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.

Yosemite Valley View
Yosemite Valley.

Photo by Boqiang Liao/Flickr

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the piece of federal legislation that created a national system of wilderness areas and established the principles for their management. Its passage was a shining moment in American environmental ethics: the statutory affirmation of a nation’s deep regard for the wild and a determination to devote considerable political and material resources to protecting it. Yet today there is a debate brewing about whether the act is still a vital and useful part of our environmental inheritance—or whether its best days may now be behind it.

Public appreciation of the wild, we must remember, took some time. Although precocious wilderness advocates like John Muir wrote in 1901 that “None of Nature's landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild,” not many of his readers were yet willing to join the intrepid naturalist in wholeheartedly commending the rights of alligators, the beauty of swamps, and the moral worth of the wilder places and creatures on the planet.

Muir’s shadow, though, would prove long. A founder of the Sierra Club in the 1890s, his blowtorch rhetoric and religious zeal for the wild (for instance, he said that developers seeking to dam a valley in his beloved Yosemite were demonic “temple destroyers”) would gain a following as the 20th century wore on, inspiring a wide range of American wilderness writing and activism. Muir’s wilderness ethic would be magnified and diversified by a procession of prominent artists, writers, scientists, and advocates, from Ansel Adams to Aldo Leopold to David Brower.

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But times have a habit of changing. Since at least the early 1990s, geographers, ethnoecologists, archaeologists, historians, and others have challenged Muir’s ideal of a wild and “untrammeled” pre-European North America. The notion of a pristine, pre-contact landscape has been obliterated by the mountain of historical evidence documenting the significant Native American technological alteration and control of the environment, from earthworks and forest clearing to the wide use of fire and wildlife management. Even Muir’s wild Yosemite has not been spared: Scholars have highlighted the historical role of California Indians in shaping the modern landscape of the Sierra Nevada.

Still, in 1901 Muir took comfort in thinking that there were parts of the Earth that he assumed would always have to be wild, forever impervious to the human footprint: the seas, the sky, the granite domes of Yosemite. We can breathe easy, Muir wrote, because we can “change and mar them hardly more than can the butterflies that hover above them.”

He was obviously wrong about that one.

Today we recognize (though not always without argument) the degree to which we’ve influenced and changed Muir’s wild world. It’s an impressive but fearsome litany of global impacts: human-caused climate change, intensive urbanization, the disruption of biogeochemical cycles, ocean acidification, pollution, overharvesting of resources, the spread of invasive species. Our technological enterprises have gone a long way toward transforming environmental systems across the globe to the extent that human-dominated rather than nature-dominated systems may now be the norm.

In fact, many scientists have described the collective outcome of these anthropogenic impacts as marking a new geological divide in the planet’s history, a transition from the Holocene Epoch to the current era of the “Anthropocene”—the age of humans. While some see a hopeful message in our being large-and-in-charge on the planet, because it means we can take responsibility for a world of our making, others find a much darker endgame awaiting a species able (and willing) to write its presence in the geological record.

Not surprisingly, these shifts in our historical, ecological, and technological understanding have ramifications for how we conceive of and manage the wilderness. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Christopher Solomon argues that the Wilderness Act’s “hands-off” management philosophy is woefully out-of-step in our era of rapid ecological transformation and outsize human influence. This view reflects a growing sentiment among many conservationists that the traditional preservationist model of the wilderness is no longer suitable for our changing planet of more than 7 billion people.

Instead, a more active and interventionist approach to managing wildlands, urban landscapes, and all the places in between is said to be far more suitable for a “post-wilderness” conservation. This new strategy would mean using natural-technological systems to provide ecosystem services for urban and rural communities—for instance, water purification and flood control. It also promotes the active manipulation of landscapes to improve their habitat value for both native and non-native species (via species introductions, plantings, and so on). And, in general, it elevates in stature those human-modified ecosystems, long devalued by conservationists, that retain many valued species and functions but that depart from the norm of historical (“natural”) ecosystems.

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