American Wilderness Faces the Firing Squad

On the even of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, conservative congressmen, theorists, and even Outside magazine seem eager to destroy what’s left of the wild in America.


“I come more and more to the conclusion that wilderness, in America or anywhere else, is the only thing left worth saving.” —Edward Abbey

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, wilderness in America, as physical sanctuary and as an idea, finds itself under an unprecedented swarm of threats.

The first of these threats is the usual business of extracting resources, pushed urgently to the forefront by discoveries in the energy field: coal-bed methane, fracking technology, and the tar sands of Alberta. Everyday, here in Montana, you can watch the protracted lines of coal cars headed night and day to Pacific ports where the dirtiest of fuel is shipped to feed an endless Asian appetite for energy. Settling over wilderness areas everywhere, like a deadly fog, is the scourge of our time: global warming.

Two bills recently passed by the U. S. House of Representatives aim at decimating wilderness protection: The first (H. R. 3942) would open wilderness areas in Yellowstone National Park to high-tech boating, while the second bill (H.R. 4089) passed in April, would gut the entire 1964 Wilderness Act, opening wilderness areas to development and managing the wildlife of these wild places as game farms. The sponsors of both these bills are well-known conservative enemies of wilderness and the wild animals who range freely in these habitats. Both bills aim at driving a political wedge between environmental communities and their past allies in the outdoor recreational industries.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and his colleague Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) introduced the River Paddling Act, which would open sensitive areas of wilderness in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks to recreational paddling. Lummis and Bishop are counted among the legislators most hostile to wilderness and environmental protection on Capitol Hill, and why the paddling industry has chosen such unsavory bedfellows as their champions puzzles many. The only reason we have pockets of true wilderness left in a place like Yellowstone is because we once made a collective decision not to go there with our hoards of hikers, inner tubes, paddleboats, and other recreational toys—in a word, restraint.

The Safari Club and the National Rifle Association have funded and backed H.R. 4089 all the way; the bill now sits in the Senate, slightly modified. But these two anti-wilderness, anti-wildlife (with rare Safari Club exceptions designed to keep a few trophy endangered animals around to mount on their walls) groups are not going anywhere soon. As a hunter with many guns, I despise these bullies and their deceitful shams of wildlife protection.

Curiously, Outside magazine has recently become the self-appointed cheerleader for trashing wild areas of national parks, complaining loudly on National Public Radio and OutsideOnline.com that “the people who are most desperate to be allowed in [to the National Parks]: the paddlers, mountain bikers and other adventure-sports athletes … are banned from many of the nation’s best natural playgrounds.”

The National Park Service (NPS) mandate of 1916 clearly stated that its purpose is “to leave the land unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” but the Outside author stumbles over this founding phrase and finds “unimpaired” and “enjoyment” to be “fuzzy concepts.” He writes: “Imagine the possibilities. You could park near an entrance point (to a national park), grab your bike, boat, climbing gear, or even wingsuit (to jump off cliffs) and, you know, roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel.” (Comparing Yellowstone to the Sistine Chapel is the brainchild of an ex-superintendent of Yellowstone Park.) The Outside writer accuses the NPS of suffering a “relevancy” problem, due to a “culture” that cancelled the “iconic Badwater Ultramarathon” and bans adventure sports where wildlife are granted priority. But “culture” is a straw man; I don’t think the park has a culture anymore. The NPS also believes in roads and tourist viewing; like most government institutions, it is a can of worms. In any event, that park decision, made long ago, to not allow paddling in a few, mostly remote, wild areas, was one of the best ideas Yellowstone has ever had.

Another Outside argument: “The result is that many wilderness-loving athletes find themselves opposing new public-land designations because the added protections would get them barred from areas they currently use.” I wonder where they get this data? The proper vision of inclusivity, the Outside writer implies, is getting “ten million urban kids into the parks by 2017.” Those same kids would presumably be wearing and using the latest high-tech clothing and gear purchased for billions of bucks from slick, well-placed expensive ads in Outside. Geezers, it seems, are the problem. Gen Y dudes buy the gear while the National Parks Conservation Association, a historic defender of national parks, are old farts in their 60s, shuffling around in cheap hiking boots.

