The Wilderness Act Is 50 Years Old, and It’s Still Working

What's to come?
July 20 2014 10:42 PM

The Fall of the Wild? Not Really.

The landmark Wilderness Act is 50 years old, and it’s still working.

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These friendly critics are probably right to draw attention to the limitations of the traditional Muir-style vision of an untouched wild landscape for informing effective conservation under global climate change. Wilderness areas are managed carefully for passive recreation and for ecological values, with resource extraction, road building, mechanized transport, and permanent installations generally prohibited unless special exemption requirements are met. Yet sometimes maintaining the full sweep of ecological values of a landscape, including the protection of biodiversity in a rapidly transforming environment, requires us to consider interventions that challenge these longstanding preservationist notions. It’s a situation that can pit the older Muirian ideals of untrammeled nature against the newer interventionist models.

Here in Arizona, for example, in 2007, an advocacy organization called Wilderness Watch successfully sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for building water tanks in the Kofa Wilderness Area in the southeastern part of the state. The tanks and pipes were intended to provide water reserves for the region’s endangered bighorn sheep, which the managers were concerned had become stressed by a prolonged drought and hotter temperatures. Although the tanks were clearly intended for conservation purposes, Wilderness Watch argued that they were violations of the 1964 act’s prohibition against building installations that disturb wilderness character (and that the tanks were not effective to boot).

It’s true, then, that the act’s stringency can result in some controversial decisions and in some hard choices having to be made. At the same time, some of the wilderness critiques can be too broadly drawn, obsessing on the peculiarities of the act’s old statutory rhetoric (e.g., “untrammeled” nature) while discounting the practical tradition of active wilderness management. Although the act prescribes minimal technological interventions in wilderness areas—and this can require making difficult trade-offs among different wilderness and conservation values—the agencies responsible for managing these places (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service) have a history of engaging in active management of the wilderness when necessary, at least to a degree. Prescribed burning, species reintroductions (e.g. wolves), the stocking of non-native fish, pesticide spraying, the use of helicopters—these and other manipulations have and continue to take place in federally designated wilderness. Admittedly, these efforts may not go far enough for some critics, but it isn’t the case that managers’ hands are completely tied when it comes to actively intervening in wilderness areas to restore or enhance their ecological and recreational character.

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Furthermore, despite its oft-lamented restrictiveness, the Wilderness Act may actually be more flexible in certain situations than we think. Some legal scholars have suggested that it could permit novel, perhaps even radical technological and management interventions for conservation purposes. For example, the active relocation of wildlife species to wilderness areas outside their native range in anticipation of the effects of climate change (aka “assisted colonization” or “managed relocation”) could, in fact, be permissible under the act if it’s deemed simpatico with the overall “wilderness character” of the landscape. That’s a far cry from “hands off” management.

Even if we agree that we need to revise our aspirations to promote “untrammeled” landscapes in 2014, it would nevertheless be a great mistake to go further and relax our political and legal commitment to the 1964 act. Doing so would inevitably weaken our protection of the nation’s wilder places. The passage of the Wilderness Act was a hard-won victory—it’s difficult to see how even a shadow of it could be passed again in today’s political climate.

In the end, even though Muir’s Yosemite is not a pristine wilderness, it’s still a breathtakingly wild place capable of inspiring old-fashioned Romantic awe and wonder. That holds true despite its wildness not being absolute—and even as it continues to evolve and change under human influence. Acknowledging this partly humanized, partly technological character of the wilderness, though, doesn’t require backing off from the view that we should still protect as much wildness as possible where and when we can. Cars, concessions, and parking lots are presumably a fixture in Muir’s northern California “temple” for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean that we have to welcome unmanned drones orbiting over Half Dome.

And anyway, the real meaning of the wilderness can’t be found by poring over its legislative definition. It resides in the character and environmental culture its appreciation incites in a people. In our attempts to protect the wild from significant technological control, we open ourselves to Muir’s pleas to exercise humility and forbearance on the landscape. Although it may bear the mark of the human fingerprint, wilderness can still teach us the value of that proud and yes, proudly American environmental ethic. It’s the character instilled by observing, as Thoreau put it, “our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” And it’s a virtue still accessible to us if we are wise enough to protect its source, especially in the age of humans.

Muir, it turns out, was right about the most important thing all along.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Ben A. Minteer holds the Arizona Zoological Society endowed chair in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

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