The great wilderness compromise

by Jon Christensen

What would Zahnie do?”

I asked myself that question as I hiked into the White Cloud Mountains of central Idaho. I’d come here to report on an ugly internecine fight among environmentalists over the fate of this would-be wilderness of rock and ice, high meadows, pine forests and alpine lakes. Both sides invoked the name of Howard Zahniser — “Zahnie” to his friends, the author of the Wilderness Act — as a canonical authority, yea, even a spiritual inspiration for their positions.

Zahnie must be “rolling over in his grave,” singer-songwriter Carole King told me, noting the compromises in the proposed wilderness bill, such as maintaining trails for off-road vehicles on the periphery and giving public land to nearby towns. The target of her wrath — Rick Johnson, the director of the Idaho Conservation League — invoked Zahnie in his turn, citing him as a heroic guide on the path of political compromise.

In my backpack, I carried a copy of Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act, Mark Harvey’s recent biography of the author of the immortal, often-quoted and often-misunderstood words “a wilderness … is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

As Harvey writes, “Zahniser thought it crucial to find just the right word” to define wilderness when he was drafting the act for The Wilderness Society. When a friend used “untrammeled” to describe the ocean near Olympic National Park, Zahniser liked it immediately. Some friends thought “untrammeled” too poetic for a piece of legislation. They worried that it would associate the act with the “daffodil” wing of the conservation movement. “Undisturbed” was better, they said.

But according to Harvey, Zahniser “thought that ‘undisturbed’ was inaccurate, given that many proposed wilderness area had already been altered by mining, grazing, and other uses.” Zahniser liked the capaciousness and flexibility of “untrammeled,” which he took to mean “free, unbound, unhampered, unchecked.”

“Unshackled” is another synonym. With “untrammeled,” Zahniser reached deep into American ideas of freedom for a term that would liberate the land. In doing so, he linked the wilderness ideal to one of the greatest battles for freedom in American history, the Civil War.

The man huffing and puffing up the mountain beside me had another word and another hero on his mind, but they were connected to this same history. For Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson — author of a bill to protect the White Cloud Mountains — “compromise” is the key word. In his Capitol Hill office hangs a quote from Henry Clay: “Politics is not about ideological purity or moral self-righteousness. It is about governing, and if a politician cannot compromise he cannot govern effectively.”

Clay, alas, was the engineer of the great compromises that failed to hold the Union together and led to the Civil War. And politics, of course, is often about ideological purity and moral self-righteousness, too, as just about any political debate will reveal, including one on wilderness.

Harvey’s biography of Howard Zahniser reveals a man in whom all of these strands were tightly woven. Deep spiritual and moral convictions informed the wilderness ideology that Zahniser helped define and enshrine in legislation.

But politically, he was also an untiring compromiser. The Wilderness Act was rewritten 66 times before it was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, eight years after it was first introduced. The law itself is a compromise: It allows grazing to continue, and mining claims and the use of motorboats and airplanes are grandfathered in to many wilderness areas.

In the most important compromise of all, Western congressional representatives insisted that wilderness areas could not be declared by federal agencies alone. Instead, each and every one would have to be approved by Congress, thus ensuring that elected representatives would always have a say. The messy politics of democracy and compromise would forever be part of wilderness protection.

Reading Wilderness Forever in the White Cloud Mountains, I discovered that Howard Zahniser’s story nicely complicates the untrammeled wilderness experience with all of the human values and politics that bind us to these lands, even as we go to them to free ourselves.

So what would Zahnie do?

It’s hard to be certain. Like the meaning of wilderness itself, which he had a hand in defining, Zahnie is hard to pin down. But I’m inclined to believe that all of those in the current debates who invoke his spirit have a point.

I think Zahnie would be right in the thick of this debate, just as he was when he was alive — willing to compromise, seeking the seams where a workable wilderness could be stitched together at this moment in time, but all the time pushing for the purest wilderness he could get, now and forever.


Jon Christensen is a research fellow at the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at Stanford University. His wilderness documentary can be seen at www.pbs.org/now/shows/301/index.html.

In early January, Rep. Simpson reintroduced his compromise wilderness bill, which passed the House but ran out of time in the Senate last year.

© High Country News