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Wilderness Under Siege, The Ongoing Battle Over Public Lands In America


Editor's note: Is there too much public land in America? Some think so, which is why it's important to understand the ongoing battle over those lands, whether they fall under the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, or U.S. Bureau of Land Management or other federal land manager. The following essay by Dr. Alfred Runte initially appeared in Educational Bulletin #14-1,a publication of the Desert Protective Council.

As a historian, I believe that thinking in terms of time provides perspective on the critical issues of our day. Certainly, that was one motivation for my becoming a specialist on the nation’s public lands. The rest started with my family. We grew up discovering the public lands together, finally to understand how special they truly are. Even today, I cannot imagine the United States without them, nor can I imagine why anyone would wish to part with the legacy that so distinguishes our national character. The point is that some people not only imagine it; as in the past, they insist we “reconsider” our public lands. What they really mean to say—and have always meant to say—is that we have too much public land.

The sharpness of the current debate may be traced back to 1995 and an essay by William Cronon, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He begins with a revealing title: The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Normally, the shelf life of an academic paper is short; in contrast, this essay has been widely read for twenty years. After all, a tenured historian at a major university has insisted that environmentalists are flat out wrong.

How so? Because wilderness, their signature landscape, is a contrivance and not reality, Cronon argues. “As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”

“For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem.” Nor should we forget the human cost of institutionalized wilderness, he writes. “The removal of Indians to create an ‘uninhabited wilderness’— uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is.”

In short, the contrivance is supported by a sinful history. The charge works quietly in the background, but that is exactly why it is sinister. Lest anyone openly defend wilderness, the subliminal works to destroy the defender’s character. Until you can justify what your country did to the Indians, you have no right to believe in wilderness. Nothing about wilderness can be trusted, and that goes for the country that established it, too.

Add a euphemism to those accusations and the formula for “reconsidering” all of our public lands is complete. We need “green” energy—and need it fast—to reverse the catastrophe of global warming. Where should we put it? Of course, inside wilderness, and by extension the public lands, from which the “Wrong Nature” derived.

No wonder environmentalists have come to doubt themselves. How does anyone get cleansed of original sin? As for green, it was once just a color in our paint boxes. Suddenly, it is a faith no environmentalist dare refute. In the past, every American landscape was filled with wonder; now biologists are also warned to support the “cause.” There is now a greater priority—saving the planet. Think of everything green— everything vulnerable—we will lose without doing that.

The power of a euphemism grows ever more powerful as it becomes a convenient shortcut for the press. Thus the Los Angeles Times, in reporting the Ivanpah Valley solar power project, itself recently headlined a sports cliché. Despite the undeniable damage done to the Mojave Desert, environmentalists had agreed to “take one for the team.” No worries here, folks. There is nothing worrisome about undoing our public lands when environmentalists themselves are members of the team.

Historically, every form of landscape has suffered such callousness, even the mountain cathedrals where the national park idea began. A century ago, “take one for the team” meant the Hetch Hetchy Valley inside Yosemite National Park. San Francisco wanted Hetch Hetchy for a dam and reservoir. The park could easily give it up, the city argued; after all, Yosemite was the greater valley. In short, preservationists were just being selfish by refusing to support “the greatest good.”

The difference between the preservation movement then and now is to explain why wind and solar power have made such inroads. At Hetch Hetchy, preservationists stood their ground, as they would again in the mid-1960s when Grand Canyon was on the chopping block. “If we can’t save the Grand Canyon, what the hell can we save?” asked David Brower. His Sierra Club then tripled its membership while fighting off two high dams in the inner gorge.

In the end, Brower and the Sierra Club prevailed, having learned their lesson at Hetch Hetchy. In a series of full-page ads for The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and others, Brower ripped apart the Interior Department’s arguments that the dams were even needed. Eventually, the Bureau of Reclamation hung on by its fingernails, arguing that its dams would be more “democratic.” Boaters and water skiers, not just whitewater enthusiasts, would be able to enjoy the canyon’s unseen walls. SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING? Brower asked in his most famous ad. The point is: There was a time when mainstream environmentalists knew exactly where they stood— and why.

The "Green Energy" Argument

Now that the movement has bowed to a euphemism, the public lands have been the first to pay the price. In contrast, David Brower understood exactly what a euphemism was meant to accomplish—shut down thinking for a premeditated response. Today, his battle ads undoubtedly would ask as follows: Is green energy worth the sacrifice of everything else? Just what does renewable energy “renew” if entire landscapes must first be compromised? Did San Francisco “renew” Yosemite National Park? Or did the city then, like green energy now, simply go after the cheapest land it could get?

The Wall Street Journal reports that within fifteen years half of America’s shopping centers will be gone—victims of the Internet and gargantuan parking lots that no longer attract aging shoppers. Just the parking lots surrounding those 25,000 shopping centers cover an area of 7,000 square miles. That is equivalent to the state of Connecticut—all of it under asphalt and most of it in open sun. Why not put our solar panels in those parking lots and be done with it? That is what David Brower would know to say.

