It's been a good year for wilderness. In March, the Omnibus Lands Bill designated over 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states. In September, President Obama declared a month-long celebration of the Wilderness Act, and this November, the United States, Canada and Mexico signed the world's first international agreement on wilderness conservation.
Perhaps because wilderness has been getting serious consideration in Washington, there's been a backlash. Proposals for new wilderness areas—especially the big ones being debated in Utah and the Northern Rockies—become punching bags for those who regard wilderness as a four-letter word. Opponents say it blocks access, locks up resources and worsens fire problems. They claim it hinders local use of the land, reserving it for the rich and out-of-state.
The criticisms offer an opportunity to set a few things straight. First, although some claim wilderness excludes people, it's good to recall that Congress created the designation "for the use and enjoyment of the American people." Early wilderness proponents were hunters, stock riders, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Seeing how roads brought more and more cars and development to their favorite haunts, they were the ones who urged the government to preserve places where their admittedly small numbers could enjoy the public estate. In an age of rampant off-road vehicle traffic, I'm thankful for their efforts.
Next, while wilderness is often painted as the creation of a liberal elite, the 1964 Wilderness Act passed with broad support in Congress. The final product was the work of both political parties, following eight years of debate. It was a compromise, born in the darkest days of the Cold War, when the specter of nuclear annihilation forced many to consider the physical and psychological values to the human spirit of undeveloped nature.
The Wilderness Act recognized that, even in 1964, most of the American landscape was already developed. Truly remote places were becoming rare. The law decreed that certain federal lands with outstanding qualities of solitude and beauty would remain roadless and undeveloped. Today, the protection covers about 109 million acres, roughly 5 percent of the nation's landmass.
Early advocates knew that wilderness offered benefits aside from recreation. In the 45 years since the law's passage, scientists seem to have never stopped learning about the importance of permanently protected roadless landscapes.
Take our fire problem. It stems from a century of misguided fire suppression that led to crowded, fire-prone woods. Climate change, with its diminished snowpacks, enhances extended droughts. Added to the mix is too much sprawl and development, thanks to short-sighted Western communities. Astoundingly, some blame wilderness for the fire problem, yet for decades, big wilderness areas like Sequoia-Kings Canyon in California and the Bob Marshall in Montana have provided a laboratory for experiments that will save millions of acres of unhealthy woods, not to mention many homes.
Then there's wildlife. Every year, it seems, another study demonstrates that grizzly bears and other animals require large intact areas in order to survive. In short, roads kill. With scientists such as E.O. Wilson warning that up to half of the Earth's species could soon disappear, wilderness is more than ever a key to protecting wildlife, from grizzlies to butterflies.
We also have wilderness to thank for dramatic improvements in air and water quality. In the mid-'70s, some of our most effective air-quality laws were inspired by the threat to clean air in parks and wilderness, and for tens of millions of us, wilderness also provided that last glass of clean water. Whether it's a few thousand acres in Vermont or the immense Wrangell-Saint Elias in Alaska, wilderness always offers us the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the natural world that sustains us.
Many of us are realizing the truth of what John Muir said over a century ago—that going into wilderness is going home. This message has critical importance in the 21st century, when the future of so much life is in the hands of humanity. In our era, it's not the size or number of wilderness areas that will save life on earth; sadly, they will always be too small and fragmented for that. Instead, it's the psychological and emotional impact that wilderness has on us. America needs wilderness to keep its soul alive.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Whitefish.