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Why Wilderness Matters

Mark Allison, Executive Director

October 2014

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Wilderness Act, the gold standard of federal public land protection, which codified an entirely new way of valuing special wild places for their intrinsic worth. It is vitally important that we remember the shoulders we stand upon and recognize the responsibility we have for further realizing that original vision. It is now our turn to make our own contributions to protect the increasingly rare wild that still remains.

If you are already one of our thousands of members, thank you for your support and for standing up for wilderness. If you aren’t yet a member but are interested in joining a passionate, scrappy and effective group dedicated to protecting New Mexico’s wilderness, please give us a call or visit our website. I can’t think of anything that compares with the feeling of being part of a successful effort to permanently protect these special places so that future generations unknown to us will still have the opportunity to experience the humility, the wonder and awe that comes from wilderness.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and rededicate ourselves to the values it articulates, a small but persistent voice of opposition can be heard from time to time on the wind. Of course, there have always been those representing selfish commercial interests who don’t believe any land should be off limits to for-profit exploitation. And the philosophical objection of those opposed to public lands in general is not new. Nor is the demagoguery of those who stoke those sentiments for their own narrow political reasons.

More insidious, perhaps, is an increasingly fashionable strain of thinking in certain circles that the Wilderness Act was a well-intentioned but romantic distraction or, in the most recent manifestation of this argument, that it is antiquated, no longer necessary and even harmful to the very places meant to be protected. We hear that it is quaint and that since no place is actually pristine from human behavior, the value of self-willed places is a dangerous conceit.

For example, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (“The Wilderness Act is Facing a Midlife Crisis,” July 5, 2014) the author offers us the following instruction:

“We need to rethink the Wilderness Act. We need to toss out the ‘hands-off’ philosophy that has guided our stewardship for 50 years. We must replace it with a more nuanced, flexible approach — including a willingness to put our hands on America’s wildest places more, not less, if we’re going to help them to adapt and thrive in the diminished future we’ve thrust upon them.”

Maybe that sounds reasonable to some. I respectfully disagree.

I think arguments like this fundamentally misunderstand what wilderness is or what makes it qualitatively different. They evidence a failure to internalize why wilderness matters, why it still matters—as much now as ever before. Practically, politically, these arguments sounds naïve and dangerous to me. They are a slippery slope that will inevitably aid and abet those who are hostile to the idea of wilderness and who would despoil our precious few remaining protected wild places. Would there be any place left free from the belching of bulldozers and the din of chainsaws?

There will be a great and spirited “treatment” of this at the national Wilderness 50 conference in Albuquerque in October, I’m sure. Instead of countering these arguments at length in this space we reprint the following essay as an eloquent statement of our position.      

A Letter to My Friends in Wilderness

by George Duffy

As my life comes to a close, I feel compelled to express my gratitude to those of you who have journeyed together with me in wilderness and contributed to my understanding of wilderness and subsequently of myself.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 marked a turning point in America’s attitude toward wild places. It was an acknowledgment that their loss was accelerating and would soon lead to a society impoverished by the absence of the fundamental relationship between humans and the lands that defined them.

The language of the Act…reads more like poetry than law and evokes an emotional response that invites introspection and the vision of a future expressive of our concern for restraint and accommodation of other life forms.

The Wilderness Act will challenge and enrich scholars, legal experts, wilderness managers, and wilderness advocates for as long as there is wilderness. We can only hope that the spirit that created this awareness of our place in the natural order prevails in our thinking. [Today our collective] commitment to America’s wilderness is being challenged by all manner of argument.

Within the [Forest Service] agency, there are those who are impatient with the idea of the minimum tool and craft arguments to justify the use of chain saws, trail machines, jackhammers, helicopters, and other expedients for the sake of convenience or economy.

There are those who are wedded to the idea of mitigating the challenges of wilderness by constructing improvements, identifying and removing hazards, writing detailed guidebooks, and publishing detailed maps.

There are those who feel that the existing definition of wilderness may be inappropriate to an evolving social conscience rooted in technology, urbanization, and speed, and that management must be modified to reflect those changing social values.

There are those who feel that human intervention in natural processes within wilderness is necessary when those processes don’t fit their perceptions of what is natural.

There are those who hold an anthropocentric rather than biocentric view of wilderness and accordingly suggest that accommodation for human use, rather than preserving an untrammeled wilderness resource, be the paramount consideration when shaping wilderness policy.

