Back to Stories

Wired Differently: Young Americans And Wildland Conservation

Professor Don Snow, life-long student of the West, reflects on the generational divides in thinking about nature—what's an improvement and what might not be

Gazing into the maw of the South Unit of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, students from Whitman College are encouraged  to reflect upon and challenge conventional notions of "the West," including whose voices have been left out of discussions and history books. The South Unit of Badlands today is co-managed between the Oglala (Lakota) Nation and the National Park Service. Photo courtesy Todd Wilkinson
Gazing into the maw of the South Unit of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, students from Whitman College are encouraged to reflect upon and challenge conventional notions of "the West," including whose voices have been left out of discussions and history books. The South Unit of Badlands today is co-managed between the Oglala (Lakota) Nation and the National Park Service. Photo courtesy Todd Wilkinson

By Todd Wilkinson

It’s not often enough these days, in times when print media is facing huge existential challenges, that we find astute, forward-thinking commentary about environmental issues in the West.

Really informed perspectives; reporting that doesn't involve journalists parachuting out of the sky from newsrooms in Washington DC, New York or LA who deliver superficial pieces or analyses and then leave, having treated the terrain they've covered as if they entered a foreign land.

While any people reading these words knows that  the mission of non-profit Mountain Journal is on Greater Yellowstone and extrapolating lessons learned here to the rest of the West, MoJo is hardly the first. Among the best has been High Country News, occasional essays by Orion and commentary found in a now long- dormant publication based in Missoula, Montana called Northern Lights

For a while it was directed by an old friend named Don Snow, who in the last couple of decades has been a highly-respected professor of environmental studies at Whitman College. He is one of the foremost thinkers about this amorphous thing we call “the New West.”

Here is part of a conversation I had not long ago you may find of interest.

TODD WILKINSON: A criticism leveled at younger generations is they seem to hold less regard for how 650 million acres of public land they own got protected. 

DON SNOW: I have been dealing with those younger generations for 30 years in the college classroom both at the University of Montana and at Whitman College.  They are not the cause of American indifference to history, but they certainly reflect it.  If your parents, teachers and mentors don’t emphasize the value of history and the sense of contextualization which history uniquely brings, then it’s no wonder that you carry the same disease.  

The public lands are remarkably easy to take for granted, but if you study their history— the distinct histories of how all four domains of federal lands came into being—you’ll readily see how vulnerable these “given” lands actually are. The public lands are ceaselessly under attack by forces of privatization, incompetence, and indifference.  

TW: Was there more excitement by previous generations in going to work for a government natural resource agency like the Park Service and Forest Service?

SNOW: Teaching at a very environmental college, I see practically no students today with goals to work for federal environmental agencies.  

TW: Politics has hardened cultural divides. Is it reflected on campus? 

SNOW: My students today are utterly shocked to learn that the Endangered Species Act, perhaps the strongest of all the federal environmental laws passed in the 70s, went through with hardly a dissenting vote. Nixon, a Republican, signed it and the Clean Water Act, too.  The etceteras go on and on.

TW: So, are generational comparisons exaggerated?

SNOW: I do see some helplessness, and I do hear some tones of despair, but what I mostly hear are questions and pleas for meaningful involvement. I do not agree that so-called Millennials are jaded, cynical, or disconnected.  I think many are rightfully confused, in ways I was not, because so many avenues that were open to my generation now seem either closed or futile. I push back on that portrayal of Millennials pretty hard.

TW: Academia, especially urban universities, pay a lot of attention to environmental social justice issues but what about concern for non-human species?

Professor Don Snow, student of the West and changing attitudes of young people
Professor Don Snow, student of the West and changing attitudes of young people
SNOW
: It’s true – there is generally less interest and enthusiasm for wildlands conservation, per se. In fact, students today are being taught to sneer at it. There’s a potent literature out there which depicts the original wildlands conservation movement as privileged, white, racist, nativist, and four or five other ‘ists’ we’ve been taught to despise.

When the emphasis is placed only on the human side of the wildlands conservation argument, it’s very easy to – as we like to say in academia – “problematize” most conservation histories and strategies.   But this is what I tell students: I quote an old Grace Slick line from a Jefferson Airplane classic,  “doesn’t mean shit to a tree.” 
"There is generally less interest and enthusiasm for wildlands conservation, per se. In fact, students today are being taught to sneer at it. There’s a potent literature out there which depicts the original wildlands conservation movement as privileged, white, racist, nativist, and four or five other ‘ists’ we’ve been taught to despise."  —Don Snow
TW: And the translation of that is?

SNOW: Pay more attention to the non-human side of the wildlands conservation argument. The lands (and waters) themselves; the wildlife and plant life, fungi, soil ecologies.  In a word, habitat

Wildlands conservation efforts, from the 19thcentury until today, have tried to be responsible for what writer David Abram calls the more-than-human world.  That attention to the non-human doesn’t excuse or forgive insensitivity to people, but noticing its deeper implications can really help restore some contemporary faith in wildlands protection. The center of the target happens to be the original center of the conservation-environmental movement in the first place: human concern for the non-human world, in the face of exploding human populations, technologies, economies, cities, footprints.  It doesn’t make you a misanthrope to say so. 
Students from Whitman College, partaking in the college's lauded "Semester in the West" program that puts them on the road for 100 days, listen to Lakota restauranteur Betty O'Rourke on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  Todd Wilkinson photo
Students from Whitman College, partaking in the college's lauded "Semester in the West" program that puts them on the road for 100 days, listen to Lakota restauranteur Betty O'Rourke on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Todd Wilkinson photo

TW: If a Whitman student says, "I don't care about the survival of a grizzly bear. I want another trail to mountain bike on,” what do you suggest they consider?

SNOW: Restoring faith and interest in quietude, contemplation, solitude, natural beauty, respect toward beings outside of ourselves.

Aldo Leopold said, in reference to species extinction, “for one creature to mourn the passing of another is a new thing under the sun.”  He penned that line en route to his articulation of a land ethic in A Sand County Almanac.  I consider it to be one of the most radical and profound lines in the book.  

What is not a new thing under the sun is the gluttonous feeding of the human ego. Wild places were not set “apart” for the mere purposes of human pleasure and self-gratification. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area should not be renamed Fun Hog High Speed Wheeled Machine Place.  It’s true that things change over time.  It’s not true that all change is for the better.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Make sure you never miss a MoJo story by signing up for our free weekly newsletter. Click here: https://bit.ly/3cYVBtK


Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
GET OUR FREE NEWSLETTER
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places

SUPPORT US
SUPPORT US