A justification for wilderness

This is normally Steve Kelly’s area of expertise, as he is a lifelong wilderness advocate. It has long been an interest of mine as well. My activities in wilderness ceased when I resigned in disgust from the Montana Wilderness Association years ago. While I was an active member, the group was always short of money, the trademark of a genuine environmental group. Over the years, the Pew Charitable Trusts, as an active strategy, took over funding of groups like MWA, removing anyone with a backbone and replacing them with industry “collaborators,” or people who do not believe in confrontation.

They are showered in cash from Pew and other organizations that want to put an end to wilderness activism. MWA now has a large and well-paid staff  (I count 21, whereas when I was a member there were three), and they all wear outdoor apparel and appear in natural settings. Their main funtion is to make the group look like it is doing useful activities while accomplishing nothing. I don’t imagine them to be outdoorsy. 

Pew’s task is now complete. MWA is an industry front group, and not a proponent or defender of wilderness.

(One good thing came out of my years with MWA – it is how I met my wife.)

While with the group, I searched for a justification for wilderness. From a legal standpoint, a wilderness area is a place “where man is a visitor who does not remain”, and where no motorized or even mechanized vehicle of any kind is allowed. Even when workers are building or repairing trails, they must use hand tools. Wilderness areas (along with national parks) are exempted from the 1872 Mining Law, which allows exploration for minerals on all other public lands. A wilderness area is meant to be preserved in perpetuity, and that is controversial. Motorized recreation, bicyclers, snowmobiles and loggers all want in. So far, the law (passed in 1964) stands.

SCAI was told that the best justification for wilderness was a book by Aldo Leopold called Sand County Almanac. Indeed, it is a well-written book, but I found it somewhat wispy and flowery, where I was looking for nuts and bolts – why do we have wilderness? Since wild lands will always be under pressure from industry and pressure groups, we need some hard rock logic to defend them.

Down the RiverI found what I was looking for in an essay by Edward Abbey called Thus I Reply to René Dubos, found in the Abbey book called Down the River (page 111). Dubos (1901-1982) had written a book called The Wooing of the Earth which, according to Abbey, “…describe[d] with pride the transformation of the European landscape during recent millennia, by human labor, human need, human thought.”

Abbey, who had spent three years in Europe, two as a military cop and one as a student, was fond of it as a place “… where humankind and the landscape have been wedded so well, for so long. Or so it appears from a certain esthetic distance.”

After his return to the States, and his “journey home” wherein he migrated from Pennsylvania to the desert west, he was “spoiled and corrupted forever.” On a subsequent European trip, “… I became conscious, everywhere, of long dark centuries of forced labor, of serfdom and slavery, that went into creation of Europe’s historic beauty.” Over each quaint village hangs the black shadow of the castle, the château, or the manor house – symbols and reminders of a thousand years of injustice.”

Through revolution and progress that heritage of evil has been partly transcended, but its memory lingers in the air, in the atmosphere, a somber undertone to “the still, sad music of humanity.” In this dark note reminded me of things that I had failed to understand during my earlier travels in southern Italy. The landscape that had seemed, from the ship, so charming and lovely, turned out on close inspection to be heavily burdened by human need. Hardly a square foot of surface was left unused; the terraced hillside smelled of human dung, the fields were cultivated to within inches of the roads, and most barren peaks cropped to stubble by ubiquitous flocks of goats.

In my own travels, I sensed in Europe a place that had long lost its frontier, where I was never in danger from anything more than pickpockets or falling off a mountain. While domestic goats are abundant, the other animals, the wild ones,  are gone, as are the southern forests. The European transportation system, an amazing human accomplishment, can get a person to within a mile of almost every place he might want to go. 

It may be true that the deforestation and intensive cultivation of the Mediterranean world actually improved and appearance. (From a landscape architect’s point of view.) For a time, no doubt,… The destruction of the forest may even have contributed to a sunny liberation of the human spirit. But over the long run … that excessive use resulted in a general impoverishment of life, from which many southern Europeans eagerly sought escape when the opportunity became available.

