Back to Stories

We Need Wilderness With No Apologies And No Regrets

A veteran of the American Wilderness movement says the debate over protecting the Gallatin Mountain Range near Yellowstone should not be a means for rationalizing further loss of wildlands

The Gallatin Mountains tower over Tom Miner Basin aflank of Montana's Paradise Valley. Wild and roadless, the range stretches from Yelllowstone National Park just to the left of this photograph all the way to the backyard of Bozeman, Livingston and Big Sky. Joe Scalia is challenging the Montana Wilderness Association, where he served as board president, to craft a bolder vision for wilderness protection than it is currently promoting.  Photo by Todd Wilkinson
The Gallatin Mountains tower over Tom Miner Basin aflank of Montana's Paradise Valley. Wild and roadless, the range stretches from Yelllowstone National Park just to the left of this photograph all the way to the backyard of Bozeman, Livingston and Big Sky. Joe Scalia is challenging the Montana Wilderness Association, where he served as board president, to craft a bolder vision for wilderness protection than it is currently promoting. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
"In history as in human life, regret does not bring back a lost moment, and a thousand years will not recover something lost in a single hour." - Stephen Zwieg

In 1935, the fabled United States Forest Service administrator Elers Koch opened his elegiac The Passing of the Lolo Trail with the cry, “The Lolo Trail is no more.” 

Later, he laments, “I wish that I could turn the clock back and make a plea for preserving the area as it was twenty-five or even five years ago. Alas, it is too late.”

Those words ring true again today, right now, with an impending decision from the Custer-Gallatin National Forest involving potential protection of roadless, wilderness-caliber lands just north of Yellowstone National Park.

The fate of this rare sweep of forested drainages that flank both sides of the Gallatin Mountain Range and extend from the park to back doorstep of Bozeman, Livingston and Big Sky, is considered one of the most important conservation opportunities before the public in 40 years. And it involves a crucial pillar core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Once the decision is made, there will be no turning the clock back, no lamenting what forest leadership and conservationists did or didn’t do. 

Wilderness-caliber lands are already rare and getting rarer. Why would something like this be surrendered willingly without holding the line, especially from those who say they are devoted to conservation?

Well-meaning and thoughtful people, like Koch clearly was in his time, have agreed to a plan which "releases" (gives away) tens of thousands of acres in the Gallatin Range’s Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn (HPBH) Wilderness Study Area (WSA) from potential designation as a Wilderness Area. 

Scientific opinion on this relinquishment is that doing so would cause great harm to a rich and highly interdependent Greater Yellowstone, sacrificing vast acreage of low-elevation wilderness and crucial biodiversity. To say nothing of the aesthetic violence it would yield and which is prolific across most of this country.

Will we, or they, later mourn its loss and regret its compromise with a consumerist-recreationist mentality which presumes that aphoristic ideological memes like “multiple use” and “balanced use” do not violate the grandeur we are on the verge of imperiling? 

° ° ° °  

I realize that the dominant conservation groups proposing this action have worked long and hard at collaborating and compromising, with the rationale that their method is practical, and more attuned to contemporary times than were the strategies of Wilderness advocates of 10 and 20 or more years ago. I can appreciate a reasoning along the lines of, “In today’s climate, we’re not going to get all we want, so let’s get what we can.” 

I once subscribed to such thinking. At the same time, I also appreciate a hardline insistence that we not compromise our values and ethics in favor of presumed practicality. 
From the top of the Bridger Mountains, the Gallatins rise in the distance at the south end of Bozeman. In-between those ranges, sprawling development is rapidly filling in, one harbinger of how wildlands and wildlife are going to face increasing human pressure in the future. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
From the top of the Bridger Mountains, the Gallatins rise in the distance at the south end of Bozeman. In-between those ranges, sprawling development is rapidly filling in, one harbinger of how wildlands and wildlife are going to face increasing human pressure in the future. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
The message that wilderness advocates might once again enter the general societal fray with a wake-up to what Wilderness in the broadest sense means, and can mean, to humankind now and in the future, is a compelling clarion call. Yet, this hardline insistence, too, may be overlooking something crucial.

