Each of us has our own perspective about wilderness. This quote by Wallace Stegner stands out as I consider the magnificence of wilderness and what it means to me.
“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 . . .” ― Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water
This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a law that protects significant wilderness areas in more than 44 states. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Wilderness Act on September 3rd, 1964. The first designated wilderness areas comprised a total of 9.1 million acres of untrammeled forest to be forever protected from the encroachment of human impact and exploitation. Over the past 50 years, the Wilderness Act has enabled congress to designate close to 110 million acres of federal wildlands as wilderness. Ever since, each president has added additional priceless resources to our collection. These pristine lands are set aside to restrict human habitation, roads, mining, logging, off-road vehicles, and other development to protect our nation’s wildlife and natural resources for future generations.
The Wilderness Act was one of the leading legislative acts that kick-started an important environmental era in the mid-20th century. The 1950s and ‘60s were a time of great excitement and interest in the environment. It was a time when major developments such as affordable automobiles and new highways made our world smaller and more mobile. There were more opportunities to experience the magnificent beauty of landscapes and places. This was a time when an important new field of study was created, called ecology, a branch of biology that studies the relationships among all organisms on earth. Our once remote National Parks became wonderful vacation spots for families who could experience the silence and splendor of the natural world.
Individuals such as David Brower, and later, Yvon Chouinard, were young mountaineers that have expressed their love of wilderness in very different, but significant ways. As a young lad, David Brower fell in love with the land and hiked with his family. Since his mother was blind, young David became adept at describing virtually everything he saw on his hikes. Years later he became the executive director the Sierra Club, a small environmental organization with only 7,000 members, but it soon became an organization known for its ability to mobilize its members to fight large dams in the United States. Under Brower’s leadership Sierra Club membership grew to 70,000 members in 1969. Today the organization has grown to 750,000 members. David Brower (1912-2000) was a force of nature. He imbued intelligence, passion and a trailblazing energy. Brower’s messages were ahead of his time, yet right in time. In his 1959 book, The Meaning of Wilderness to Science. Brower said:
“Wilderness. The most important source of the vital organic forms constituting the chain of life is the gene bank that exists in wilderness, where the life force has gone on since the beginning, uninterrupted by man and his technology. For this reason alone, it is important that the remnants of wilderness which we still have on our public lands be preserved by the best methods our form of government can find.”
In the 1970s, Yvon Chouinard, a young mountain climber was seeking every opportunity to do what he loved best — climb to the top of remote mountain peaks or catching a wave on his surfboard. Yvon, a resourceful and creative man was also curious and talented. It wasn’t long until he started crafting his own climbing tools and clothing. Other climbers soon noticed and coveted his creations. The climbing community encouraged him to make and sell some of his outdoor gear. Since it would be something Yvon would enjoy doing, he started an outdoor clothing company called Patagonia. It is known for its progressive approach to sustainability. Yvon tells his story about Patagonia’s beginnings and why corporate and individual responsibility is our best solution to some of our environmental problems. Yvon’s video is: Be the Solution.
In another video, Oceans as Wilderness, Yvon Chouinard describes how treating our oceans as we might treat wilderness could be a starting point that might help save the oceans. Yvon says in his book, Let My People Go Surfing:
“We need to protect these areas of unaltered wildness and diversity to have a baseline, so we never forget what the real world is like – in perfect balance, the way nature intended the earth to be. This is the model we need to keep in mind on our way toward sustainability.”
Ocean steward, Edward Ueber, is a former National Marine Sanctuary Manager. He refers to our earth as “planet water” because our planet is mostly covered by ocean water.
Ed Ueber’s video The Planet Water tells why this distinction is important.
We all know that our oceans are being desecrated through overfishing, climate change, pollution and neglect. Marine toxicologist, Riki Ott shares how she was involved in the clean up of the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. If we do not protect our waters here on earth, what is our future? Pondering this information raises the question of: How will we care for our water planet?
In 1966, the Sierra Club, led by David Brower, began to use ad campaigns as a tool to save important areas. Brower, along with Jerry Mander, and Sierra Club leaders would draft ads that would later become known as the “Grand Canyon Battle Ads.” These were a series of ads that were placed in several major newspapers at a time to gain awareness of the threats to the Grand Canyon and other untainted landscapes. Jerry Mander talks about one of these ads. The ad that he developed for the Grand Canyon and the unexpected outcome of placing that ad, in Using ‘Bad’ Tactics for Good. This is a short and interesting story about Brower’s legacy at the Sierra Club.