Outside the agencies, there are those who, in their eagerness to see more public lands gain the protection of wilderness, have agreed to… provisions that compromise the wilderness quality of the very lands they wish to preserve.

There are those who think of wilderness as beautiful landscapes or wildlife sanctuaries or recreation areas rather than as places that integrate the enduring physical, biological, and spiritual dynamics of an untrammeled part of the earth.

The authors of the Wilderness Act held no such views. They were keenly aware that there were but few remnants of the landscapes that had shaped the American character, and they wanted to ensure that these were preserved in the condition of wildness that confronted and influenced our early pioneers

They knew that wilderness had to remain a point of reference in both our natural and cultural histories, an enduring benchmark for our journey through time and space, unchanged by human intervention and subject only to natural forces.

They knew that wilderness was an indispensable part of our humanness and was critical to our understanding of our place in the universe.

Today, the American public can be grateful that you have been vigilant…

I am extremely grateful to you for having chosen to be stewards of these lands. You have assumed a sacred trust, to be executed with reverence, humility, and a profound sense of responsibility.

You are engaged in no less than preserving the nation’s precious remaining repositories of wildness and guarding the permanent home of our human spirit.

As you enter another year of wilderness stewardship, please be as caring of yourselves as you are for wilderness.

Take the time to open yourselves fully to the dynamics of wild landscapes and their effects on your mind, body, and spirit. Share your passions with your colleagues and the earth. Become fully alive.

These days you share with wildness are gifts you will treasure forever.

My fondest memories are of those times when I felt nature’s influences most keenly:

Lying in a sunny meadow and sensing that all the spirits there were filling my being with strengths unknown and unknowable;

Feeling a timeless wisdom trying to order my thoughts to wholeness.

For most of us, our connection with wilderness is commonly understood to be primarily rooted in the cultural and aesthetic responses that evolved from the experiences of early explorers and settlers in the new landscapes of America.

We have recently discovered, however, that the underlying basis for our responses to wilderness goes deeper—much deeper.

[T]he mapping of the human genome confirmed that, genetically, we are still wild, Pleistocene creatures.

Finally, an answer as to why we feel so at home in wilderness.

[Paul Shepard said that] “The time is coming to understand the wilderness in its significance, not as adjunct to the affluent traveler, to an educated, esthetic, appreciative class, or to thinking of nature as a Noah’s ark in all of its forms, but as the social and ecological mold of humanity itself, which is fundamental to our species.”

I have but one request of you.

Go. Find yourself in the wilderness. Be at home.

Let your genes once again find expression in the world that defined them.

When we first walk into wilderness, we feel like alien creatures, intruding into the unknown, but if we stay a while… and pay attention to ourselves, those gifts become apparent.

The awkwardness we first felt when moving over broken ground has been replaced by a fluid economical rhythm of movement that seems almost effortless.

These are not new skills learned; they are ancient abilities recalled—pulled from the shelves of that genetic library deep within our being.

As we peer into campfire flames, the comfort of thousands of fires, in thousands of caves, over thousands of years, warms us from the inside as well from the outside.

The diminuendo of the canyon wren and the raucous scolding of the Steller’s jay invite our hearts to sing.

The warmth of the sun and the snap of the cold affirm that we are alive, and vulnerable.

The mountains, the deserts, the storms, and the rivers challenge our cunning and demand our respect.

The vastness of the landscape humbles and fixes us in scale.

As we lie on the earth in the evening, the march of Orion across the heavens fixes us in time.

We are still those Pleistocene creatures—at home and full of the wonder of being.

This is the wildness in our genes, found manifest in a simple, bipedal hominid, surrounded by a peace that transcends time, and in a place we shall always need—wilderness.

Thank you.

George Duffy, Wilderness Ranger

George Duffy passed away one month after this excerpted essay was originally published in our spring 2010 newsletter. George was a member, volunteer, mentor and a dear friend to NM Wild. He was a retired Forest Service wilderness ranger and an avid climber and backpacker. We will always remember George as a man of great personal strength, integrity and passion for the wild lands and wildlife we all care so much about.

The article can be read in its entirety at http://www.nmwild.org/nmwa/wp-content/uploads/newsletters/nmwa_2010_spring.pdf