areas of wilderness are consistent with the purposes and provisions of this Act.
In the years before the Multiple-Use and Sustained-Yield Act was passed, America’s national forests were under heavy pressure from timber cutting, and the law was a tool to ensure that our national forests wouldn’t simply become cut-and-run tree farms for the logging industry.
From his farm in Wisconsin, retired biologist Aldo Leopold wrote of big ideas and little details of the life and land around him. One chapter of his book A Sand County Almanac is an important essay on wilderness. Another chapter is entirely about one chickadee that lived in the woods on his farm.
Yet another chapter tells of two young men he encountered canoeing on the Flambeau River. The young men had enlisted in the Army and this trip on the Flambeau was a last “taste of freedom” for them before basic training.
It was freedom along with the responsibility that inevitably accompanies it. Leopold writes:
No servant brought meals: they got their meat out of the river, or went without. No traffic cop whistled them off the hidden rock in the next rapids. No friendly roof kept them dry when they misguessed whether or not to pitch the tent. No guide showed them which camping spots offered a nightlong breeze, and which a nightlong misery of mosquitoes; which firewood made clean coals and which only smoke… The wilderness gave them their first taste of those rewards and penalties for wise and foolish acts which every woodsman faces daily, but against which civilization has built a thousand buffers.
The Flambeau is not an officially designated wilderness area. In fact, Leopold described his first trip on the Flambeau as a trip through a wilderness “on its last legs.” The wild stretches of the river had been chopped up by cottages and fake “log” cabins, by resorts, and highway bridges. It had been logged over, first for its pines and later for its hardwoods. The flow of the Flambeau’s forks was interrupted by a number of dams and, in Leopold’s time, a new mile-wide hydroelectric dam was on the drawing board right in the middle of a prime stretch of the river. He never contemplated the open pit copper, gold, and silver mine that would operate later on the upper reaches of the watershed.
Still, decades of restoration efforts led by the State of Wisconsin, dating back to the 1940s, have helped restore some parts of the river.
Author Wallace Stegner recalled a night on the prairie when he was still a young boy in 1915.
Then in the night I awoke, not knowing where I was. Strangeness flowed around me; there was a current of cool air, a whispering, a loom of darkness overhead. In panic I reared up on my elbow and found that I was sleeping beside my brother under the wagon, and that a night wind was breathing across me through the spokes of the wheel. It came from unimaginably far places across a vast emptiness, below millions of polished stars. And yet its touch was soft, intimate, and reassuring, and my panic went away at once. That wind knew me. I knew it. Every once in a while, sixty-six years after that baptism in space and night and silence, wind across grassland can smell like that to me, as secret, perfumed, and soft, and tell me who I am.
It is an opportunity I wish every American could have.
The official designation of “wilderness area” is only for places that meet the standards expressed in the Wilderness Act of 1964, and those standards are impossible for some public lands to meet. The federal lands from which wilderness areas may be designated include those managed by the Department of Agriculture (national forests and grasslands) and the Department of the Interior (national parks, national monuments, Bureau of Land Management lands, etc.). It takes an act of Congress to set aside a piece of land as a wilderness area.
There are lands that simply can’t get congressional approval, even if they are still worthy American places. There are plenty of places in our country that need saving, plenty of wild places that will help our fellow Americans understand this nation of ours.
Wallace Stegner in 1982 lamented about those who are “bent upon undoing all the environmental legislation of the past seventy-five years and turning us back to the damn-the-consequences practices that have left us, in all the ways of true civilization, poorer than people so naturally blessed have any right to be.”
Some people resist protecting wilderness, saying, “How much wilderness is enough?” Author Edward Abbey replied with these questions: “How many cities are enough? How large a population do we really need? How much industrial development must we have to be content?”
It’s a false choice, really. Wilderness isn’t the enemy of civilization. In fact, as Abbey reminds us, “Wilderness complements and completes civilization.”
Wilderness doesn’t just complement civilization… it is part of our heritage of personal liberty as Americans. Edward Abbey continues:
At least in America, one relic of our ancient and rightful liberty has survived. And that is – a walk into the Big Woods; a journey on foot into the uninhabited interior; a voyage down the river of no return. Hunters, fishermen, hikers, climbers, whitewater boatmen, red-rock explorers know what I mean. In America, at least this kind of experience remains open and available to all, democratic. Little or no training is required, very little special equipment, no certification of privilege. All that is needed is normal health, the will to do it, and a modicum of courage.
It is my fear that if we allow the freedom of the hills and the last of the wilderness to be taken from us, then the very idea of freedom may die with it.
Wild American places are among the important values all of us today owe the next generation of Americans. We owe them the Constitution and a nation that follows it. We owe them a love of liberty and the right to make a difference in their nation. We owe them the capacity to see what needs to be fixed in our country – as our predecessors did when they ended slavery and stopped denying women the right to vote – and we owe them the moral and political will to fix the problems they face. We owe the next generation a viable middle class and fair chance to improve their lives. We owe them a country where the lives of people are not measured in dollars.
And, among all these and many more things, we owe the next generation the chance to experience the grandeur of our nation, the kind of grandeur that our ancestors walked through in their lives. We owe them a few places where the great American continent is left intact, where there is quiet, where we can drink from streams, where we can challenge ourselves, and space where we can – as the first real American poet Walt Whitman said – “stretch around on the wonderful beauty.”
We owe them this.