In Brower’s 1966 letter: Open Letter to President Johnson he urged him to to save the magnificent forests of virgin redwood trees in northern California. In 1968, Redwood National Park was finally established as a National Park.
Conservationist Connie Harvey recounts her story about working with Brower and how she helped the Sierra Club to save Redwood National Park, in Protecting the Sacred. Another story told by the former Forest Service director, Jack Ward Thomas, shares about the threats and the fight over the endangered Northern spotted owls that live in these old growth forests. His video is For the Love of Public Land.
Former Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus was an important supporter of wilderness. He was responsible for several major pieces of legislation and launched the bill for the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, which protected over one hundred million acres and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which kept several rivers undammed across the country. He was responsible for listing several Snake River (Wyoming) salmon species under the Endangered Species Act, this led to changes in operations of the dams that prevented the salmon from returning to their home rivers to spawn. Governor Cecil Andrus, who served 14 years, was integral in setting aside land in Idaho, which became the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. In his memoir, Cecil used a quote from Robert Frost:
“We should not have to care so much, you and I.” “But we do care,” Andrus continues, “and we should. We care about the future … I remain hopeful that I will be able to pass on to my grandchildren all the pleasures of life in an unspoiled West. Perhaps hope should be replaced by a stronger word. It is a matter of obligation.”
Another big supporter of Alaska wilderness is Bart Koehler. In his career he has served a leading role in the lasting protection of more than 8 million acres of wild places including recent successes in Nevada, Montana, Virginia, New Hampshire, Vermont, South Dakota, Puerto Rico, and Oregon. Bart started his career at The Wilderness Society then co-founded Earth First! Bart is an editor of the 40th Anniversary edition of the Wilderness Act Handbook and the Stand By Your Land grassroots handbook. Watch Bart’s video: Grassroots Power!
A memorable character in the environmental movement is a man who ran dories (boats) through the Grand Canyon. Now retired at 95 years old, Martin Litton still fights against the degradation and development within important natural areas. He is renowned as a fearsome environmental advocate. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he fought alongside David Brower and Edward Abbey against dam proposals and the logging of Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument. Although other kindred spirits frequently bolstered his arguments, Martin was never afraid to stand alone in any debate or fight. Martin Litton’s video Standing Alone illustrates his tenacity.
Tom Turner, an editor with EarthJustice tells us a story about the creation of the Roadless Rules on U.S. Forest Service Land. We learn from Tom that the organization EarthJustice supported that rule when the federal government was not available — or disinterested in defending the law. This is a unique event in the field of environmental law. Tom Turner tells the complete story in his book, Roadless Rules, and has shared a condensed version in our video of the same name.
In my lifetime, there were, and are people who understand how essential it is to protect wilderness, and moreover, how to protect land. One of the best is Huey Johnson, founder of The Trust For Public Land, and founder and president of the nonprofit Resource Renewal Institute. Huey has protected untold numbers of acres, saving land and water for our fish and wildlife resources. He works with those who are willing to fight to protect our wilderness and steward our most amazing legacy of public lands. Huey is featured in the documentary film Rebels With A Cause, a story about how Point Reyes and the Marin Headlands were saved in Northern California. I hope that you will put this film on your must-see movie list. You can also read about Huey in an interview published in The North Bay Bohemian.
Is protecting wilderness really a radical idea? I doubt that Brower would say so, but he would probably agree with Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First! who said in Confessions of an Eco-Warrior:
“In a true Earth-radical group, concern for wilderness preservation must be the keystone. The idea of wilderness, after all, is the most radical in human thought –more radical than Paine, than Marx, than Mao. Wilderness says: Human beings are not paramount, Earth is not for Homo Sapiens alone, human life is but one life form on the planet and has no right to take exclusive possession. Yes, wilderness for its own sake, without any need to justify it for human benefit. Wilderness for wilderness. For bears and whales and titmice and rattlesnakes and stink bugs. And…wilderness for human beings… Because it is home.”