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Wilderness, America's Second-Best Conservation Idea, Is Under Attack

Part 1: The Wilderness Act—A Short Primer: Franz Camenzind examines what official "wilderness" is.

Macon & Washakie Lakes, Wind River Range, Popo Agie Wilderness on the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Photo by Jim Peaco, courtesy National Park Service

The Wilderness Act: A Short Primer

If it’s true, as is widely accepted and as touted by the late Wallace Stegner, that national parks are America’s best idea, then I submit the nation’s second best idea is our system of wilderness areas.

Established with the passage of The National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, The Wilderness Act, as it is commonly known, has provided the legal framework to protect nearly 110 million acres of wild America from development and exploitation. Let’s ponder this.

By definition, wilderness areas are large, congressionally-designated tracks of public land set aside to retain their primeval character- “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Further, they pertain to an area that ”has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation”.  And, where “there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport”.  And, in addition, “where the land shall remain unimpaired for future use and enjoyment.”

What wilderness areas are, and that they are to exist in a privileged and protected state, is crystal clear. And, it is federal law. They are not merely physical and legal manifestations on the land, wilderness areas are a reflection of our values and, you could say, the anti-thesis of the often thoughtless attitudes that gave way to another of our 20th century inventions, America-style suburbia. 

Golf courses, with their manicured, tamed, artificial essences, albeit visually-pleasing and sedating, are the ultimate manifestations of a "safe" nature. They exist sculpted only on human terms with real wildness allowed only at the margins. You can get hurt there, by fairway tee-shots gone astray or lightning, but humans seldom must ponder forces larger than their own creation. If a grizzly bear crosses the 18th green, which can happen in the higher-elevation courses at Big Sky, it will quickly be reminded that it is out of its element and ushered away or worse; in wilderness, where we are visitors, restraining the innate human instinct to conquer, we are not the architects.

Mother Nature invites us into her cathedral and we are mandated to be respectful guests, getting more out of the experience if we leave trappings of modern world—ringing cell phones and internet service, music buds in our ears, the sounds of anything metal—behind. 

Designated wilderness areas are not arbitrary constructs defined by bureaucratic jargon or lyrical prose, they hold the inventory of ecologically functioning, native landscapes remaining from the original “wilderness” that encompassed the entire continent before European arrival.

These are lands, as known to native First Peoples, retaining the tangible richness that made America great.  They are the grounds upon which countless, unique, rare, threatened and endangered species rest their existence. They are the lands that protect entire watersheds – the sources of some of our nation’s greatest waterways. The places where natural selection might still play out. Wilderness areas are the keepers of rare fragments of our original landscapes, the unaltered remains of our nation’s natural heritage.
"So rare is this, so set apart, the challenge is not that wilderness doesn’t exist or isn’t relevant in our times, but that most Americans have become unable to appreciate places where people and machines, including kinetically-powered ones, are subservient to the law."  —Franz Camenzind
So rare is this, so set apart, the challenge is not that wilderness doesn’t exist or isn’t relevant in our times, but that most Americans have become unable to appreciate places where people and machines, including kinetically-powered ones, are subservient to the law.

Unlike our national parks, human entry into wilderness areas is meant to occur not by mechanized means, but only by the most primitive—the soles of our hiking boots and hooves of pack animals—and on simple, lightly-marked trails.

Human presence and imprint is meant to be transient, not permanent.  And like the U.S. Constitution, which distills description of fundamental human rights down to the spirit of what writers knew when they created it, the Wilderness Act has living, breathing contemporary relevancy.

By design, wildernesses were meant to be sanctuaries where personal revelations could occur at speeds no faster than human feet or a horse’s walk.  And, having known some of the people who were foundational in writing the law, there was never an intent to transform wildernesses into industrial-strength recreation areas or race courses.

Fish Creek Park, Wind River Range, Bridger Wilderness, Bridger-Teton National Forest. Photo by Jim Peaco, courtesy National Park Service
Fish Creek Park, Wind River Range, Bridger Wilderness, Bridger-Teton National Forest. Photo by Jim Peaco, courtesy National Park Service
What becomes permanent about our relationship with wilderness are the memories formed by the time spent visiting a wilderness- by living simply, slowly and quietly. By time spent listening and then hearing, searching and then seeing, learning and then reflecting.

Wilderness provides the landscape, real and mental upon which to glimpse our origins, experience the present and contemplate our future.

The Wilderness Act is not specifically the purview of any one government agency. Capital “W” status can be applied to all qualifying U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands.
 In that regard, it is estimated that over 400 million acres of federal lands still qualify for wilderness status but have not yet been so designated. (This estimate includes inventoried roadless areas of 1,000 acres or greater.) Thus, well over three-quarters of what remains of our original untrammeled landscape lies unprotected, vulnerable to excess uses and mechanical entry and development, all of which could forever negate future Wilderness Act protection.

Clearly, the task of protecting what remains of our pre-European natural history is not complete. In a crowded human anthill world, the time to designate more wilderness areas, giving them as a gift to the future, is upon us. If we fail to do so, particularly with today’s political and industrial pressures, we risk losing millions of acres of wilderness quality lands to development interests: energy extraction, road construction, privatization and a host of other schemes all of which, if permitted, would forever degrade these last wild lands.  The blue print for protection is in place, we have a law that works, now we must complete the project­– while supplies still last.

Next:  In part 2 of the ongoing MoJo series, "Modern Wilderness",  Camenzind will explore efforts underway in Congress to amend the Wilderness Act and undermine the essence of wilderness lands.  The push is being made ironically by people who claim to stand within the ranks of conservation.
Franz Camenzind
About Franz Camenzind

Dr. Franz Camenzind is a wildlife biologist turned filmmaker and environmental activist. In his career he conducted numerous wildlife assessments, often focusing on threatened and endangered species. Serendipitous opportunities lead him to a long career in the documentary film industry where he produced award-winning films on coyotes, wolves, grizzly bears, pronghorn antelope, giant pandas and black rhinos. Although now enjoying retirement in his Jackson, Wyoming home of 44 years, he is still very much involved in local, regional and national environmental issues. He spent 13 years as Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Prior to that he served on its board for 13 years and was one of the founding board members of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. In addition, Camenzind writes a column, Wild Ideas, often with a focus on the importance of Wilderness lands, for Mountain Journal.
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