Without enough wilderness America will change. Democracy . . . must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths—animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies—or it will dwindle and pale. —Walt Whitman
Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us and deriving health and strength from the repast. —Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” in Walden
Why wilderness? Why the hell not wilderness?! As Edward Abbey proclaimed in The Journey Home, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.” Unfortunately, the default setting of our Western society is that nature does not have value unless we can dig it up, cut it down, graze it off, plow it under, drain it dry, make it wet, or haul it away. Even wilderness defenders need information and arguments with which to persuade an increasingly online—and out of touch—public about the importance of and threats to wilderness.
As social philosopher Lewis Mumford wrote in Future Environments of North America:
When we rally to preserve the remaining redwood forests or to protect the whooping crane, we are rallying to preserve ourselves, we are trying to keep in existence the organic variety, the whole span of natural resources upon which our own future development will be based. If we surrender this variety too easily in one place, we shall lose it everywhere; and we shall find ourselves enclosed in a technological vision without even the hope that sustains a prisoner in jail—that someday we may get out. Should organic variety disappear, there will be no “out.”
Abbey argued in Desert Solitaire:
No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the sparse, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.
What is wilderness? Merriam-Webster’s definition is rather complex:
1a(1): a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings
1a(2): an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community
1b: an empty or pathless area or region
1c: a part of a garden devoted to wild growth
2: wild or uncultivated state
3a: a confusing multitude or mass
3b: a bewildering situation
When many Americans think about wilderness, the first thing that comes to mind is recreation. Visitors to designated wilderness areas can hike, ride a horse, raft, canoe,hunt, fish, appreciate wildlife and wildflowers, take pictures, perform nondisturbing scientific research, make love, swim, and camp. However, while recreation (consider the composition of this word: “re-creation”) is reason enough to save wilderness, there are many, even more compelling arguments for protecting wildlands.
Some commentators consider wilderness in terms of either anthropocentric or biocentric values. America’s first wilderness advocates may have had an intrinsic appreciation of the biological values of wilderness but often tailored their appeals to the American public and political establishment based on the aesthetics of wilderness.
Wilderness areas are reservoirs of natural biodiversity, home to plants and animals that may be of great scientific and medical use to humans. Wilderness areas leave room for the fires, floods, and other natural disturbances and processes that fuel evolution and support the whole web of life. Wilderness provides goods and services to our economy without cost.
Wilderness areas are refuges for fish and wildlife. Yellowstone National Park (most of which is still de facto wilderness) was originally preserved as a “pleasuring ground” for people because the geothermal features amused tourists. No one knew in 1872 that creating the park would later become the only reason that the United States still has wild bison and grizzly bears.
Some commercial uses occur (but shouldn’t) in designated wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act prohibits the use of all-terrain vehicles, mountain bikes, and jet skis, along with road building, logging, and development of oil, gas, and geothermal energy. However, one can (but shouldn’t be able to) graze livestock, maintain fences and irrigation ditches, exploit a valid mining claim, or patent (transfer to private ownership) a mining claim for $2.50 to $5.00 an acre in wilderness areas. One might even be able to build a new water project, but only with presidential approval. (No approval has ever been granted under this exception.)
Designating wilderness areas actually saves taxpayers money, because wilderness-destroying activities have only ever been and can only ever be profitably exploited by those who are subsidized by the government to do so. Since these activities are prohibited in wilderness, taxpayer subsidies to log and road these areas are not available.
The preservation of wilderness is also a rational hedge against ignorance. Nancy Newhall wrote in her text accompanying the photographs of Ansel Adams in This is the American Earth, “The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we yet know how to ask.” Until humans know everything, it makes no sense to discard any answers that wilderness may hold.
As noted in an article in the journal Conservation Biology, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) recognize the ecological importance of large roadless areas (those 5,000 acres and greater) because they contain
· relatively high levels of intact late-seral / old-growth forests;
· essential habitat for many species of conservation concern (including threatened ones);
· broad array of habitat types and elevation bands;
· “buffer areas” from exotic species invasions and edge effects;
· critical winter range for ungulates;
· landscape and regional connectivity; and
· aquatic strongholds for salmon.
WWF and CBI also note that small roadless areas (those 1,000 to 4,999 acres) are important for many of the same reasons as large roadless areas. They state that small roadless areas are
· essential habitat for species key to the recovery of forests following disturbance such as herbaceous plants, lichens, and microrhizal fungi;
· habitat refugia for threatened species and those with restricted distributions (endemics);
· undisturbed habitats for mollusks and amphibians;
· remaining pockets of old-growth forests;
· over-wintering habitat for resident birds and ungulates; and
· “stepping stones” for wildlife movements across fragmented landscapes.
Essentially all the wilderness we have—or will ever have—is contingent upon public lands.
[This post is adapted from an essay of the same title found in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (Timber Press 1984) by the author.]