A justification for wilderness

Years ago when I lived in Billings, MT, some friends and I would walk an eight-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River. This was our part of Audubon’s annual Christmas bird count. The trains ran the same route, and parts of it were so narrow that if a train came through while we were there, we would scatter and hunker up against a rock embankment with our faces buried. Trains are dangerous, and can throw rocks and debris that could be deadly.

I remember thinking one time as I was hunkered down how powerful those trains are, and how our industrial society is served by them. “I am part of this,” I thought, that is, me and my demand on resources is part of the reason that train exists. 

I used to volunteer for Montana Wilderness Society, which has since wisely removed the word “wilderness” from its name. They officially cashed out to big foundations that supplied their budgets and allowed their staff to achieve full featherbedding status, speaking of railroads. While I was there they were more authentic. I was troubled in that I could not morally justify the concept of wilderness. I asked around to see if anyone had done so, and I received two recommendations: Edward Abbey’s writings, and Sand County Almanac, a book by Aldo Leopold.

I have read just about everything Abbey wrote, and much of it was in defense of wilderness. Perhaps most succinctly,

The knowledge that refuge is available, when and if needed, makes the silent inferno of the desert more easily bearable. Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.

And …

The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.

Well said. Abbey thought that wilderness areas should be dangerous places. He had a dry wit, and seemed to like to offend the comfortable and righteous. He thought that a few dead boy scouts each year was a small price to pay for wilderness. His words. Not mine.

Sand County Almanac … I found unreadable. It was soft and saggy. Where Abbey would slap us in the face, Leopold would whisper in our ear. I never did finish the book, and do not own it anymore.

These days everyone is green, out to preserve the planet, so it is hard to separate those who are real from those who use wilderness as a stalking horse to achieve other purposes, usually resource development. One man I find particularly offensive is Montana Senator Jon Tester. He is a Democrat, but took over the role formerly filled by Republican Senator Conrad Burns, that of ending the wilderness and roadless debate permanently. Tester is what they call a “rocks and ice” guy, someone who indeed wants to preserve lands that hold little aesthetic value, while allowing industry free access to real resources.

Tester was first elected in 2007, after it became apparent that Burns was in a state of mild dementia. Those who backed Republican Burns merely switched backing to Democrat Tester. It’s been a battle ever since, and Tester never relents. He is determined before leaving office that Montana’s last six million acres of roadless lands disappear. Tester and Burns are prima facie evidence that there is no real difference in the two parties.

A once-every-six-year event

I find him phony and annoying, a good politician I suppose. Each time he runs for reelection, he has himself filmed on a small tractor, pretending to work on his farm. Honestly, he’s too fat for that. He’s as much a farmer as he is a wilderness advocate.

Enough of Tester. For myself, I have mixed emotions about wilderness. I agree with Abbey that we need it, but I also know that I once visited those areas but would not survive there. I have never hunted for my food, and long ago gave up fishing. This makes me a dilettante. As such, I have no place in the debate.

However, and I have to credit Alex Epstein for this, we are successful in life to the degree that we can overcome climate. This means that wilderness areas are there to be visited, but not to be occupied. They are dangerous places with wild grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolverines, unpredictable weather … completely inhospitable. In all the years that I backpacked in those areas I took foolish pride in never carrying a weapon, feeling that I needed to face my fears.

And I did just that. When it is dark, when the campfire is out, every little noise takes on added significance. Maybe sleeping through the night in wilderness area without a gun under my pillow is an act of courage, maybe foolishness. I am here, anyway, to write about it. That speaks of good fortune.

But the other thing I thought as I hunkered down as the freight train blew by me was this: There is no moral superiority in this game, that is, I am no better than”resource providers” and during my career depended on them for my income, livelihood, and well being. They depended on the likes of me for nothing. I merely wanted to preserve some land from development, a good thing. But having a car, fuel, a home, warmth, and food is a good thing, and those who provide those things are engaged in moral pursuits. I do not look down on them.

We go into wilderness areas and enjoy them because we have civilization, something to return to. Otherwise, they would not exist.


2 thoughts on “A justification for wilderness

  1. Maybe tangential, but I read something interesting about the northeastern natives recently. The author said they managed the land with controlled burns, to create “happy hunting grounds” – viz, the border between wooded and unwooded lands attracts and supports a lot of wildlife. I had always assumed they just hunted and migrated as needed, hadn’t heard that angle on their land management. The author pointed out that the Brits’ strict property borders prevented this sort of mutually beneficial management.


    1. I agree. I have no problem with land management for our benefit. I have long heard of natives doing controlled burns for both farming and wildlife management. I think it was Rousseau who imagined noble savages who lived off the land without affecting it. He was in France, and his savages, who did not exist, in the Americas.


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