Do you want more wilderness? Good luck


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Poor W. Howard Gray didn't know what hit him.

Just a few years before, in the early 1960s, the head of the American Mining Congress seemed justified in confidently predicting oblivion for this absurd proposal to set aside millions of acres of land for ... well, for doing nothing with it. All that would do, he sneered, would "provide a very limited number of individuals with wilderness pleasures."

But Gray had greatly underestimated that number. The appeal was much greater than the miner had dreamt. And so it was that exactly 35 years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Bill, declaring that 9.14 million acres of the American earth should remain "untrammeled by man." Of all the laws passed that year, only the legislation he'd signed two months earlier, the one outlawing racial discrimination, had greater consequences.

There are now 104 million acres in the National Wilderness Preservation System. That's a lot of land, but it's only 4.6 percent of the country, and because more than half - 56 million acres - is in Alaska, only 1.8 percent of the Lower 48 states is official wilderness. Though there is federal wilderness in 44 states, the vast majority is in the West.

Led, logically, by the Wilderness Society, environmentalists would like to double or even triple the size of the system, adding perhaps 100 million acres in Alaska and up to another 100 million elsewhere in the West.

Lots of luck. At the age of 35, the wilderness system appears to be in the early stages of premature political arteriosclerosis. Some of its most celebrated areas are so crowded that a "wilderness experience" feels more like a trip to Shea Stadium than a commune with nature. Organized and well-financed lobbies of motorized recreationists are mobilizing to get permission to zoom their vehicles along wilderness trails. Without waiting for the laws to change, individual riders increasingly ignore wilderness boundaries.

As to additions to the system, well, that's been stymied for most of the 1990s. At the tail end of the Democratic congressional majority in 1994, the Clinton administration managed to eke out passage of the California Desert Protection Act, adding 7.58 million acres to the system. Since then, there have been but two small additions, one in Oregon and one in New Mexico.

From their rhetoric, it seems that some leaders of the Republican majority in Congress would like to repeal the 1964 law. They won't do that, but they have tried to weaken some protections, and they are hardly likely to add to the system any time soon.

Just try defining "wilderness"

As if these were not troubles enough, now come attacks from the political left. Well, actually, they're from the post-modernists, which is not the same thing. It's not that these critics are against wilderness, exactly; they're just disturbed by the idea of wilderness.

The problem, according to a 1995 essay by William Cronon, is not "the things we label as wilderness ... but rather what we ourselves mean when we use that label." The novelist Marilynne Robinson dismissed wilderness because "we are desperately in need of a new, chastened, self-distrusting vision of the world, an austere vision that can postpone the outdoor pleasures of cherishing exotica ..."

No, I don't know what it means, either.

Central to the postmodern critique is the conviction that the concepts of "wilderness" and of "nature" are merely cultural constructs, raising the question of whether an indigenous person from a primitive culture could jump up and stay up.

As it turns out, these attacks have not been without some benefit to wilderness advocates, for whom the current news is not all bad. First of all, some of the criticism, such as Cronon's warning that wilderness worship can blind people to the wonders of nature in their own backyards, makes sense. Besides, the minds of wilderness supporters were probably atrophying from the debate with the other side, which is still mumbling the rhetoric of W. Howard Gray. Having to respond to a more complex critique has forced pro-wilderness troops to sharpen their scientific, cultural and political case.

But this is not the main thing the pro-wilderness guys have going for them. No, the main thing is what they had going for them 35 years ago. There's a reason wilderness areas are so crowded: People love them. If I may quote from a recently published book about the events of 1964 (and I may because I wrote it), this was a "country that was now rich enough, educated enough and sufficiently at leisure (so that) for the first time in the nation's history, there were more people who wanted to enjoy the public land than to make money off it."

If that was true then, think how much truer it is in this richer, more educated, and, yes, more self-centered society. As several polls show, most people, including affluent people who vote Republican, favor putting more land into wilderness.

On this issue, the congressional majority and the popular majority are out of sync.

From which it does not follow that the second majority will erase the first. Conservationists and their political allies have not figured out a way to transform this popular sentiment into a voting sentiment.

However, the people in their adroitness have figured out that there is more than one way to keep land in its natural state, or something close to it. It's called "the private sector."

Wilderness advocates regard this as a mixed blessing, because it might divert attention from the goal of adding to the system, but the fact is that instead of waiting for an out-of-touch Congress to act, a growing number of people have proven that the private sector can do part of the job.

It's not chopped liver

Between them, The Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund, both based just across the Potomac in Arlington, Va., have bought millions of acres of land outright and acquired conservation easements on millions more. The San Francisco-based Trust For Public Land has bought more than a million acres and turned it over to state and federal agencies. In addition, according to the Land Trust Alliance, more than 2.2 million acres of open space around the country is being conserved by more than 1,200 land trusts.

True, the level of protection granted to most of this land falls well short of what many would consider wilderness. On the 330,000 acres the Conservation Fund recently bought and resold in the Northeastern forests, for instance, logging and snowmobiling will continue.

So it isn't wilderness. But it ain't chopped liver, either. These acres will remain forested and open to the public, with easements ensuring responsible logging methods.

The same is true of much of the privately preserved land in the West. In southwestern New Mexico, The Nature Conservancy bought and re-sold to a private foundation the 321,000-acre Gray Ranch. The land is still being grazed, as is a great deal of the wilderness system, often less responsibly, but under deed restrictions requiring the ranchers to maintain biodiversity.

In southwestern Montana, part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness is buffered by 66,000 acres of ranchland and timberland managed according to conservation easements worked out with the Montana Land Alliance.

"There's less human impact on some of these ranches than on the Bob Marshall Wilderness," says Rock Ringling of the Alliance.

None of this means the government is not an important factor in preserving land. Even these private actions are possible only because of tax laws and other public policies. Besides, no institution can protect wild land as simply, as sweepingly, or as strongly as the Congress. Only the Congress has power over the public land, where its power is "total," as the Supreme Court put it, and where most of the wilderness-eligible land is situated.

If such huge swaths of public land as Alaska's Gates of the Arctic are going to be protected as wilderness, only the Congress can do it.

Eventually, it may, even if the Republicans stay in charge, because all that private activity is evidence of public sentiment.

After 35 years, the lesson is sinking in that miner Howard Gray had it half right: Wilderness areas do "provide ... individuals with wilderness pleasures." What he missed was that the number of people seeking such pleasures becomes less limited every day.

Veteran political reporter Jon Margolis writes about Washington, D.C., from his home in Barton, Vermont. His recent book is The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964.

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