The mainstream groups are now being challenged with important questions raised by scientists, veteran public land managers, business people, wildlife advocates, citizens old and young. The sentiment in these broadly differentiated positions comes down to, as Todd Wilkinson recently described it in a story that appeared in Mountain Journal:

“groups with ‘wilderness’ in their names shying away from advocating for as much capital ‘W’ as they can get protected, arguing they are only interested in pursuing things they deem ‘politically practical,’”

and

‘… women and men, once young now old, who say the 21st-century cause of conservation doesn’t have the stomach nor the heart or chutzpah—as it used to—for doing what it takes to inspire the masses and pressure elected officials into safeguarding as much remaining roadless country as possible since so much is rapidly being lost.”

Journalist Wilkinson, who has been writing about American conservation for more than 30 years, elaborated referencing those “who insist talk of wilderness preservation is passé, and that the focus of public lands ought to be on maximizing as much use—be it for mining, energy development, logging, commercial outdoor recreation and trails - as they can hold …” 

In contrast, he called attention in another story to "young wilderness stalwarts who think differently. They [i.e., the latter group’s members] are teaching their generations that defending special places is a virtuous endeavor, even if it means they can’t do everything they want inside of them."

With the latter, he was introducing the fresh young leadership of the Wyoming Wilderness Association which many see as a needed resurgence of what groups like the Montana Wilderness Association used to be a few decades ago.

I happen to know because, as a younger Montanan, I became an inspired member of MWA and later, as a board member of the organization, served with mentors who today are revered in our memories and to whom we should be grateful for bravely holding the line on wildland protection that today sets us apart in the country and the world. 

Nothing of what they did can, in hindsight, be considered “radical,” at least not in the term’s maligned usage.

° ° ° °

But I am wondering about something “radical” now, drawing on a rigorous and disciplined usage of the term, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it:

radical

when used as adjective:

1.  (especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough:

forming an inherent or fundamental part of the nature of someone or something:

2.  advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social change…

3. Botany of, or springing direct from, the root or stem base of a plant.

when referenced as a noun

1.  a person who advocates thorough or complete political or social change, or a member of a political party or section of a party pursuing such aims.

– ORIGIN:  late Middle English (in the senses ‘forming the root’ and ‘inherent’): from late Latin radicalis, from Latin radix, radic- ‘root’.


° ° ° °

Therefrom, I am arguing that we need a fresh ethic of wilderness preservation that explicitly avows, that openly declares, that we must, with greater ecological knowledge, look at the entire fabric of our world and its complex interrelatedness if we are to stand a chance of accomplishing anything stable. The idea is akin to the notion that if we want a tree to stand, we must protect its vast and sublimely elaborate root system.

May I remind that everything we hold dear about America today started with kernels of radicalism challenging status quo thinking. 

I recognize that there is no hardline right or wrong here. However, I wish to offer another vision different from what either side of the wilderness debate is addressing. As both the “compromise and collaborate” and “practical, reasonable” sides argue, we are not living in 1964 when the Wilderness Act was passed. So many things are different.

Indeed, we have a much deeper understanding of the role that wildlands protection plays ecologically. Back in 1964, there were 3.25 billion people living on the planet; today, we are approaching eight billion!

The unloaded Gallatin Mountains, highlighted by white border, extend from Yellowstone past the booming resort community of Big Sky northward to the Gallatin Valley south of Bozeman. Map courtesy EcoFlight
The unloaded Gallatin Mountains, highlighted by white border, extend from Yellowstone past the booming resort community of Big Sky northward to the Gallatin Valley south of Bozeman. Map courtesy EcoFlight
We have continued to extract and otherwise utilize the earth’s resources such that we have caused numerous types of deeply disturbing harm to our home, rendering it unrecognizable from an earlier awe, one which we cannot anticipate, even imagine, fully recovering. Massive deforestation – with its loss of ancient trees and the complex ecologies their forests sustained, biodiversity devastation, ocean acidification, and climate catastrophe are but a small start to a heartbreaking, indeed soul-crushing litany of losses and earthly deformations. 

So great is the traumatic effect on us to merely hold those things in mind, that, as a psychoanalyst, I worry that we collectively are unable to take account of it and thereby respond meaningfully to it. And what will bode with the coming disruptions brought by climate change?

Yet, perhaps a new kind of radical environmentalists, who understand the planet’s life-support system, can bear the thoughts, and can instantiate and hold a mental space for caring, sensitive souls to attempt to follow suit. New leaders are necessary to usher forth a new vision.

A great deal of damage has been done to activism. It has occurred in recent decades, cumulatively necessitating an arguably different path than earlier ones of Wilderness politics.

