Today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act, a piece of legislation that now protects more than 100 million acres of American land from development. In this guest post, James Morton Turner, author of The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964, contends that the Wilderness Act gave us much more than millions of acreage of wild lands–it gave us a political process that engaged citizens can use to protect and advocate for the conservation of other lands, both wild and public.
The map of the National Wilderness Preservation System is the legacy of five decades of wilderness advocacy. From the shifting sands of Passage Key in Florida to the mountain highlands of the La Garita Wilderness in Colorado to the vast expanses of the Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, one out of every twenty acres in the United States has been set aside in perpetuity as wilderness. Those areas are meant to be, as the Wilderness Act proclaimed, “an enduring resource for the American people.”
For those who have worked hardest to protect wilderness, that map does not represent 758 wilderness areas that are now isolated and effectively insulated from future challenges and threats. Instead, it affirms something John Muir learned over a century ago: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” The health of the nation’s wildest landscapes depends on the health of the larger landscapes in which they are embedded.
Protecting wilderness means protecting the surrounding public lands, on which the water, wildlife, and aesthetics of wilderness depend. Protecting wilderness means cultivating a rural landscape and economy in which people can work the land sustainably. Protecting wilderness means engaging in other environmental issues, such as climate change, which will transform even the wildest of places. And, finally, protecting wilderness means fostering a healthy political landscape—the future of wilderness depends on a vibrant and engaged polity too.
Most critiques of wilderness begin and end with the Wilderness Act. Specifically, they highlight the definition of wilderness: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Critics argue that such a wilderness ideal, which draws a sharp line between humans and nature, perpetuates a romantic conceptualization of wild nature that is, at best, naive, and has little to offer in the face of the most pressing modern environmental dilemmas. But the problem with such readings of the Wilderness Act is that they often stop at that definition.
The Wilderness Act did more than set forth a definition; it also established a political process. That process has been the engine that has powered a sustained political effort to designate additional wilderness and protect the public lands. As many observers agree, although they rarely look to wilderness advocacy as a model, it is such political engagement that modern American environmentalism needs more of, not less. Instead of a retreat from pressing realities, wilderness advocacy has been an ongoing exercise in citizen organizing, policy negotiations, and judicial and administrative maneuvers. Wilderness means more than pristine wild lands, backpacking adventures, or a stronghold for biodiversity; wilderness also means engaging citizens—both for and against wild lands protections—in a sustained discussion toward the common interest.
All of that is the promise of wilderness.