Today is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, passed to protect public land from development, among other reasons. The Act initially protected 9 million acres, but since then Congress has increased the total to over 100 million. Impressive, but far short of protecting many hundreds of millions of additional acres of wilderness that is threatened.
What is wilderness? Why does it need to be protected? The Wilderness Act gives us a definition, and Wallace Stegner gave us his reason in his Wilderness Letter,
written as the drive to protect our environment was picking up steam.
The Wilderness Act says:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”
Here's what Stegner said:
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 . . .Wallace Stegner, Wilderness Letter
The more urban it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our literature, and I believe our people, have become. For myself, I grew up on the empty plains of Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah, and I put a very high valuation on what those places gave me. And if I had not been able to periodically to renew myself in the mountains and deserts of western America I would be very nearly bughouse. Even when I can't get to the back country, the thought of the colored deserts of southern Utah, or the reassurance that there are still stretches of prairies where the world can be instantaneously perceived as disk and bowl, and where the little but intensely important human being is exposed to the five directions of the thirty-six winds, is a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me.
...[Robbers Roost in Utah] is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such as wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven't the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and the Robbers' Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know. And if they can't even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there...
...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.
Stegner's words helped inspire the authors of the Wilderness Act. Today, with over 100 million acres of wilderness protected by Congress, there is much to be grateful for. But there is also much to be done. Much of southern Utah that Stegner wrote so passionately about, remains unprotected. Republicans in Congress have blocked Americas Redrock Wilderness Act---which would protect over 9 million acres of public land---for over 20 years. They have also blocked consideration of almost every other wilderness bill since Obama took office.
President Obama has a tool he can use to protect our public land: his authority to create National Monuments under the Antiquities Act. Every president since Teddy Roosevelt except two have used this authority to protect public land when Congress and special interests blocked legislation. He should use this authority now, and create a conservation legacy for himself---and for the American people.
Our wilderness legacy is being celebrated across the country today, and here is a sampling of what people are saying: