An Enduring Wilderness?

By Hamilton, Bruce | Sierra, September-October 1994 | Go to article overview
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An Enduring Wilderness?

Hamilton, Bruce, Sierra

In 1957, Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower suggested that the nation revive the practice of tithing, by passing legislation that would set aside 10 percent of its wildlands for the future. "Not 10 percent of what this generation received from the last," he told the congressional committee that was considering Hubert Humphrey's first draft of the Wilderness Act, "but a tithe of what was here, on our best estimate, when the white man began to spread over this continent. If that sounds overgenerous, remember how many generations will need what is left, to leaven their otherwise ersatz world."

The idea of preserving wildlands for future generations had powerful enemies, as it does today. But it also had strong advocates like Brower and The Wilderness Society's Howard Zahniser and Olaus Murie, who were undaunted by the opposition. "We can measure the need for the wilderness bill by the very intensity of the effort to defeat it," Brower said. Sixty-six drafts later, the Wilderness Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon Johnson--30 years ago this September.

The law was nothing short of revolutionary. In the past the dominant philosophy had been to use every acre of public land possible. The new legislation eloquently defined a new ethic. "In order 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," the act stated, "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."

Some compromises had been made. Livestock grazing and, until 1984, even new mining claims were allowed inside wilderness areas. In all other ways, though, the chosen lands were to be totally outside the commercial realm, regions "where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Congress directed the U.S. Forest Service to place 9 million acres in the system immediately, and outlined a process for identifying lands worthy of future protection.

No other statute aimed at protecting wildlands has proven as effective. National parks can be developed to accommodate motorists; wildlife refuges can be logged, or drilled, or ravaged by speedboats and snowmobiles; wild-river designation protects only narrow bands of habitat. But congressionally designated wilderness areas are diverse and inviolate. No roads, no logging, no drill rigs, no speedboats. Like almost no other place on the planet, a wilderness area must, by law, "retain its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation."

At first the archetypal wilderness was an aerie in the clouds, with crystalline lakes, sculpted granite, and icy peaks. It offered inspiring views for backpackers, but because it failed to encompass entire ecosystems, it provided inadequate wildlife and watershed protection. Wilderness advocates often fought for more, but when the final boundaries were drawn, the lower-elevation forested and mineral-bearing sites coveted by commercial interests were frequently excluded. Some activists at the time didn't even consider these losses important. The scientific reasons for protecting whole ecosystems were not well understood, and largely ignored by Congress.

Today we know that the act's mandate to preserve wilderness requires protecting biologically rich low-elevation lands as well as the awe-inspiring heights. We now know that wild areas need to be linked with biological corridors, because isolated "island" populations of wildlife are in the long run doomed to extinction. We know that many wilderness areas are too small and isolated to guarantee the survival of their native plants and animals.

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