In fact, a number of us old farts once wrote defending-the-wilderness articles for Outside, which was not always a warren for the outdoor gear, Me generation, recreational fat tire-heads. Ed Abbey wrote for Outside, as did Terry Tempest Williams. I wrote at least a half-dozen articles myself; each, as I remember, had a distinct conservation theme.

At any rate, don’t worry too much about wilderness being under siege because, according to some academic professors and semanticists, it may not even exist. “Wilderness” is an antiquated concept, they say. The new paradigm is that “wilderness” is a flawed notion and an imperialistic enterprise of distinctly Western origins. These theorists are sometimes called “wilderness deconstructionists” and, whatever the hell that means, it doesn’t sound good. These guys claim Native Americans significantly altered the character of the landscape by fire and agriculture rendering the idea of untrammeled wilderness irrelevant.

Incidentally, geneticists think Homo sapiens first made it to North America by way of Siberia 30,000 years ago, quite late in the record of human migrations. And what did the First Americans find? The largest wilderness that our species would ever encounter on earth, a wilderness five times the area of Australia and never before glimpsed by an upright primate. North and South America, though at that time uninhabited by people, teemed with huge, unfamiliar, and fierce beasts. Some of these extinct giant bears and lions probably actively discouraged human settlement; it may have taken another 15,000 years for the First Americans to get south of the ice. Some of those Pleistocene animals are still with us.

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Take the case of the American bison: The ice-age bison evolved into the Plains buffalo, Bison bison, perhaps 10,000 years ago. When Lewis and Clarke pushed up the Missouri River in 1804, some 60 million bison ranged the plains (an educated guess, but, in any case, lots of buffalo). By 1902, there were 23 or 24 wild, free-ranging American bison left in the world; millions had been slaughtered to the edge of extinction between 1865 and 1881. That, in a pine nutshell, is illustrative of the differential weight of the footprint between Native Americans and European immigrants. When we white Americans got here, it was still all wilderness.

These two-dozen bison hid out in Yellowstone National Park in a place called Pelican Valley, a quiet place for wolves, grizzlies, and bison and exactly where today’s recreational paddlers want to launch one of their flotillas of pack rafts and inner tubes. I lived there for a half dozen months of spring, spread over a decade, 35 years ago, camped hidden back in the timber, just out of sight of the broad meadows through which bubbled a sluggish creek fished by rafts of white pelicans, its banks grazed by buffalo and grizzlies feeding on the fresh green grasses. It was a quiet time, an indulgence as I see it now. I told myself I was there to film grizzly bears, but that was merely my pretext for endless solo days spent silently watching the snow-corniced ridges for wildlife and listening to the wind. I saw no people and left few tracks, travelling on snowshoes over morning-crusted snow. I hid out for weeks in my wilderness, now just a small vulnerable island of wildness, but at the time it felt huge. Wilderness was what I needed most in those days, after returning from war in Southeast Asia.

I don’t go back there very often—a conscious decision. I did once see a pack of wolves try to bring down a bison at decade or so ago. But we make wild places less wild with our visits. What would professional running and competitive biking contribute to a place that has mountain lions and grizzly bears? The number of humans getting mauled, for one thing, would rise exponentially. The vast majority of grizzly-inflicted human injuries and fatalities comes from people surprising a mother bear with cubs on a day bed and then running. Biking and marathoning on park trails are to predators the equivalent of running. The first rule in grizzly country is never run.

“Wilderness begins in the human mind,” wrote Edward Abbey. For me, wilderness is also a good place to make camp, somewhere to hide out, less a fragile Sistine Chapel than the woods where the grizzly poops, a sufficiently wild enclave to see your own life as equal or subordinate to that of other species, like moose, cranes, and frogs. I prefer my wilderness areas to house a few man-eaters (technically, equal-opportunity predators). David Brower put it slightly more eloquently when he said: “Wilderness is where the hand of man has not set foot.”

Human consciousness evolved within wild habitats from the African savannah all the way to the frozen tundra of the North—those landscapes whose remnants we now call “wilderness.” That big brain we so tout today was shaped by the mammoths we hunted, by the great cats and bears that sometimes stalked us. And, as the wolf still sculpts elk evolution, in what landscape today reside the forces that yet hone the human mind born of wildness?