Indeed, that escape was North and South America, and all of its untrammeled land. Yes, it was already occupied, and we’ll never know by how many, but when the European migration ended, there was a lot of unoccupied land left.

Somewhere in his Essays (circa 1560, “On Cannibals”), Montaigne mentions an American Indian who was brought to France and shown around; asked to give his opinion of the civilized glories he had seen, the Indian, reports Montaigne, wondered how a few rich men could keep so many poor men in subjection, and why the poor men did not cut the rich men’s throats. What the Indian failed to see was that the poor were trapped by their dependence on agriculture, their escape foreclosed by the spread of dense human populations in the enclosure of free, wild, unoccupied lands. With the forest cut down, most of humanity submitted to slavery in one form or another in order to survive.… The disciplining of the earth required and led to the disciplining of human beings.

This is where Abbey, a free-spirited man who treasured his life out West, was able to make the essential justification for wildness – it is a defense of human freedom.

Wilderness compliments and completes civilization. I might say that the existence of wilderness is also a complement to civilization. In a society that feels itself too poor to afford the preservation of wilderness is not worthy of the name civilization. …

Even in the lower forty-eight contiguous United States only 2% of the total land surface has been given official status and long-term protection as wilderness. The fate of the remaining roadless areas, some 200 million acres [circa 1980s], mostly in the West, remains in doubt, subject of contention between those who would save them for future generations and those who want to get in there and drag something out right now.

… But the woods, the hills, the rocks: how much Nature is enough? Enough to go around, I’d say, or about one square mile per human – with a little surplus left over.

In our former home town of Bozeman there was a weekly newspaper column written by a woman who was confined to a wheel chair. She thought it unfair that she not be allowed into wilderness areas, which would require roads. It was a hard argument to counter because it seemed harsh and cruel, but the answer had to be “Sorry Tammy, you just cannot go there. If we accommodate you, we will no longer have wilderness.”

There is ongoing controversy, now mostly in National Forest and remaining non-wilderness lands, the 200 million acres that Abbey referred to, to pull the resources out for human use, usually in the form of logs. To do so requires roads, and something I’ve learned is that when a road is built in a formerly roadless area, the grizzly bears leave. They either know that confrontation will get them killed, or that their home is no longer safe.

The chief reason so many people are fleeing the cities at every opportunity to go tramping, canoeing, skiing into the wilds is that wilderness offers a taste of adventure, a chance for the rediscovery of our ancient, preagricultural, preindustrial freedom. Forest and desert, Mountain and River, when ventured upon in primitive terms, allows us a sort of Proustian recapture, however superficial and brief, of the rich sensations of our former existence, our basic heritage of one million years of hunting, gathering, wandering. This elemental impulse still survives in our blood, nerves, dreams and desires, suppressed but not destroyed by the mere five thousand years of agricultural serfdom, a mere two hundred years of industrial peonage, which culture has attempted to impose on what evolution designed as a feeling, thinking, liberty-loving animal.

In other places, Abbey talks of the need for danger, that wilderness is not wild if we are not in danger there. I think he was even so blunt as to say that the loss of a few Boy Scouts now and then is a worthy price to pay for wild places. When I hike in Colorado, long since tamed, wolves and grizzly bears removed, my senses are alive, but I do not feel any fear. When hiking in the backwoods of Yellowstone National Park or the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, I am constantly on edge, ever fearful that I’ll encounter an animal or some other danger. We must constantly make noise, carry bear spray, and never hike alone. At night there are noises all around, and each one is I am sure something that wants to eat me. That is what makes wilderness worthwhile, that it is dangerous. That is exciting, and I will echo this sentiment until something does indeed try to eat me. (I am reminded of a man in Montana who was attacked in his tent by a grizzly, survived, and afterwards said that his next tent would have a front and back door. For me, there would be no “next tent.”)

