“Whatever wilderness is, it is also a place where animals live out their existence separate from a human agenda. Everywhere else the economic and social systems of men have priority.” —Douglas Peacock, Grizzly Years
This 3rd of September the Wilderness Act turns 50. It’s an unusual and controversial piece of legislation, a kind of turning back the tide of expansionism, intentionally leaving wide swaths of the United States undeveloped. Over the decades the Act has been attacked from the right by paranoid pro-business types who see any form of government management of land a refutation of their right to do whatever they want for profit, yet it’s also been hit from the left for some valid reasons, not the least of which is that life doesn’t always necessarily fit conveniently in a legislated box. Even flawed, the Act functions superbly.
I like to view the Wilderness Act, which was passed shortly before I was born, as an act of humility. Humanity doesn’t need to be everywhere, to develop every last open space. The 1960s were a time of radicalism, and the Wilderness Act’s passage reflects that spirit. We could use a little more of it now. A planet of 7 billion people and climbing could use some spaces set aside—and the more of them the better. An act of human anti-hubris, if you will, less a locking up than letting go.
Parts of the Act read like poetry. Its 8 pages may be some of the most beautiful legislative language ever used, especially the line about how “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” I like to see the Act as maybe the first iteration of the growing awareness that this blue-green Earth of ours wasn’t created just for us. In a world that truly seems dominated by the forces of profit and greed, the Wilderness Act is still a valuable tool to fight the corporate paradigm—that illusory world of consumerist convenience and all the damage done to our shared environment.
In the corporate world, if something can’t be managed for profit it essentially serves no purpose. Profit meaning the enrichment of people—in most cases a fortunate few. Take people out of the equation and you lose the concept of profit. It becomes a word without meaning, for where is the profit if there are no people around? This is precisely why energy companies, developers, logging, mining, and pipeline conglomerates fear the concept of wilderness. Which is strangely ironic because so much has been said and written about how vital wilderness was to the development of the American character. As if once the fight to civilize the wilderness was won, it served its purpose.
I, for one, would like to see the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary celebrate the idea that there are things on Earth equally as important as humanity. That we are richer for our wolves, bears, caribou, bighorn sheep, cougars, buffalo, grizzly bears, butterflies and everything else we share this world with than we would be if we extracted every ounce of precious metals. This isn’t just about us. We should give these areas and everything that lives in them a break from our economic activities, and maybe we could learn something about a simpler life from that exemption, too.
I would like to see the next 50 years of the Act have as much success as the first. For the Wilderness Act, as Wallace Stegner said about our National Parks, is one of the best ideas we’ve had as a nation. It’s an American idea that’s been exported all over the world, and we should stick to it here. If we can take the human interest out of the idea and learn to love so much of this land because of what it is without regard for profit, we could only be ennobled, and make us worthy of the faith in the future held by the original authors of the Wilderness Act. Not a profit in our collective pockets but in the repository of our souls. Better than an idea whose time has come is an idea that is timeless, like the wild itself, if we’re wise enough to let it be. It’s also a struggle well worth a lifetime’s devotion.
Happy 50th to the wild and everything that calls it home! Including us.