I was President of the Montana Wilderness Association during a period when the “collaboration and compromise” strategy of getting things done was being incrementally put in place. At that time, I thought we were doing the right thing.

There were then already 6.5 billion humans on the planet and we invoked again the single metric of rapid planetary change. There was a strong sense that something had to be done, and that the old ways weren’t yielding successes anymore. But the path that we and the more politically influential wilderness advocacy groups took is now obviously debatable. 
While the peaks of the Gallatin Range catch the eye, it's their forested drainages, like Porcupine and Buffalo Horn creeks, that are cradles of biological diversity and provide undisturbed habitat for wildlife. These areas serve as refuges that will grow in their importance as landscape development occurs and the impacts of climate change land harder.  Many scientists say the best way to protect these areas is as wilderness. Photo courtesy EcoFlight (ecoflight.org).  Mountain Journal recommends that you support EcoFlight.
While the peaks of the Gallatin Range catch the eye, it's their forested drainages, like Porcupine and Buffalo Horn creeks, that are cradles of biological diversity and provide undisturbed habitat for wildlife. These areas serve as refuges that will grow in their importance as landscape development occurs and the impacts of climate change land harder. Many scientists say the best way to protect these areas is as wilderness. Photo courtesy EcoFlight (ecoflight.org). Mountain Journal recommends that you support EcoFlight.
I want to urge much-needed political and economic reflection on our understanding of environmentalism. In that vein, we can logically wonder the following:

If it is true that past strategies were not yielding results as they once had, it may be due to an ever greater economization of thought, as political philosopher Wendy Brown puts it in her book Undoing the Demos: The Economization of Everything

Demos is not a reference to the Democratic Party. It is an ancient Greek reference to "the common people."

Brown shows how, more and more, all is being made to fit seamlessly and without protest into the neoliberal capitalistic worldview ushered in with Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It attaches a price to everything, even things that so obviously cannot be quantified in economic terms, i.e. priceless things that once squandered cannot be replaced. 

It is a worldview which has been snowballing ever since the 1980s, in the US with both the Republican and Democratic Parties equally to blame. As Noam Chomsky has aphoristically put it, “We no longer have a two-party system; we have a one-party system, the Capital Party.”

° ° ° °

So allow me to elaborate with the hope you will understand the parallel to which I am alluding. 

To fit in with neoliberal changes and the dominance of the Capital Party’s money and influence in determining ideology, theory, and even ethics, institutional changes were often made with terrible blind spots. There are two to which I have close ties, and can speak most knowledgably of. 

One is the abysmally and newly-named “behavioral and mental health field.” Many scholars have written perspicaciously and radically about this, so I will state it in brief.

When the insurance-pharmaceutical industrial complex came into prominence with Reaganomics and neoliberal capitalism, and abetted further by the Clinton Administration, most professions of the human psyche soon joined suit, and rendered what has become the insurance-pharmaceutical-psychological industrial complex. 

It made people suffering catastrophic injury, getting sick, and struggling with the stresses of modern life a model for big business.

With no epistemologically defensible support whatsoever, one of today’s “Fake News” forms was thus born.  A new language was developed as though it constituted truth, a language which gave a false credence to ideas that created new opportunities for making money out of human suffering for the new industrial complex.

I remember that the Montana Counseling licensing body for psychological therapy amended its Code of Ethics at the time to make it “ethical” to comply with this new set of institutions; it was a sobering and disturbing look at what the demos can be willing to compromise. This one I was able to see for what it was.

° ° ° °

The other institution I saw fit into the changes wrought by neoliberal capitalism and its ideologically transmuting tendrils was, interesting enough, the Wilderness movement. This one I did not recognize for what it was.

I supported the new lexicon of “compromising” without realizing that it was also inhering a compromise and diminishment of environmental ethics, and even ethics writ large. It became a rationalization for groups to begin any discussion about conservation from a pre-compromised position. It has resulted in rare things being given away that should not be on any so-called bargaining table.

"I supported the new lexicon of 'compromising' without realizing that it was also inhering a compromise and diminishment of environmental ethics, and even ethics writ large. It became a rationalization for groups to begin any discussion about conservation from a pre-compromised position. It has resulted in rare things being given away that should not be on any so-called bargaining table."
I’ve written above about the conscious rationale we had at Montana Wilderness Association at the time, a rationale today shared by other groups undergoing similar changes, groups like The Wilderness Society and Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Again, I write from the perspective of personal experience because I took part in the discussions and the rationalization that occurred. The strategy is one that I believe will result in profound regret.