But one exception remains to the iron rule of oligarchy. At least in America one relic of our ancient and rightful liberty has survived. And that is – a walk into the Big Woods; a journey on foot into the uninhabited interior; the voyage down the river of no return. Hunters, fishermen, hikers, climbers, Whitewater boatmen, red rock explorers know what I mean. In America at least this kind of experience remains open and available to all, democratic. Little or no training is required, very little special equipment, no certification of privilege. All that is needed is normal health, the will to do it, and a modicum of courage.

It is my fear that if we allowed the freedom of the hills and the last of the wilderness to be taken from us, that the very idea of freedom may die with it.

And there it is, what I was looking for, a rock-solid justification for wilderness. Yes, we want a place for the animals, trees and rocks to just exist, and we want this in perpetuity. But for our own sake, we want to be free human beings.

Thanks, Ed. Even the Scamdemic, which was used to close national parks, left wilderness areas alone.

14 thoughts on “A justification for wilderness

  1. 1828 Webster’s definition of wild illustrates, I think, the multiple reasons there is so little “Wilderness” remaining. Like wilderness, only a remnant population, as Mark posits, actually “want to be free human beings.” Fewer yet self-identify as free men. It is the price paid for “civilization” and domestication.

    Denial of the “uncivilized” savage in each of us causes a loss of soul, a mental disease (wetiko), which, if left unattended ultimately helps to explain man’s slow but steady march toward mass suicide. Freedom is inherent, but never given in man’s legal (never morally just) system. It is always a struggle, a fight, to be of that remnant class of free souls.

    WILD, adjective [G.]

    Roving; wandering; inhabiting the forest or open field; hence, not tamed or domesticated; as a wild boar; a wild ox; a wild cat; a wild bee.
    Growing without culture; as wild parsnep; wild cherry; wild tansy. wild rice, a palatable and nutritious food, grows spontaneously in the lakes and ponds of the North West territory.
    Desert; not inhabited; as a wild forest.
    Savage; uncivilized; not refined by culture; as the wild natives of Africa or America.
    Turbulent; tempestuous; irregular; as a wild tumult.

    The wild winds howl.

    Licentious; ungoverned; as wild passions.

    Valor grown wild by pride–

    Inconstant; mutable; fickle.

    In the ruling passion, there also the wild are constant, and the cunning known.

    Inordinate; loose.

    A fop well dressd, extravagant and wild

    Uncouth; loose.

    –What are these, so witherd, and so wild in their attire?

    Irregular; disorderly; done without plan or order; as, to make wild work.
    Not well digested; not framed according to the ordinary rules of reason; not being within the limits of probable practicability; imaginary; fanciful; as a wild project or scheme; wild speculations.
    Exposed to the wind and sea; as a wild roadstead.
    Made or found in the forest; as wild honey.

    WILD is prefixed to the names of many plants, to distinguish them from such of the name as are cultivated in gardens, as wild basil, wild parsnep, wild carrot, wild olive, _.

    WILD, noun A desert; an uninhabited and uncultivated tract or region; a forest or sandy desert; as the wilds of America; the wilds of Africa; the sandy wilds of Arabia.

    Then Libya first, of all her moisture draind, became a barren waste, a wild of sand.


    1. You will surely appreciate this. Abbey was editor of the University of New Mexico literary magazine The Thunderbird. On the cover of the magazine he put a quote by Denis Diderot, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” attributing it (with wicked humor) to Louisa May Alcott. He got fired.


  2. Double bullseye! Abbey hit his targets with incredible accuracy. Censored then, as it (rude, crude and socially unattractive comments) is today.

    I wonder, if we dug mass graves, left them open for observation, prepared for the self-appointed gods, kings and priests of today, with their engraved headstones at the ready, would it not at least give these evil bastards pause? I would, of course, call it art, in hopes of escaping “being fired” or some more painful punishment. Dream big.


