Is the salvation of our natural souls tied to the preservation of wilderness? And if it is, must we actually travel into the wilderness to achieve its benefits, or is it simply enough to know wilderness exists? As the Wilderness Act turns 44, how much has it done to protect nature?
An ancillary question, of course, is whether only officially designated wilderness meets the bill, or whether de facto wilderness is just as beneficial a salve?
Enacted September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act (attached below) was written by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society. Its passage created the National Wilderness Preservation System to "assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."
Congress's intentions certainly were good, but how successful where they? Forty-four years later we've set aside more than 106 million acres of officially designated wilderness. That sounds somewhat impressive, until you realize the United States spans 2,379,400,323.67 acres. Too, while 44 million of the 106 million wilderness acres are found within the borders of national parks, there are hundreds of thousands of more acres within the park system that meet wilderness qualities but which are not preserved officially as wilderness.
Does it matter? After all, you can head into many of these places on foot and never seen sign of another human, or that of a man-made feature.
Technically, it matters quite a bit. For while there is quite a lot of national park landscape that arguably would qualify for wilderness designation, until that designation is bestowed by Congress these lands are open to development, to road building, and to off-road vehicle travel.
Just as the National Park Service Organic of 1916 directed the fledgling National Park Service to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations," the Wilderness Act looked to preserve "for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."
Wilderness long has resonated with Americans. Initially, of course, it was seen as a dark and sinister place filled with heathens and wild beasts. So we moved to tame it, by taking down the forests and driving out the beasts as well as the natives. But there were some who saw in wilderness a sanctuary that couldn't be found anywhere else.
Henry David Thoreau once said that, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." To that Michael Frome adds, "that in the preservation of wild nature lies individual salvation. I don't mean in wildness alone, but in the conscious effort to preserve and perpetuate wildness, for nature and humankind, after all, are indivisible."
There do not seem to be enough, however, who share those thoughts, who insist that more wilderness in the United States be preserved before it's gone. For instance, the proposed Red Rock Wilderness Act, which would set aside some 9.5 million acres in Utah as official wilderness, has languished in Congress for 20 years.
Now, requests that national park landscapes be designated wilderness come from both Congress and the National Park Service. According to the agency, since 1978 it has recommended that nearly 135,000 acres in units of the National Park System be designated official wilderness (see attachment). Of course, such recommendations don't seem to garner much attention, certainly not as much as do those pushed by members of Congress.
Plus, politicians tend to be a tad more ambitious in scope. For instance, wilderness legislation currently being pushed by U.S. Sens. Ken Salazaar (D-Colo) and Wayne Allard (R-Colo) would designate nearly 250,000 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park as wilderness, or roughly double the entire acreage the National Park Service has been seeking for designation across 19 park units.
On this, the 44th birthday of the Wilderness Act, let's give thanks that it's around, and make a wish that it might accomplish more good before it's too late.