A lot is being said about wilderness these days: some misrepresentations and a lot of confusion as to what wilderness is — legally and ecologically.
First, the 1964 Wilderness Act is the best land protection law our nation has. As a speaker at the third World Wilderness Conference said, “Wilderness is nature in its original condition.” And the Wilderness Act provides the legal framework for preserving nature’s original condition.
However, this Act is more than just a law; it’s a national commitment to preserve the last remnants of our native landscape to serve as arks of life and reminders of our origins. Wilderness preservation is not unlike our commitment to preserve the history embodied within the hallowed battlefields of the Civil War. It also compliments our commitment to preserve some of humankind’s most extraordinary works of art in the National Gallery of Art and so too, centuries of writings in our Library of Congress.
Our nation has guided the world in the protection of outstanding landscapes and their dependent life forms as highlighted by our extraordinary systems of National Parks and Monuments, along with our National Forests and Wildlife Refuges. And bolstering this legacy, the Wilderness Act commits to protecting select landscapes in their original condition.
The Wilderness Act currently protects about 110 million acres of our “original condition” land—a bit less than three percent of the lower 48 states. But our work is far from complete. At last count, well over 100 million acres of wilderness quality, roadless areas and Wilderness Study Areas need Wilderness Designation.
The Wilderness Act is nothing less than our Nation’s commitment to preserving these last remnants of our continent as it was before the European invasion.
The challenge, and the irony, is that unlike the arts and literature, wilderness cannot be created — it can only be protected. Just as the 300 square-mile Jonah Field in western Wyoming exists where oil and gas occurs, so only can wilderness be protected where it occurs.
Some say a Wilderness Designation is tantamount to a “lock-out.”
Wilderness is not a “lock-out”— anyone can enter on foot, skis, canoe, kayak, horseback or wheel chair. Anyone can backpack and camp, and any license-holder can enter to hunt and fish.
What wilderness excludes is entry by mechanized transport and the commercial extraction of resources, the building of dams and roads, the flying of drones and the landing of aircraft. It allows whipsaws, but not chain saws. It welcomes footsteps and sweat, but not motorized conveniences.
Nor is wilderness a place to be raced through on mountain bikes. Instead, it’s a place to be experienced as it was before the invention of the wheel. It’s incredulous to think that anyone capable of riding a mountain bike into a Wilderness Area would not be able to walk or ride a horse into the same landscape.
At most, wilderness is a filter that asks nothing more of those seeking entry than to check mechanization at the trailhead. Wilderness protects the land’s “original condition”— its native life, ecological processes, sounds (and silence) and visual attributes.
Wilderness areas shape our quality of life by challenging our bodies and re-creating our spirits.
Wilderness also protects watersheds and provides wildlife with secure habitats and movement corridors at a time when globally, the rate of wilderness loss is nearly double the rate of protection. And recent studies have estimated that our public lands, particularly our national parks and wilderness areas, bring billions of dollars annually into the country.
Unfortunately, our wildlands are under an unprecedented attack by some elected officials urged on by industrial forces and hyper-zealous recreationists. Some bills in Congress would do away with roadless lands and Wilderness Study Areas and open them to hard-core commercial and recreation uses. Other bills would effectively turn Wilderness areas into multiple use lands subject to the whim of humans, rather than places shaped by the forces of nature.
If any of these bills become law, literally hundreds of millions of acres of “original condition” lands could be turned over to special interests for commercialization and degradation.
Which will it be: conservation or commercialization? When it comes to wilderness, we can’t have it both ways.
Franz Camenzind, Ph.D., is a wildlife biologist and the Vice-President of Wilderness Watch’s (www.wildernesswatch.org) board of directors. He lives in Jackson, Wyoming.