Howie Wolke, member, Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness
Wilderness is the basic fabric of our
wondrous living Earth. It is the timelessness of the ages,
and the only environment in which we know, from experience,
that healthy diverse living systems can persist for many millennia.
Wilderness is unspoiled wild nature, with no roads or houses
or strip malls, where natural forces rule, often amidst a
magnificent physical setting. In the United States, wilderness
is the silent magic of a verdant forest, the vastness of an
unaltered colorful desert, the golden richness of prairie
and wetland, and the magnificence of red alpenglow on a snow-covered
peak rising above an icy jewel-like lake, somewhere in the
heart of the wild Rockies. It's the wolf's haunting wail.
And it's the intangible magic of pulsating, cyclical life.
Most landscapes that are not designated
Wilderness have been or will be developed and damaged by a
plethora of industrial and mechanized uses. That is the reality
of the 21st century. With rapid population growth in the United
States and growing demand for increasingly scarce resources,
plus mushrooming mechanized/motorized recreation adding further
pressure to already stressed wildlands, this reality is unlikely
to change in the near future.
The Wilderness Act of 1964
is our nation's foremost land protection law, written mainly
by the late Howard Zahniser. Section 2-c of the Wilderness
Act defines a wilderness area as "an area of undeveloped
Federal land retaining its primeval character". It further
defines wilderness as "untrammeled", which means
'unconfined' or 'unrestricted', and as an area that "generally
appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature".
An act of the United States Congress, signed by the President,
is required to designate an area as a wilderness.
The Wilderness Act also instructs managers
to administer Wilderness areas "unimpaired" and
for "the preservation of their wilderness character"
(section 2-a). This means that the law strictly forbids
degradation of wilderness areas. With few exceptions,
the Wilderness Act allows no roads, resource extraction, construction
or motorized or mechanical forms of transportation in wilderness
areas. However, hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing/photography,
hiking, horsepacking, rafting, canoeing, cross country skiing,
and scientific studies are all allowed and encouraged in wilderness.
(In extraordinary circumstances, mechanized rescue of injured
parties is permitted.) Additional wilderness values include
clean water and air, protection of biological diversity, and
reduced need for new endangered species listings. That's because
when we protect habitat, most species thrive. Wilderness is
also our primary baseline environment; in other words, it's
the metaphorical yardstick against which we measure the health
of all human-altered landscapes!
Simply stated, wilderness is the proverbial
blank spot on the map, yes, but Wilderness designation is
also a statement that wilderness is a special place, "in
contrast with those areas where man [sic] and his works dominate
the landscape" (Wilderness Act, section 2-c). In fact,
because Wilderness designation is our highest form of land
protection, wilderness areas are our most special wild landscapes.
Wilderness is also an essential antidote
for civilization's excesses of technology, pavement and pop
culture, but beyond that, wilderness is about humility. It's
a statement that we don't know it all and never will. Wilderness
is about being a part of something much greater than our civilization
and ourselves. Perhaps above all, it's a statement that non-human
life forms and the landscapes which support them, have intrinsic
value, just because they exist, independent of their
multiple values to humanity.
Most emphatically, wilderness is not primarily
about recreation; nor it is about the "me first"
attitude of those who view nature as a metaphorical pie to
be divvied up among competing user groups. It's about selflessness;
it's about setting our egos aside and doing what's best for
the land. It's about wholeness, not fragments, and it's about
keeping at least a few parts of the Earth undeveloped, unpolluted,
unfragmented and undamaged by the unrelenting forces of expanding
human biomass and industrial civilization. After all, wilderness
areas are our healthiest landscapes with our cleanest waters;
they support our most robust wildlife populations, especially
for many sensitive rare species. And they provide our most
elemental opportunities for personal challenge, for contemplation,
and for us two-legged upright hominids to get in touch with
our basic spiritual values, whatever they might be.
Finally, when we fail to protect real
wilderness, we miss the chance to pass along to our children
and grandchildren -- and to future generations of non-human
life -- the irreplaceable wonders of a world that is far too
quickly becoming merely a dim memory of a far better time.
We mustn't let that continue. As Edward Abbey once said, "the
idea of wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders".
Please help us to defend the wild Gallatins and the rest of
the remaining American wilderness, too.