“We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there— important, that is, simply as an idea.”
~ Wallace Stegner, from his Wilderness Letter
For well over a century, Americans have been setting aside certain public lands for protection in an undeveloped state. For much of that time, the practice was uniquely American, though many other nations now embrace it. Why? Stegner argued that there is something about wild country that resonates deeply in the American spirit. Today’s wilderness lovers would agree, even as they find the question of “why wilderness” an odd one.
For many of us, the values of wilderness are intrinsic, self-evident and have little to do with utilitarian accounting. We share Albert Einstein’s view:“Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” But the process of protecting wilderness on our federal public lands is finally a political one. As such, wilderness must contend in both the marketplace of ideas and the marketplace itself. Fortunately, it contends very well in both venues.
Start with outdoor recreation, a huge and growing part of our economy. Families do not outfit themselves for adventures in clearcuts and strip mines. They seek peaceful places, natural quiet and natural sounds. At the high end of that scale is wilderness–designated or de facto. It draws countless hikers, back-country hunters and anglers, campers, white water boaters, all of whom spend money, lots of it, to equip themselves and simply to get there. The economic engine that those activities comprise is real and measurable.
We also know from years of research that some of the most economically robust places in the nation are those nearest wild country, often designated wilderness. Businesses relocate to such places, knowing that competent, well-equipped workers are either there or will come, seeking what teeming cities are so often unable to provide: a high quality of life, what some refer to as “a paycheck from God.”
If the criterion is direct human benefit–what’s in it for us–consider that wild nature yields a significant percentage of the pharmaceuticals we all rely on in medicine, dentistry and other healing arts. Some antibiotics, including penicillin and cephalosporin, derive from natural substances. Against this established fact stands another: only a small number of the plants and animals on the planet have been studied for their medicinal properties, even as we go about the sad business of extirpating them, killing things finally and forever whose names we scarcely know and whose value to humankind we can scarcely imagine. Wilderness stands as a bastion against that disappearance, a reservoir of native plants and animals, insulation against our casual destruction of them.
It is perhaps most of all in this function of warehouse for diversity, that wilderness stands most apart. But that is just one element of its utility as a natural laboratory. By serving as a control or benchmark, wild areas can help us evaluate and understand our impact on the environment and to better measure our successes or failures on adjacent non-wilderness land, both public and private. Wilderness areas are places where natural processes are allowed to unfold without significant intervention by man. They have much to teach us about water quality and clarity, soil fertility and plant and animal distribution, about natural systems functioning naturally. By knowing and understanding the status and trends in undisturbed areas, we can measure management on nearby lands and make better choices about farming methods, flood control, forestry practices and wildlife management.
Large tracts of protected forest also provide critical habitat for many species of wildlife. Backcountry hunters and anglers know this fact both intuitively and from much-valued personal experience. Not only are hunting and fishing allowed in protected wilderness, wilderness provides the best of those pursuits for true sportsmen and women, those for whom the hunt itself is every bit as important as the harvest.
Science is telling us, too, that interior forest songbirds need relatively unbroken areas of mature forest in order to maintain viable populations. And other wide-ranging species such as black bear prefer wild settings. Our knowledge of these species and their needs grows all the time. As we learn more about our native flora and fauna, prudence suggests that we let some of our public land stand undeveloped rather than risk erasing the complex web of sustaining elements critical to their well-being.
Wilderness and unbroken backcountry serve these functions admirably and they will do so sustainably if we have the wit and the will to let them. Their role becomes ever more important as we lose precisely those attributes on private land at an accelerating rate. As undisrupted habitat and open space dwindle on other ownerships, their retention on natural public lands becomes more and more vital. If we were to single out one purpose for our public lands that surpasses all others it would be this: to provide things that private lands cannot or do not provide. Among those are public recreational opportunities, opportunities for solitude and primitive experiences, undisrupted habitat and natural settings.
Wild places enrich our lives and serve humankind in countless ways–some obvious, others less so; some quantifiable, some not. While we are sometimes called on to justify wilderness in terms of its human utility, that, to invoke Wallace Stegner once more, is perhaps the least of it. “What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself,” he said, also in his Wilderness Letter.
For the convinced wilderness lover, that is reason enough to treasure and protect it. Others may need reassurance that wilderness, if not an actual economic plus is at least economically neutral, and that there are practical, human-centered reasons, not just spiritual and moral ones, for letting it endure. If it is put to such utilitarian tests, and it surely will be, wilderness can pass, profane though such tests may seem.
Those tests may seem stranger still to our children who will inherit this more crowded, more frantic planet from us. They are likely to be less interested in the dollar price of the logs we sold than of the transcendent value of the wild forest we surrendered in the process. If we choose wrongly, they won’t ask why wilderness. They’ll ask why on Earth not?