      1. Trillions will be spent before the magic window closes, making damn sure no man is free.


        “So, while the pain of COVID-19 is devastating, it has created a policy window for climate action that six months ago would have been unimaginable. In the next year, trillions of dollars will be spent on recovery plans, stimulus packages and company bailouts. During this historic moment, governments can change the course of the future, investing in technologies that prevent systemic risks, including those presented by climate change, drastically reducing emissions and improving societal resilience.”


  3. Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

    Living in the SLC area, I couldn’t agree more! 😛

    Isn’t that what lamp posts are for??


  4. Speaking of Abbey, I think it’s fair to say that all of mankind has been sold “Down The River”.


    1. Big Snowies? That’s heartening. Abbey would have mentioned that a cow is a hearty meal for a grizzly, allowing it satiation, a smooth and shiny healthy hide, pearly teeth and enough protein for mating and reproduction. Cows, on the other hand, have no natural protection against predators, which is why the grizzly had to be put down. Grizzlies do not respect fences.

      The article you linked to is annoying in presentation, not content, the screen constantly jumping and flashing, the advertising assholes doing everything in their power to distract us from content and towards their glitzy products. I remember years ago, when pop-ups were new and people were pissed off about them, that a news reporter talked to a woman who worked for an ad agency that was producing them. When he mentioned that people found them annoying she said “Well duh! It’s our job to get your attention.” I thought her a candidate for s firing squad. I might even have been able to watch. I cannot bear to witness harm being done to animals, but advertisers? Yeah, I can watch that, popcorn on hand.


  5. Another fine piece; I recall telling a Spanish-American woman who had lived some time in Greece the reason I preferred the Americas was “Europe was mapped so long ago. I prefer the mystery here.”

    Your chilling quote of Abbey, “Over each quaint village hangs the black shadow of the castle, the château, or the manor house – symbols and reminders of a thousand years of injustice” may be part of what I called his misanthropy. Pretty good reason for it, I suppose. I have admired some of the Central American pyramids, but felt that dark force underfoot there as well.

    and this: “This elemental impulse still survives in our blood, nerves, dreams and desires, suppressed but not destroyed by the mere five thousand years of agricultural serfdom, a mere two hundred years of industrial peonage, which culture has attempted to impose on what evolution designed as a feeling, thinking, liberty-loving animal.” I remember in the Tetons coming upon a few cubs with the mom not too far away. Goosebumps at the memory. One of many wild moments. I feel I am still on that hunter-gatherer wavelength. It’s an exciting place to be. 🙂

    Steve, your comment about the masses being suicidally guided by wetiko was a crystal bullet connection I needed to make. I had previously seen wetiko as mainly a disease of the mid+ classes and elites, but it is widespread in the “advanced world.” It helps explain my sense of dread as to why so many sleepwalk in full daylight, farming out all thought, bereft of the spiritual, adrift. The wild etymology and poetry was awesome, btw.

    What an amazing world and time we live in. Great post and great comments, thanks.


    1. I’m told that a man was killed by a bear down by Durango just recently, a black bear no less. Could have been a mother and cubs. There was another guy up in Montana some years ago, spent the night in a tree as a bear circled below, would not give up. He must have been on the lighter branches higher up as black bears can scramble up trees pretty easy. The next day the bear left, and rangers did some analysis of hair samples and said that it too was a black bear. No cubs, just pissed.

      The guy that spent the night in the tree, as I remember, vowed he would never go into the woods again. That would be me.


      1. Yikes, I was under the impression black bears weren’t so aggressive…they are the only ones down here. Saw some across a moonlit meadow while camping in the Mogollons back in high school. Went back to sleep, but had my pistol handy.


        1. I once got a black bear to leave our back porch by throwing a broom at him and using a squirt gun. He just decided the bird seed he was after was not worth the trouble. I’ve never seen one that did not just turn and run.

          We had dinner a while back with a couple from Alaska, and were told that in that area, black bears are very dangerous while the brown bears tend to be more passive. They said that a black bear up there will not only kill you, but immediately eat you too.


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