Aldo Leopold famously wrote in his foreword to the Sand County Almanac that “there are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” About 1,200 of those who cannot converged on Leopold’s one-time hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the National Wilderness Conference in mid-October, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The location was fitting given that, at Leopold’s insistence, the high mesas, rugged mountains and steep canyons of the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico became the first designated wilderness area in the United States—four decades before the 1964 Wilderness Act.
A who’s-who of today’s wilderness heroes—far too many to name—joined together in the largest gathering of the wilderness community since the Act was signed in 1964. The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Orion magazine and key federal resource agencies, along with many other partners, helped spearhead the jam-packed marathon.
Former President Jimmy Carter, in a videotaped address, reminded us of the important scientific, ecological, educational, recreational, spiritual, cultural and intrinsic values of wilderness to all Americans. He urged action on the wilderness areas that were proposed but never designated inside places as iconic as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Only Congress can designate wilderness through federal legislation. The Wilderness Act has successfully protected 110 million acres of public land in the United States as designated wilderness since it was enacted. But at least another 200 million acres of “forgotten” wilderness that qualify remain at risk inside national parks, refuges, forests and other public lands.
In other highlights, U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recounted recent backpacking trips, and astronaut Joseph Acaba gave us a glimpse of life in outer space. I asked how we might protect wilderness in space as it gets increasingly commercialized.
New Mexico is home to 25 wilderness areas, totaling 1.65 million acres. While it has some of the wildest public lands, it contains far less designated wilderness than other western states.
New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich shared his passion for wild lands. He is the first elected official in a long time to talk so clearly and confidently about protecting our wild lands. He, along with Sen. Tom Udall, was instrumental in convincing President Obama to designate the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico.
Throughout the conference, wilderness advocates, Native Americans, natural-resource managers, land stewards, academics and politicians shared compelling perspectives on wilderness successes, threats and challenges ahead. The program featured stimulating keynote speakers, panel discussions, workshops, trainings and field trips to the nearby desert, mountains and Río Grande. Many of us visiting from outside New Mexico learned the word “bosque” for the first time, as we observed tall cottonwoods along the river peaking in yellow and sandhill cranes landing for the winter.
One of the most memorable moments was when Dave Foreman told how a musk ox charged and chased him across the Alaskan tundra on a recent expedition. Now, that’s wild! Foreman pointed out that many rivers within wilderness areas are not designated wild and scenic, leaving them open to dam building and diversions as water becomes scarce and populations grow. In New Mexico, the Gila River is currently threatened with water diversion (ProtectTheGila.org). Foreman’s activist history is featured in a new, must-see documentary about his late mentor Edward Abbey, titled Wrenched (http://wrenched-themovie.com).
Utah-based author Terry Tempest Williams moved many of us to tears with her powerful testament to wilderness. She asked, “How serious are we?” about protecting wilderness, as she catalogued the rising threats to wild lands from fracking, mining and oil drilling.
Gwich’in activist Sarah James drummed, sang and chanted. She urged us to help protect the “sacred place where life begins,” where porcupine caribou breed in the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The story of the struggle is told in a new film, Gwich’in Women Speak (http://www.mihoaida.com).
As a keynote speaker, Sierra Club President Dave Scott recalled the “17 years of blood, sweat and tears” that culminated in the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club worked closely with the Wilderness Act author, Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society. Scott reminded us that Sierra Club’s legacy of wilderness protection dates back more than 100 years to John Muir. Looking forward, he urged a broader, more diverse wilderness community and the need to tackle climate change in order to “leave for future generations the beautiful, wild and livable planet that is their birthright.”
World-famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle wowed the wilderness crowd with her impassioned call for blue wilderness in our oceans. A hero to many and sometimes called “Her Deepness,” Earle showed amazing underwater photos as she spoke eloquently and passionately for conservation of sea life and underwater wilderness. Later, a panel discussed marine wilderness and suggested that the Wilderness Act may be a legal mechanism for designating ocean wilderness. I hope that Earle’s vision sparked the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the land- and sea-wilderness movements.
Wilderness at Risk
Most wilderness leaders agreed that wilderness is more important than ever, but that wilderness places and the idea of wilderness are more vulnerable than ever. Not only is wilderness threatened by extractive industries and motorized recreation, but many seasoned wilderness warriors warned that the very notion of wilderness is under attack by those who think that the wild has no place in the modern world. Even worse, natural-resource agencies are marring wilderness by using heavy equipment and trampling the landscape. Activists also pointed to border patrols devastating wild lands with roads and construction of the barrier along the México border to keep people from crossing, which has resulted in increasing the human death toll.
“The greatest violators of the Wilderness Act are the public agencies themselves,” said Louise Lasley, president of Wilderness Watch, citing how agencies are too quick to make exceptions for the use of chain saws and trucks in wilderness. “We need to stop being embarrassed about wilderness,” scolded Chris Barns of the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center in Montana. He is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) representative on the multiagency center. He said that resource agencies are “trammeling” the wilderness through acts of omission and commission, and that there are no consequences to anyone’s agency career by “throwing wilderness under the bus.” Barns accused NGOs of being complicit and wanting to make wilderness “palatable” to everyone in order to maintain alliances with special interests and the public. “Wilderness areas are places of the no-self versus the selfie,” he said. “Don’t soft-pedal wilderness; it is a desirable thing, good to give, and it is not just about me.”
“Most Americans love the idea of wilderness,” said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. He and others concluded that we need to reignite America’s passion for wilderness. As Kenneth Brower stated, we need to “resell” the idea of wilderness to Americans, as his father David Brower did 50 years ago in partnership with Howard Zahniser. The wilderness movement must now mobilize young people to watchdog the Wilderness Act for the next 50 years. As a first step, 14 young activists were given full scholarships to attend the conference. And many more participated in the Wilderness Youth Leader Summit.
Another key step is for wilderness lovers to get active locally to identify and pass new wilderness bills. There are 33 wilderness bills pending before Congress right now, according to The Wilderness Society. But only one has passed in the past five years. The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is working to establish new wilderness areas with the Columbine Hondo Wilderness and areas within the new Río Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments. In California, two new wilderness bills are pending to protect more lands along the central coast and in the desert. Bills to protect wild lands in Washington, Idaho, Montana and other states are also pending. Most will be reintroduced in the new 114th Congress. These bills will provide timely opportunities to protect additional wild lands and inspire wilderness lovers in 2015 and beyond.
To reinvigorate the wilderness idea in America, we must remind our friends, families, allies and decision makers about the many benefits of wilderness protection. And mobilize them to support wilderness through organizing, letter writing, social media and just getting out into the wild. As Ed Abbey said, “Wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders.”
Here are some resources for wilderness lovers:
Wilderness 50 – http://www.wilderness50th.org/
New Mexico Wilderness Alliance – http://www.nmwild.org/
Wilderness.net – http://www.wilderness.net/
Sierra Club, Río Grande Chapter – http://nmsierraclub.org/
Wilderness Watch – http://www.wildernesswatch.org/about/staff.html
Teri Shore is a Sonoma, California-based wilderness activist and backpack leader.