“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness…I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization… what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
~Henry David Thoreau, from the essay, “Walking” (1862)
We’re in the midst of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by Pres. Lyndon Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964–102 years after Thoreau delivered his famous dictum. It took Howard Zahniser, the bill’s primary author, eight years (after introduction in 1956), 65 rewrites, and 18 public hearings to get the job done with overwhelming bi-partisan support (those were the days!). Today, 109,511,038 acres of congressionally-designated wilderness compose the 758 units of the National Wilderness Preservation System managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Who benefits from wilderness? Well, humans for sure, in values that include solitude, recreational opportunities, the genesis of clean water and air, benchmarks for scientific inquiry, revenue for local economies, and so on. As Americans, these lands are your wild legacy and mine–regardless of which state claims them. Designated wilderness–like our national parks–is another grand, American idea.
But to America’s European settlers, wild places were scary–evil, even. “Wilderness is a dark and dismal place where all manner of wild beasts dash about uncooked,” one early settler purportedly said in the 1600s. And so the taming began. “Nowadays,” Thoreau opined 152 years ago, “almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.”
“All manner of wild beasts” need wilderness
Though “man himself is a visitor who does not remain” (from the definition of wilderness in The Act), wilderness is teeming with native, nonhuman residents who lay far greater claim to it than American taxpayers. From the wolverine’s remote home in the frosty Cabinet Mountains Wilderness of northwest Montana (video) to the gila monster’s scorching desert abode in the Saguaro Wilderness (video) to the threatened wood stork’s cypress swamp nest in Everglades’ Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness, designation provides not only refuge for animals, but also a place to survive.
Wilderness rises above all other designations in the degree of protection it provides the land and, subsequently, plants and animals and their habitats. Many wilderness areas are contiguous with other protected wild lands–inventoried Forest Service roadless areas come to mind, offering another 58.5 million acres of wild land. But roadless areas allow a far greater range of disrupting activities, including:
…timber harvesting for limited purposes, livestock grazing, off-highway vehicle use, and oil and gas development that do not require new roads to continue in roadless areas. Unlike wilderness areas…roadless areas…have been prescribed individual state-specific rules… ~PBS Now
According to The Act (Section 2(c)), wilderness is “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man…” Sounds great for animals, right? But if you think wilderness is the one place where they can finally catch a break from human hubris and meddling, you’re dead wrong.
Violating the inviolate: slaughter of predators in wilderness
You probably remember the outrageous slaughter of two wolf packs in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness last winter–a violation of the Wilderness Act permitted by U.S. Forest Service managers who refused to stand up to Idaho Fish and Game and their depraved plan to boost elk numbers to benefit human hunters. They were taken to court and, as soon as enough wolves were dead, their professional trapper/hunter was pulled off the job. The slaughter of native inhabitants to manipulate “game animal” numbers in federal wilderness is an example of trammeling at its worst and deadliest.
Creation of a “fenceless game farm” has also been attempted in the Kofa Wilderness, a desert unit in Arizona managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and home to one of Arizona’s largest desert bighorn sheep populations. In violation of the Wilderness Act, Kofa managers have allowed the installation of “guzzlers”–artificial watering holes (photos)–inside wilderness boundaries to augment water for desert bighorns, another hunted “big game” species. Not content to artificially inflate bighorn numbers for human hunters, Arizona Game and Fish also kills “offending” mountain lions under a “Kofa Mountains Complex Predator Management Plan” (see Question 16, FAQs). For the record, an offending lion is one who’s killed two sheep in a six-month period. No surprise, Safari Club International, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, and others of that ilk joined FWS in defense of a lawsuit brought against the agency by wilderness and environmental groups in 2007. “The trophy hunting groups are involved because trophy hunters sometimes wait near tanks to kill bighorn rams and mule deer when they come to drink,” according to The Southwest Eagle. Kofa is far from alone in this respect–hundreds of guzzlers are illegally present in desert Southwest wildernesses.
Before taking any management action, wilderness managers must ask themselves, “Does this action preserve wilderness character?” By no stretch of the imagination can the answer be “yes” in either the Frank Church or the Kofa situation. What’s gone wrong? It appears that state managers, who assert what they believe is their unequivocal right to “manage” wildlife and who are eager to create revenue-generating opportunities for the hunting public, are hijacking the Wilderness Act. And some federal administrators sit back and capitulate–despite the fact that the Supreme Court, in Kleppe v. New Mexico (1976), unanimously decided that, “Federal legislation necessarily overrides conflicting state laws under the Supremacy Clause….Where those state laws conflict with…other legislation passed pursuant to the Property Clause, the law is clear: The state laws must recede.” In other words, on federal land, federal law trumps state law when it comes to wildlife management.
Now, in the 21st century, with our landscape ever more tame and cheap, it behooves us to remember that the original production run for wilderness ended a long time ago. And though many millions of wilderness-eligible acres remain to be designated, this likely won’t happen on a grand scale anytime soon. In those areas already designated, let’s demand that wilderness managers scrupulously apply the Wilderness Act. If we believe that wild, nonhuman animals have the right to survive, let’s champion their right to live as nature intended in the relative sanctity of wilderness–at the very least!
During this anniversary year, let’s follow Henry David’s lead and speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness. Because animals can’t advocate for themselves, let’s make extreme and emphatic statements about how we value wilderness and the benefits it provides for all in the plant and animal kingdoms. Let’s remember that, for the Frank Church wolves and the Kofa mountain lions, wildness was not the preservation of their world, and that was a wholly human failing.
This piece is dedicated to the many federal wilderness professionals whose love of wilderness is expressed through their commitment to the Wilderness Act…and to the many citizen champions of wilderness. Thank you!
- Wilderness.net, for all things wilderness: Fast Facts and Find a Wilderness
- For legal scholars: More on federal supremacy – Wyoming v. U.S.
- For wilderness geeks: A paper on threats to future wilderness designations
- “American Values: American Wilderness“ video, created for the Wilderness Act’s 40th anniversary; narrated by Christopher Reeve shortly before his death.
- Wilderness protection & stewardship: Wilderness Watch
- “50 years of wilderness,” National Geo, by the author of “The Sixth Extinction”