Wilderness at 50: A place to be free, a place to hide


No Place To Hide is the name of a new book by Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter who worked with whistleblower Edward Snowden to break the story on National Security Agency spying. 

The book’s title is drawn from commentary by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, who held hearings in the 1970s that uncovered widespread domestic surveillance by the CIA, NSA and FBI. During the hearings, Church specifically warned that the NSA’s vast surveillance capabilities “at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left … There would be no place to hide.” 

Many of the Senator’s fears have come to pass. In the last year alone, we’ve learned about this country’s wholesale spying on Americans, our secret and illegal wiretapping programs, the systematic collection of email, phone and financial data, and the proliferation of privacy-destroying technologies. 

But Church was wrong about one thing. There is a place to hide in America today, and it’s called wilderness. Wilderness areas are the gold standard of land preservation in this country. They are remote and wild parcels that Congress has permanently and strictly protected using the authority of the Wilderness Act of 1964. And as we celebrate the Act’s 50thanniversary on September 3, we should remember that many of our forebears in the wilderness movement were also civil libertarians who saw a clear link between the right to untrammeled land and personal freedom. 

Sen. Church himself was the floor sponsor of the 1964 legislation that created the National Wilderness Preservation System on our public lands, and he pushed hard for the designation of vast wilderness areas in his home state, the largest of which, at 2.3 million acres, still bears his name. Church’s fight for wild land and against domestic surveillance lasted until he lost his seat in the Senate in 1980. 

Bob Marshall, another legendary wilderness proponent and a lifetime supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, believed that wilderness, freedom and privacy were bound up together.  

“In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a psychic necessity. … ,” he wrote in his famous essay The Problem of the Wilderness.

Then there’s Edward Abbey, author of The Monkeywrench Gang, who argued for wild land as a dissident’s last resort. “The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism, but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, political oppression,” he wrote in Desert Solitaire, adding that “the value of wilderness … as a base for resistance to centralized domination is demonstrated by recent history.”

Marshall. Church. Abbey. A forester. A U.S. senator. A rabble-rousing writer. These very different individuals shared a belief that wilderness is the place you go to find relief from societal pressure, from surveillance, from sheer stupidity. You go into the wild because security cameras and spying bureaucrats hold no sway there. Even surveillance drones have not yet invaded the backcountry (with some exceptions along our nation’s Northern and Southern borders).

In the wild, privacy is still supreme: you can strip off your clothes and jump in the creek, you can praise America or you can utter seditious slander, you can be as weird as you please and rest easy in the knowledge that you are all alone.

As the abuses of state surveillance become better known, wilderness advocates have an opportunity to bring a new generation of privacy-minded young Americans into the fold. Tell them to turn off their smart phones and walk into the woods. Tell them wild land is where they can be free from the subtle and debilitating fear that someone is spying everywhere and always.

There are more than 109 million acres of federally-designated wilderness in America, and every acre is a sanctuary worth defending. Every acre is a place to hide. Civil libertarians and wilderness lovers have common cause, and both groups need all the help they can get.

Jimmy Tobias is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated column service of High Country News. is a freelance journalist and former trail worker with the Forest Service, working last summer in the Frank Church, River of No Return Wilderness.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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