Today’s Wilderness Challenge

Wilderness is land left to be wild as well as a principled idea

By Stewart Brandborg

As a Montanan I am blessed to live in a place of incomparable beauty and wealth of natural resources. In appreciation of that I find myself moved to make a plea to thoughtful citizens to resist the corrosive effects of growing threats to the quality of life we enjoy.

The wilderness law has delivered to us who live here an irreplaceable part of our American Heritage. The quality of wildness, of autonomous and unfettered nature, was the central concern of those of us who, in the 1950s and early 1960s, wrote and worked for enactment of the Wilderness Act. Now, after a lifetime of work for wilderness, I ask its defenders to never forget: Wildness is foremost the quality of wilderness that we must seek to preserve. It is the forces of nature at full play in the absence of human intent.

Only 51 years ago, when I helped organize the uniquely American popular movement to pass the Wilderness Act, we did not dream of the pace of change and rapid exploitation of natural resources that we face today. In this age of climate change, species extinction and all too widespread unraveling of the natural world that we all depend on, it is more critical than ever to preserve what wilderness we have left.

Wilderness is land left to be wild as well as a principled idea. It is the embodiment of reverence for nature and the humility to withhold the hand of man from exploitation. Sadly, such wild land and grace-filled humility seem to be in short supply and disappearing quickly due to dominance by moneyed self interests.

Commodification of the natural world is, as it was, often based on resource extraction. Now it is increasingly made even more pervasive by the profitable industry and expanding self interests of recreation. Humility is too often replaced by a sense of entitlement and selfishness. We are seeing accelerated loss of wilderness as well as the erosion of selfless values and actions that set the stage for wilderness designation. The ascendancy of recreation, an optional pastime, even when at the expense of wildness is a sad comment on the state of American values.

One new vehicle contributing to this damaging trend is the increasingly popular Trojan horse of so-called “collaboration.” Industry and recreation interests sit down at a table sanctified by politicians beholden to industry campaign money and divide up America’s shared natural legacy. They are the self-selected deciders for all Americans and serve to displace meaningful participation by other Americans who live further away or cannot afford the time to sit unpaid at the table. The way “collaboration” is being used amounts to collusion by a small club divvying up valuable American public assets.

I cautioned groups like the Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society at a recent Wilderness Conference to “resist the fuzzy, fuzzy Neverland of collaboration,” and begin to advocate for real wilderness protection as the law was written and intended.

The willingness of certain conservation groups to compromise wilderness and their organization’s mission has been rewarded by lavish foundation funds, often from foundations like PEW (Sun Oil), founded with private profits derived from exploiting publicly owned resources.

We now see some well-funded conservation non-profits collaborating with the Forest Service and sacrificing wilderness, then accepting taxpayer funds for “in-kind” work participating in “partnerships” that serve the federal agency’s goals.

We conservationists should not advocate for deals that include release of protected wildland areas or the inclusion of non-conforming, wilderness damaging uses, baked into the very enabling legislation. Exercising the necessary altruism we must continue to instill a love for wilderness and rededicate ourselves to the mission of protecting areas for their wildness, using an ecosystem approach based on conservation biology principles, while accommodating traditional recreation to the extent it does not diminish wildness or other wilderness characteristics.

Stewart Brandborg, a fourth-generation Montanan, is the last surviving architect of the Wilderness Act of 1964. He served as the executive director of The Wilderness Society from 1964 to 1976. In 2010 Brandborg was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Montana – the highest honor UM can confer upon an individual – for his lifetime of work protecting wilderness and advocating for public lands and wildlife.

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