“Our ability to perceive beauty in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac with Other Essays on Conservation from Round River (1966)
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a monumental piece of legislation that allows for the designation and protection of carefully selected “wilderness areas” throughout the country. Wilderness areas enjoy the most stringent restrictions of all federally managed lands in the U.S.: no roads, vehicles or permanent structures allowed.
There are today more than 750 such areas totaling almost 110 million acres; one can find wilderness in all but six states. Alaska alone contains more than half of this acreage. Put another way, about 2.7 percent of the lower 48 is designated as wilderness—approximately the dimensions of Minnesota. Much of this land—more than 40 million acres—is managed by the National Park Service; the rest is divvied up between Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, and BLM. The Black Rock Desert – High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area is host to some 752,000 acres of wilderness either inside or abutting its borders, split into ten distinct areas.
The act’s passage in 1964 owes much to a dedicated cadre of conservationists, people who, to paraphrase Edward Abbey, knew “the idea of wilderness needs no defense—it only needs defenders.” People who agreed that “a wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” as stated in the act’s language. People like Howard Zahniser, Mardy Murie, Lyndon B. Johnson and Aldo Leopold, among others. But I’ve chosen to quote from a certain letter sent to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission on December 3, 1960, written by a certain literary conservationist named Wallace Stegner, to highlight a tract representative of that group’s groundbreaking vision:
I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people. It has no more to do with recreation than churches have to do with recreation, or than the strenuousness and optimism and expansiveness of what the historians call the “American Dream” have to do with recreation. Nevertheless, since it is only in this recreation survey that the values of wilderness are being compiled, I hope you will permit me to insert this idea between the leaves, as it were, of the recreation report. Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there—important, that is, simply as an idea.