What is Wilderness?

by 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.