The Value of Wilderness

By Beacon Staff

The Democratic majority in Congress means more wilderness bills will be debated in the nation’s capitol this year. It will inspire debate across the West, too. And it will bring many long-heard mischaracterizations about the wilderness designation.

It’s already happening here in western Montana, where some recent editorialists set their sights on the proposed Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). The proposal would establish 22 million acres of new wilderness in five states, including 9 million acres in Montana.

Such large proposals become great punching bags for those who regard wilderness as a four-letter word. They say it blocks access, locks up resources, cripples the economy and worsens fire problems. They claim it thwarts local use of the land, reserving it for the rich, elite, out-of-state and other ne’er-do-wells. Considering the claims, it’s a wonder Congress ever created the wilderness designation.

I’m not going to argue the merits of any specific bill, but the debate provides an opportunity to consider the meaning and value of designated wilderness.

First, although some claim wilderness excludes humans, Congress created the designation “for the use and enjoyment of the American people,” as stated in the first paragraph of the Wilderness Act. Early wilderness proponents were hunters, stock riders, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. As increasing roads brought cars and sprawling development to their favorite haunts, diminishing opportunities for remoteness and physical challenge, they urged the government to preserve places where their admittedly small segment of the population could enjoy the public estate. In an age of rampant OHV traffic, I am personally thankful for their efforts.

Next, while wilderness is often painted as a liberal-elite creation, the 1964 Wilderness Act passed with broad support in both houses of Congress. The final product was the work of both parties, following eight years of debate and some 66 rewrites of the bill. It is a compromise, born in the darkest days of the Cold War, when the specter of nuclear annihilation forced many to consider the physical and psychological values of undeveloped nature to the human spirit.

The Wilderness Act recognized that even in 1964 most of the American landscape was heavily roaded, leaving few places for the myriad benefits of wilderness. The law determined certain federal lands will remain roadless, undeveloped and wild. Today, the protection covers about 107 million acres, roughly 5 percent of the nation’s landmass.

Early advocates knew wilderness offered benefits aside from recreation. And in the 44 years since the law’s passage, scientists never stopped learning about the importance of permanently protected roadless landscapes.

Take our fire problem. It stems from a perfect storm of poor forest health – caused primarily by a century of insane suppression – and climate change, with its diminished snowpacks and extended droughts. Added to the mix, short-sighted Western communities allow a home-building frenzy on fire-prone lands. But astoundingly, some still blame the wilderness. In truth, for decades big wilderness areas like the Bob Marshall have taught fire ecologists about natural fire and provided a place to conduct the experiments that will save millions of acres of unhealthy woods.

And then there’s wildlife. Every year, another study demonstrates that grizzly bears and other animals absolutely require large and permanently protected roadless areas. In short, roads kill. With scientists predicting the disappearance of one-third of Earth’s species this century, wilderness plays an essential role in protecting wildlife, from grizzlies to butterflies.

We also have wilderness to thank for dramatic improvements in air quality in the last 30 years. In the mid-‘70s, the threat to clean air in parks and wilderness areas prompted some of our most effective air quality laws. Today, they protect human health and offer models that will help us confront the challenges of climate change.

And for tens of millions of us, that last glass of clean water originated from the wilderness.

The services wilderness provides teach us about the value of all of our public lands. By extension, they instruct us about what we do on our private lands and the decisions we make as individuals.

That is perhaps the most hopeful value of modern wilderness. Whether it is a few thousand acres in Vermont or the immense Wrangell-Saint Elias in Alaska, wilderness offers the opportunity to re-orient ourselves to the natural world that sustains us. If we follow through, we become better people. We become more responsible consumers and re-learn how to use energy and how to eat.

Many of us are realizing what John Muir said over a century ago, that going to wilderness is going home. The message has critical importance in the 21st Century, when the future of so much life is in the hands of the human race. In our era, it’s not the size or number of wilderness areas that will save life on earth – they will always be too small and fragmented for that. Instead, it’s the psychological impact wilderness has on us.

So the next time someone rants about all the evils of wilderness, remember some of the overwhelming good that it provides.

Tim Lydon lives in Whitefish