Green energy knows to say the opposite. After all, the industry wants control. In the first place, converting shopping centers into solar power plants would require extensive studies and permits. Every city would want to determine the viability of each plant—then tax all of the plants as commercial property. Nor would the owners of the shopping centers want less than market price.

Face it. It is much easier convincing the federal government to allow development on the public’s land, especially now that so many environmentalists agree with the White House: We have no other choice. To reemphasize, if David Brower and the old Sierra Club had believed that, we would have lost Grand Canyon. Seriously, does anyone believe they were wrong? If not, is our judgment so much improved we know when to give up on wilderness?

Certainly, there is nothing new in the argument that we must sacrifice the world to save it. But what is the real intent of those arguments? There, the timeless words of caution remain John Muir’s. “Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded,” he wrote in 1910. Contrast that with Gifford Pinchot’s statement in The Fight for Conservation, also from 1910. “The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.”

But of course, Pinchot, as Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, had promised to remake the West. Limiting the agency’s control was the last thing he wanted, and indeed, the “efficient” use of natural resources has forever been a government mainstay.

It is no wonder that those promoting renewable energy sound like Pinchot instead of Muir. Only a brazen agenda can possibly convince the public that its brazenness is required. In turning back global warming, it is imperative we control the earth. Back to Muir’s interpretation. Those offering up the public lands for any reason merely hope to profit at the public’s expense.

Global Warming Solutions

Certainly, environmentalists supportive of the alleged necessity risk their movement’s cultural cement. The public is already losing faith that government programs are real solutions to global warming. Just how do environmentalists expect to maintain their credibility by renouncing landscapes they swore for a century to protect?

Abraham Lincoln said it best. Only some of the people can be fooled all of the time. Still the deeper problem— unrestrained growth—is the real cause of global warming. Fifty years ago, three billion people made CO2. Now seven billion people are responsible, and the number is still going up. More people make more byproducts—another convenient euphemism for their garbage. The earth cannot handle it all. And so we have global warming. Where is the surprise in any of it? Fifty years ago, even thirty years ago, educators honestly taught cause and effect.

Then revisionists—the heart of the Baby Boom generation— wanted the curriculum changed. Why? Because the civil rights movement and Vietnam War had finally colored everything they thought about their country. It was time for the government to make amends. Americans consumed too much (true); they believed in their right to consume (also true). Then the big leap. Americans are guilty of everything wrong in the world and must prove to the world their willingness to “take one for the team.”

As a first step, talk of population growth went silent. Numbers were not the issue; greedy Americans were the issue. We were no longer to offend the world by mentioning numbers, and yes, we should also let our numbers grow.

From that, it was but a small step to the death knell for everything idealistic, including our public lands. We should be ashamed of ourselves for blocking off so much land to serve a myth, in William Cronon’s words, the illusion of pristine wilderness. The point remains: The myth is what makes us special, as was the discipline required to save it. We believed that once the discovery of America ended we would never be the same. As Aldo Leopold put it: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Treasure Those Open Spaces On The Map

To be sure, lest anyone doubt what those blank spots mean to our national character, think of all the countries in the world without them. Think of the foreign visitors coming here to see our blank spots—40 percent of the visitation at Grand Canyon National Park alone. Last year, giving a series of lectures in Zion National Park, I heard every major language in the world. “You have so much space!” one German visitor exclaimed to me. It was the space she had come to see.

Must we give that up to become like the rest of the world? Are we not entitled to be a country with space? I will gladly correct where I possibly consume too much, but why should I feel guilty about marveling in space?

In old German, Runte denotes a muddy field. Obviously, my ancestors were medieval serfs. The lords and ladies lived in the castles overlooking the Rhineland while my ancestors worked down in the mud. Somehow, their offspring survived another five centuries of conquering armies, poverty, and disease, until finally my father reached the United States. He himself had been badly wounded in World War I, having fought in the trenches for the Kaiser. That is the story I want my culture to tell, not how guilty he was for having followed Columbus.

In a world now of seven billion people, they are millions of arrivals and departures every day. Just as serfs named Runte lost their land in Europe, most Indians lost theirs here. Both are tragedies, but how is either an indictment against anyone not alive at the time? Rather, knowing what they lost, and what we still might lose, is all the more reason to cherish our public lands. We still have open space and most of the world has converted it. That is the history we need to teach.

It is no wonder that green energy needs to rewrite the history, and hopes to shame us into rewriting it first. In the past, no way would we have done that willingly knowing the convictions turned aside. Again, the memorable quote is Aldo Leopold’s. “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Technology can never be a substitute for the discipline inherent in those words. Expedience will never resolve the world’s ills—or ours. Extended to the public lands, Leopold’s beliefs—environmentalism’s beliefs—further secured the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, and finally, the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. Each was an enduring milestone in the protection of open space. No doubt, green energy remains bent on scaring us into giving up our public lands; there, we need to be just as resolute about the practical alternatives. Start converting those parking lots, and do it now.