Indeed, these three groups represent the limited environmental group component of the Gallatin Forest Partnership, which proposes a relinquishing of much of the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn from Wilderness recommendation.

At Montana Wilderness Association, we were caught up in, as I would put it, what has befallen so much of the nonprofit organizational world. We were becoming, without realizing it, part of the economization of everything. 

We thought we needed to raise more money, to develop a bigger budget, so that we could be more influential, more successful in achieving our wilderness preservation goals.

We, like so many Big Greens, and like so much of the nonprofit world has done, allied with donors with deep pockets and gear-selling companies seeking to profit upon the rare wild backcountry by gaining increased access. Our new allies came with their own worldviews, their own belief in and profiting from neoliberalism’s economization of everything. They, like I at the time, didn’t know that we weren’t really environmentalists and conservationists; that is, we hadn’t earned our stripes by putting protection of nature ahead of our own personal aspirations. 

Those older guard environmental group leaders and fighters who maintained a pre-neoliberalism course found themselves displaced from their positions within the organizations who were unwittingly undoing the demos and the spirit of the so-called Wilderness Wars. Their efforts had helped to protect the public land base and homelands for wildlife that still persist today yet the new breed claimed such victories were outdated.
"Those older guard environmental group leaders and fighters who maintained a pre-neoliberalism course found themselves displaced from their positions within the organizations who were unwittingly undoing the demos and the spirit of the so-called Wilderness Wars."
But even if what I’ve just described is a serviceable set of conceptualizations, it brings us to another point, one from which we must say that the “old guard with sufficient chutzpah” is also unwittingly lacking in something vital.

It just might be that to radically—which is one way to say “adequately”—address environmentalism and wilderness preservation necessitates our simultaneously radically addressing the larger socio-political and politico-economic situations in which the world finds itself today. 

That position is that Wilderness preservation today might have to situate itself in a new paradigm, one heretofore unnamed in its discourse. 

It might be crucial to enunciate, and inspire the mass call for not only much more Wilderness designation and thus preservation of the web of life, but the inextricably linked need to attend to connections across peoples and their practices with themselves, with each other, and with their earthly surrounds. It is advancing and safeguarding diversity—human and natural— in its broadest sense.

Yes, we wilderness preservationists might need to have the “chutzpah” to aim at inspiring a collective ethic of the good-of-the-all —the all being both the earth as an integral planetary entity, and the demos—“the people" as an integral species that is equally integral with all species on the globe.  

That is, our vitalities and even sustainabilities, might be inextricably interdependent but it is different from justifying protection of wilderness only so that it can be used and consumed by us without consideration given to the needs of other life forms

We might need to become part of, explicitly avow, and consider in all our actions, the necessity of “redoing the demos” if we are to save the earth from our current cannibalistic and narcissistic blindness. This as  human population growth surges toward 10 billion of us planetwide; and with important parts of Greater Yellowstone being flooded by people fleeing already-compromised other environments. 

If wilderness preservationists today are to revitalize the Wilderness movement, it might be insufficient to merely return to the nonetheless enviable aim of a few decades ago—to “inspire the masses and pressure elected officials into safeguarding as much remaining roadless country as possible since so much is rapidly being lost,” as stated in the Mountain Journal news story.

We do indeed live in a different world today. Wilderness hasn't become less relevant. It is more valuable than ever. But rather than “pursuing things that are politically practical" as an answer claiming that wilderness preservation needs to meet the material needs of today’s civilization; and rather than resurrecting a bygone radical political cartography, perhaps it is time to enunciate, and inspire the mass call for all just causes—causes which are, ultimately, mutually dependent upon each other. Causes that welcome all to have a role in safeguarding something more.

We should make this charge explicit, and make it part of any wilderness preservation mission, that the vision we need must be forward-thinking, not backward minded. This would give all of “us” a place in the satisfaction of doing something together that is noble and inclusionary. It will also give us, though it eluded Elers Koch, few regrets about being shortsighted.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mountain Journal welcomes op-eds from other individuals and groups weighing in on the future of wilderness in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Contact us.

Joseph Scalia III
About Joseph Scalia III

Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D. is a practicing psychoanalyst in Livingston, Montana. He was President of Montana Wilderness Association from 2006-2008, and served on its State Council for seven years. He's been involved with conservation issues for decades.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
GET OUR FREE NEWSLETTER
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places

CONTRIBUTE
CONTRIBUTE