For four centuries, the continent never seemed to run out of anything. No matter where colonists built, or settlers plowed, or soldiers rode, or trappers roamed, there was something new to discover and exploit. Tribes were slaughtered, then domesticated, money changed hands and maps were redrawn. Mines played out but new ones were found. Timber grew in the uplands and there was good ground in the heartland. The land was a collection of resources, a thing to consume, but sometime in the late 19th century that we began to look in the rearview mirror at the American wilderness, the hills covered in bison, the tribes in control of their destinies – all of it gone. It was not until then that we began to consider limits.
The first lands we set aside were the unusual or picturesque – tourist destinations like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, but there was no grand vision in place, no concept of ecosystems, no trails, no billion-dollar outdoor recreation industry. The structure of our public lands system evolved slowly. Buffalo Soldiers enforced the rules at Yellowstone, and John Muir fought and lost a battle over a dam in the Yosemite region. By the time Ralph Cameron tried to make Grand Canyon his personal fiefdom, the system had begun to take shape. There was a National Park Service, and a U.S. Forest Service, and a growing sense that setting aside these lands stood for something, but no legal wilderness.
A slippery concept
When the Forest Service entrusted an enormous piece of New Mexican ground to a Forest Service desk jockey named Aldo Leopold, he designated it a large part of it as wilderness. Leopold was contrite after watching the green fire in the eyes of a wolf die, and was open to new interpretations of the West. But his employer believed in the utility of forests, and the Forest Service was based in the Department of Agriculture, where it remains to this day, and the idea of wilderness languished for a time.
Wilderness has always been a slippery concept. What is wilderness? That depends on who you ask, and when. Roderick Nash points out that the word is a noun that can act like an adjective. Wilderness might mean an idea or a place or it might mean both.
Sherry Simpson tells us that wilderness is a “cultural construct; … a reservoir of spiritual renewal; an uninhabited wasteland; an elitist playground.” The word reminds her of basic gun safety: “be careful where you point it and always assume it’s loaded.” Wilderness is “a myth; an invention; a necessity; a pretense; a blank spot on the map that we must either fill or leave empty; … a refuge; a resource; a luxury; our first experience; our last hope.”
A moving target
Patricia Nelson Limerick writes that a couple of centuries ago, wilderness was the frontier, and the opening of the various American frontiers begins “with the arrival of white people in territory new to them or the discovery of unexploited resources.”
The story played out in the conquest of tribes and other rivals – the English, the French, the Spanish – but also of mountain ranges, rivers, forests, and deserts. Behind each conquest was a desire for riches, both real and imagined. William G. Robbins writes that economic capitalism influenced every aspect of American life: class, law, government, ideology, society, power and property. Economics drove Congress, pushed armies, spurred migrations, fueled the dreams and aspirations of settlers.
Nash, who wrote a ground-breaking book in 1967 called Wilderness and the American Mind, contends that wilderness was created by Romantics sitting by the fireplace, wine glass in hand, the Indians fenced on reservations. The soft glow of firelight has been replaced by a fluorescent haze, the Romantic daydreamer replaced by academic committees and journalists who cannot find any more wilderness.
Legal wilderness was created when people looked around and sensed that America was losing one of the things that shaped its character – wilderness – and would lose more if something wasn’t done. Leopold’s wilderness was a first step, but it would be decades before there was a system of legal wilderness in place.
The wilderness movement was once bipartisan and egalitarian, born in a time when people could talk without shouting.
In 1956, Howard Zahniser, executive director of the Wilderness Society, wrote a bill that would create legal wilderness areas in the United States. In those days, the Wilderness Society was not the large organization it is today.
Zahniser works overtime
Zahniser worked tirelessly. He had extra pockets sewn into two overcoats and carried copies of his bill, maps and the writings of Thoreau with him. He spent eight years working for the passage of his bill, writing 66 drafts. The law passed with huge bipartisan support, passing 373-1 in the House and 73-12 in the Senate. On September 3, 1964, President Johnson signed the bill into law, but Zahniser was not there to witness the signing. He had died in May.
The act defined wilderness as a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It created about 9 million of wilderness. Adding more would require Congressional approval through a system of reviews, hearings and committees. Kevin Dahl, of the National Parks Conservation Association, recalls testifying at Congressional hearings in Washington D.C. while he was still in high school. An Arizona Congressman named Morris K. Udall sat on the committee.
“He was the only one who asked me a question,” Dahl said. “He said, ‘Now Kevin, have you been to any of these areas?’ Luckily I was able to say yes.”
By the mid 1980s, after fighting for creation of large wilderness areas in Alaska, Udall was ready to champion a wilderness bill that focused on Forest Service lands in his home state of Arizona. One of his staffers, Mark Trautwein, worked with the locals to craft a bill that would add about a million acres of Arizona wilderness.
Udall presses for more Arizona wilderness
Trautwein ping-ponged between Arizona and Washington, talked to the men and women who hiked into the areas and listened to those who had concerns about the bill – “I was carrying two armfuls of accordion files,” he said. Businesses, conservationists, ranchers, mining and logging companies took part in the discussions because Udall believed in working with everyone, Trautwein said.
“That’s the way he legislated,” Trautwein said, but the bill still generated a lot of controversy.
“You sort of got used to the fact that you were walking through a mine field on one level or another … Ranchers were opposed to it, miners were opposed to it, … and they made their feelings quite plain.” A few ranchers initially opposed to the idea were brought on board when they learned that wilderness would be off limits to motorized off-road recreation, but not to ranching. Although the Arizona Mining Association opposed the bill, it provided a lot of information on areas and their potential for mining, and Trautwein took their work seriously.
“I didn’t want to be throwing darts at some map,” He said. “I wanted to make informed recommendations.”
Getting it in writing
“He said, now let’s go talk to Barry,” Trautwein said. Udall wanted Sen. Barry Goldwater to introduce the bill in the Senate. Trautwein didn’t think the conservative icon would touch it, but he walked with Udall to Goldwater’s office.
When Trautwein finished writing the bill, Udall took a look and said it was ready.
“They greeted each other like long lost brothers, …” Trautwein said. The two men walked over to the Senate building, with Trautwein following.
“I’m thinking, what the hell I am I doing here? I’m walking with these two giants. They really don’t need me.” They talked about their families, their health, and told jokes until they got to the Senate floor, where Goldwater opened the door and turned to Udall.
“So Mo, what brings you here?” he said.
Udall nodded in his aide’s direction and said “young Trautwein has been working on this wilderness bill. I’d be honored if you’d introduce it in the Senate. … and Goldwater said, sure Mo, no problem.”
But the tone of the national conversation grew partisan. Wilderness became a pariah to the Sagebrush Rebellion and the far right, and as climate change became the new darling of the environmental movement, the idea of wilderness seemed dated. But the roots of the wilderness movement are egalitarian, and the primary reasons for designating wilderness are ethical ones. And although it’s hard to look forward and see a bright future, it’s hard to look back and say the Wilderness Act is where things went wrong. Given the current political climate, wilderness advocates were smart to get something in writing while it was still possible.