As few scientists doubt, global warming is real. That said, any despoliation of our public lands can only make things worse. Then we will be equally saddened and diminished by our failure to protect our legacy. Once environmentalists spoke honestly about the limits of Spaceship Earth. Is it not time for such honesty again?

As the environmental journalist Michael Frome has said, “In the beginning, God created the Earth National Park. And we have been picking away at it ever since.” His point, and that of environmental history, is that nothing about the earth is frivolous. Open space serves civilization every bit as much as developed space—and biology would suggest far more. In the battle against global warming, technology is but a step. The rest of the battle depends on our humility to admit what we can and cannot do. Only then, perhaps, will we finally stop picking away at the planet, the planet that forever must be our home.

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Some parks in CA have bigger problems than roaming cyclists.

Attention, everyone — Zebulon is just trying to get a rise out of you. I happen to know Zebulon. (Hmm, this makes me sound like Lloyd Bentsen.) I can't recall the last time Zebulon rode on a trail that's definitively closed to mountain biking, or even in a gray area, like the Pacific Crest Trail (where the closure order is probably unlawful). If it happens at all, it's rare. He's also very polite to hikers, equestrians, and other mountain bikers. He is just trying to get your knickers in a twist.

Also, I would highly recommend that everyone read an article in the current New Yorker magazine (May 12, 2014) that profiles Mark Tercek, the apparently iconoclastic executive director of The Nature Conservancy, which has put more land into a conservation status than any other group.

Some of the material provides a reality check. E.g., "If climate change [isn't] checked, even land that [has] been walled off by environmentalists might lose much of its biodiversity."

In the New Yorker article, it becomes apparent that Tercek thinks environmentalism has made many mistakes, including being insufficiently interested in humans, attracting too many wealthy people and too few ordinary folks, and having worrisome proto-religious overtones. An instance of this shows up when Tercek is seen drinking from a plastic water bottle and people flood him with Nalgene bottles. The article quotes a handful of traditional enviros who are outraged by him. One woman weeps after hearing a conservation theory that doesn't jibe with her belief system. Many regard him as a corporate sellout. "One environmental leader told the Wall Street Journal that the conservation groups supporting [a compromise on coal-fired power plants] 'should be hung [sic] for what they've done.' Tercek's response is, 'Should there have been no coal-fired plants? Well, fine, but then no one will have electricity.' "

I have to liken reaction to a water bottle to reaction to the idea of a mountain bike in a wilderness area or national park. Not a rude mountain biker or even a polite one inadvertently making people nervous, but any mountain biker, including one whom no one ever sees. The concept is that a wheel is a profanation of an outdoor cathedral; it's like wearing shorts in church. This isn't science or reason; it's dogma.

Again, highly recommended. The article may be available online, but if not, the issue is on sale.

Zebulon, define HOHA. I'm so old I don't know what it stands for. I thought I was being polite but not sure you are. Regards your generation or the next changing the rules be that as it may. The issues I worry more about are that humans love war and I see that as a problem for your generation and the next, and that is along with changing climate and infectious diseases. In the final analysis mountain bikes will be unimportant. But I think people will still value parks and wilderness since there will be little else left of any semblance of a natural world.

And, Zeb, if you hadn't noticed, being dismissive and condescending happens on all sides. I've done it, you've done it, EC's done it, everyone but Kurt has done it around here. It is too easy to pick out all the bad traits and lay them on the mantle of the guy you disagree with; it's harder to accept that you/I too have these lesser attractive traits.

" I always find a place to ride, legal or not."

A perfect example of the Great American Entitlement Mentality as seen so often in far too many of us.  Whether it be mountain bikers, hikers, bankers, stockbrokers, politicians, ATV riders, horsemen, gun owners, or any of a nearly endless list of those who claim the "right" to do whatever they wish to do, whenever and wherever they wish to do it, and who scoff at the consequences or damage they may produce for others or indeed the to the world we must live in.

Greed, pure and simple.

I must agree Roger, I can understand the enthusiasm and challenge of the mountain trail bike sport, my daughter enjoys the activity as much as  Zebulon does. However, it is disconcerting to accept the premise that its OK to break the rules, ie ride trails closed to bikes. It my own lifetime, the world population has tripled, here in California it has grown more than 4 times. That increase has prompted us to pass rules that are restrictive to all of us, but we pay a price for growth as well as gain form it. I think we must develop a strong environmental ethic if we are going to maintain our parks, wilderness areas (and all public lands for that matter) for the next generation.  The banning of drones from our 56 National Parks just one more example of restricting a popular and interesting activity.  

Roger.  If people followed the rules to a T, you or other HOHAs like Random Walker still would not support more access for mountain biking anyhow.  So, why bother?  And it's not like other users are perfect users of the outdoors either. So, it always comes down to the same thing: you don't want to share, while I have no problems with it.

The good news is that my generation or my kids' will make the rules in the future. :)

I thhink Zebulon's comment "legal or not" says a lot about the mountain biking community. That along with illegal trail construction and modification, and high speeds on narrow single track are reasons for the increasingly poor reputation of mountin bikers. They are their own worst enemy and shouldn't whine when trails are closed to them.

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