Reflections on the Wilderness Act at 50

The concept may need some rethinking, but it's still an important way to preserve some of our most treasured land.

  • Greenstone Lake and North Peak, in the 20 Lakes Basin of the Hoover Wilderness.

    George Graves
  • Indigo Creek Bridge lies within a million-acre area of proposed wilderness that surrounds Oregon's Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

    Zachary Collier, Northwest Rafting Co., cc via Flickr
  • Silver Creek in the North Kalmiopsis, is eligible to be added to the Wild and Scenic River System, but remains unprotected and threatened by gold and nickel mines.

    Zachary Collier, Northwest Rafting Co., cc via Flickr

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Some of Cronon's arguments were easy to shrug off. What he attacked was sometimes a caricature of the wilderness idea: "the myth of the myth of wilderness," in Kenneth Brower's nice formulation. The drafters of the Wilderness Act were not innocent romantics; they debated many of these questions and wrote a law with considerable nuance. Few people I knew believed, as Cronon put it, "that wilderness can be the solution to our culture's problematic relationships with the nonhuman world."

But the historian's target was not really a law, a policy or a philosophy. It was, rather, an implicit attitude. In their focus on wilderness, he charged, advocates were prone to write off the rest of the land, the majority that can never be classed as wild. I recognized some truth in this, and it hurt.

Prompted by Cronon, I revisited one of movement's revered texts: Wallace Stegner's "Wilderness Letter" of 1960. Stegner painted a Dantean picture of a civilization that, if not stopped, would turn all its virgin forests into "comic books and plastic cigarette cases" (no mention of houses). So on through a list of horrors. It was wilderness or the "technological termite life" of urban civilization: Take your pick.

Cronon was right: This really would not do. If "wilderness or wasteland," as a long-ago brochure had it, is truly the choice, we are lost. We have to develop some middle ground.

As the debate smoldered, one kind of middle ground was being explored in the angle where Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico meet. The Malpai Borderlands Group, a rare alliance of ranchers, environmentalists and public-land managers, had set out to rehabilitate a long-suffering landscape. The effort made news when The Nature Conservancy, having bought a partly wild ranch in the area, resold it to ranchers instead of to government. This non-traditional choice raised some eyebrows, as did the title of the book about the Malpai experience, Nathan F. Sayre's Working Wilderness.

Wilderness? No – but a noble experiment that needs to be repeated. When a choice arises between wilderness status and a pattern of economic use that is gentle and intelligent, I may just find myself on the "anti-wilderness" side.

Even as wilderness advocates felt an intellectual chill, we faced increasing resistance in the real world.

In earlier years, proponents had held the high ground. We marshaled good crowds and good information; Congress leaned our way. But as our ambitions grew, well-funded mining, grazing, logging, drilling and land developer interests fought back harder against "lockups" of public land. While their claims about lost economic potential were typically inflated, they tapped into something quite genuine: the resentment of rural people at the know-it-all urban outsiders – people like me – who were writing prescriptions for ground the locals had long thought of as their own. The backlash took shape in the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s and, more powerfully, in the Wise Use movement of the 1990s. Politicians, especially in the Interior West, took note.

And wilderness designations slowed down. Almost 15 million acres in the Lower 48 were added in the 1980s; under 10 million in the 1990s; less than 5 million in the 2000s. Since 2010, only 32,000 acres have made it in.

In the 1990s, as congressional headwinds stiffened, conservationists welcomed the help of a friendly president.

It began in the Pacific Northwest, where the Forest Service was grappling with its duty under the Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife in the dwindling old-growth forests, particularly the northern spotted owl. The more scientists studied the owl, the more habitat it seemed to need. When the agency tried to retreat, environmentalists sued. Bill Clinton intervened personally to hammer out a solution.

The resulting Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 established a network of "late successional reserves," to be managed to preserve mixed-age forests, including many large old trees. These reserves were equal in extent to all the parks and wilderness areas in Oregon and Washington combined.

Then, in the administration's last days, Clinton finalized a policy that would have seemed chimerical a decade earlier: to preserve all the remaining roadless areas in the national forests, some 58 million acres in all. The "Clinton roadless rule" would face legal and political attacks, but weather them.

These new protections had their loopholes and ambiguities. Wilderness they were not. Yet they offered a shield to breathtaking amounts of wild land – and made the legislative slog seem slow indeed.

So what, in 2014, remains of the wilderness project as I first knew it: the patient effort to establish wilderness areas under the 1964 Act by working with agencies and lobbying Congress? The weak points are evident. The effort may be too modest to do much against ecological decline. It may drain energy from wider reform in the way we use the land. It may have worn out its welcome in an age of political polarization. Is the wilderness label now just a fetish? Is it time to de-emphasize the magic word and seek similar ends by a mixture of other means?

Sobered though I am by criticism and experience, I do not think so.

The current political constellation is not permanent. And, even under friendly presidents, executive action goes only so far.

Consider again the Kalmiopsis. On paper, the overlapping roadless areas and owl set-asides looked like a de facto expansion of the core wilderness. But after a major fire ran through the region in 2002, the Bush administration was able to break into the Clinton reserves for controversial salvage logging. A few miles away, mining interests, little impeded by the roadless rule, are contemplating massive operations. The Clinton designations have after all only bought time. Congressional action remains the ultimate validation, the decision that sticks.

As for the deeper criticisms by the conservation biologists and by Cronon & Co., they seem to me to converge on a single, simple truth: that wilderness status is a limited device, for which too much may have been claimed. I acknowledge this cheerfully, but see plenty left to treasure in wilderness as an idea and as a tool.

No, wilderness classification does not preserve some primeval, unchanging, ideal landscape. (Its more thoughtful advocates have never said it did.)

Wilderness – by itself – cannot save an integrated web of habitats.

Wilderness status is not the necessary fate for every piece of less-developed land.

Wilderness cannot solve the great problems, environmental or social, of our time.

In wildness is not the preservation of the world.

Yet wilderness areas continue to provide an irreplaceable kind of recreation.

They continue to look awfully good, compared to most other lands: hills without antennae, unbroken forest canopies, deserts un-scuffed by our incessant trafficking.

They continue to offer the surest possible protection, acre for acre, to watersheds and many plant and animal species.

They provide essential anchors or nodes in the habitat webs we know we must assemble.

And wilderness continues, among land uses, to provide a sort of safe harbor or region of calm. Admitting that these lands, too, may need some management, we know at least that here the goal is to do as little, not as much, as we can get away with doing.

The National Wilderness Preservation System now stands at nearly 110 million acres, some 5 percent of the area of the United States. Today's advocates think this can be doubled. If this goal seems a long way off at the moment, there are certainly plenty of gaps – the Kalmiopsis not least among them – that cry out for early filling.

And the movement has proved adaptable. The last important wilderness bill to pass, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, came out of behind-the-scenes conversations and compromises that recall the earlier days of wilderness campaigns. It took note of local concerns and strove to blunt local opposition. Carefully crafted measures like this can unlock some pretty stubborn doors.

So, on its golden anniversary: two cheers for the Wilderness Act. This season's rhetoric may be all too predictable and filled with platitudes, but as a galvanizing concept, and as a set of real places we honor with a special kind of care, wilderness will not be denied.

John Hart writes on public lands, resource policy and farmland protection. Titles include San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary; Storm Over Mono: The Mono Lake Battle and the California Water Future; and several guides to wilderness travel. He is based in San Rafael, California.

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