By Levi Old
On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.
After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.
“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.
“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”
I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.
The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness.
The students arrived set to journey through wilderness, the classic romanticized remote landscape, and a wilderness of their mind, body and souls. Students often do not realize that they will travel through a type of land designated by law as Wilderness.
The Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964 designates lands that are separated from roads and motorized use. The act is the federal government’s strictest land preservation law. In 2014 the country celebrated the Act’s 50th Anniversary. The question remains open and often debated by private property activists, business, economists, environmentalists, and others: “Does wilderness still matter?”
Yes. Wilderness is more relevant and timely than ever. Wilderness preserves pockets of ancient ecosystems — from coasts, to endangered grassland prairies, to piedmonts and fragile alpine systems. They remain largely intact. Nearby human communities receive a boost in tourism, and recreational users travel to these wild places for respite. Lyndon B. Johnson said upon signing the bill into law:
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
In 1964, there were 54 Wilderness designations in 13 states totaling 9 million acres. The first Wilderness Area designations included the Gila in New Mexico. The original bill laid the foundation for many other Wilderness bills, some of which were passed into law.
Today there are more than 750 Wilderness Areas from coast to coast. These wild landscapes exist in this country because of the forethought and persistence of conservation leaders.
The Wilderness movement is one of the few times in history in which we as a society designated places set aside for what they are and set at a distance from the human species ability to dominate, take and destroy the very things that help us survive. Wilderness lands are dedicated to preserve havens for clean-water, carbon sequestration, fish and wildlife, and recreation.
Wilderness areas provide the headwaters habitat for clean water sources that reach many of our country’s largest cities: Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle and New York, to name a few. The roadless nature of these areas also makes them valuable fish and wildlife habitat. The law allows regions of our country’s landscape to remain inhabitable by large predators and serve as an example and testament of biodiversity and ecological processes. These wild places include home to grizzly bears, elk, and wolves, and watersheds where native salmon and trout maintain their genetic integrity.
Wilderness draws humans in for many reasons. They arrive to separate from their everyday existences. To vision quest. To challenge comfort zones. To rejuvenate.
The students on these wilderness courses often look to escape the symptoms that follow hours spent in front of a screen, or those times when the hand drives itself to the cell phone on its own. Many seek to separate from the trauma of war or family troubles. For others the symptoms may arise in traffic jams, or walking on concrete so often that the body forgets the intricate features of wild, naked earth.
There are others who are content with the notion that wilderness solely exists:
“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in,” said writer and Wilderness advocate, Wallace Stegner. “For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
Wilderness is a victory in this country’s heritage and an Act and idea that deserves and needs to be defended. Even within the environmental movement itself, the debate continues as to whether these places exclude humans too much. There is a belief among many that we should intermingle in the environment and not feel as though we need to separate ourselves from it and that the concept of Wilderness separates humans further from nature.
Mending Old and New Practices
The leap into the 21st Century passed. The country is in a continuous war for resources. Our earth’s population is over 7 billion and predicted to grow towards as many as 10 billion in 2050 (the elephant in the room). Today’s movement towards ecological peace or “the environmental movement” has deepened the longstanding discussion on the value of setting aside preserved lands. The environmental movement, once driven by large policy and conservation of public lands, now has a new, or at least more diverse presence.
The neo-environmentalists have treaded bravely into new territories. More young farmers stake claims each year to grow local food, tend soils, and use sustainable agriculture. Urban planners are improving public transportation to offset carbon use and cut down on pollution. River restoration groups remove dams so that salmon can once again swim to their native birth grounds and reestablish themselves as staples of cultural tradition and food sovereignty (a role they held for thousands of years).
Universities and Walmarts employ sustainability coordinators who wash shades of green into their operations. Even permaculture, a regenerative way of living, commonly appears in the national press.
Each of these steps forward is part of a story’s thread — the story of a battle upstream for humanity and earth’s natural systems. They’re not separate, yet woven like an orb weaver’s web — like the web each student will navigate throughout life.
The modern environmental movement’s new approaches should make any longtime fighter in this work proud. However, it should not allow us to sit still or dismiss victories of the past and their value in the present. At the closing of the Act’s 50th year, we celebrated the role of Wilderness in our country’s past and future. In 2015 and beyond, however, our work must continue. The managed landscape cannot be mistaken for unmanaged country.
One loss in the walls of Washington, and this Act could be stripped of its foundations, making wild lands exposed to numerous threats. Direct attacks on the law take place each year in our nation’s capitol.
One bill (H.R. 4089), for example, pushed by the extractive industries and disguised as pro-hunting legislation would have allowed motorized use and other development in protected Wilderness areas. It passed the U. S. House, but died in the Senate. These bills have the ability to destroy the hard work and value of these unmanaged landscapes.
We should not be fooled that Wilderness areas are completely devoid of human impact. Not only are humans visitors to Wilderness areas, the interconnectedness of ecological systems makes non-native species, climate change and air pollution among the many threats to these lands. These landscapes are delicately chosen because they are like no other areas — for their values to humans and ecological processes.
Named after the famous conservationist, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area in the Everglades National Park represents the woman who fought hard to protect this ecosystem of cypress marshes and mangrove forests. She secured a future for Miami’s water source and a haven for biodiversity. She stated at the beginning of her book, The River of Grass:
“There are no other Everglades in the world.”
Will we let these special places be exploited for short-term benefit, or will we fight to maintain and protect more? The younger generation and new breed of environmentalists can step up and lead the charge, mending new conservation techniques with foundations like the Wilderness Act.
Fracking and Fire
On the expedition’s final night we sat around telling stories, and Ben reflected on the gratitude he felt for the places set aside from our own species ability to fragment and destroy. He said he appreciated the lack of roads or drill rigs in the Wilderness areas we traveled throughout the course. He told a story about his home in eastern Wyoming, where drills checkered the landscape and trucks carried water to natural gas fracking operations.
The boom really changed the sagebrush steppe landscape where he grew up. He spoke about how the land’s value to human needs will outlast the natural gas extraction, and he hoped it would not ruin his hunting and fishing grounds, or his family’s water source.
Out here we know that there are wild landscapes protected by the Wilderness Act, which we learned about on course, he explained. “What forethought went into the protection of these places,” Ben said. “Those advocates were wise and planning for future generations. I would like to be one of those people.”
That night we sat in a cliff-side cave overlooking an arroyo. After weeks of challenging herself with primitive fire techniques, Lily started the fire we sat around. She also canoed, backpacked, wrestled with group leadership, communication, cooking, and a fear of heights — all under the guidance of Wilderness.
Each night Ben, Lily and our expedition crew stargazed far from city lights. As an educator, Wilderness provides me the finest of classrooms, a wild place that doubles as a wise mentor. That evening, I sensed we all knew that Wilderness can be harsh, often unforgiving, yet rewarding beyond the best author’s and the best speaker’s words.
As we went to bed, coyotes yipped into a light covering of cirrus clouds.
Douglas, M.S. (1947). The Everglades: River of Grass. New York, NY: Rinehart & Company.
Govtrack.us. (n.d.). H.R. 4089 (112th): Sportsman’s Heritage Act of 2012. Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4089
The Wilderness Society. (n.d.). General Format. Retrieved from http://wilderness.org/article/wilderness-act