Lost in the Wild

Is our obsession with pristine nature hazardous to the environment?

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When Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, which swore to “secure for the American people . . . the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness” by ensuring that at least part of our land would always remain “untrammeled by man,” it set an unparalleled precedent of collective self-restraint. But even though the wildlands included in that act have swelled from a mere 9.1 million acres then to over 100 million acres today, what’s protected is still a drop in the bucket, and we can’t afford to rest on our laurels: Our out-of-control energy consumption practices, an environmentally retrograde Congress, and our belief in the imperative of economic growth threaten the sanctity of what we already have.

If you can remember the way you felt the last time you walked out onto a frozen, deserted lake at sunrise, or pressed your face against the rough bark of an old maple to seek solace from some daily misery, then you probably feel enough love for nature to want to fight for its survival. But what happens when the thing you want to fight for—in this case, wilderness—eludes clean definitions?

What is wilderness, and who is it for?

William Cronon, editor of Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (Norton, 1995), argues that the very idea of “untrammeled” wilderness may be a myth, one that might even lead us dangerously astray in our attempts to protect the environment, while Earth First! founder and Sierra Club director Dave Foreman, on the other hand, employs the ideology of untrammeled wilderness to argue that the Wilderness Act may be failing even while it succeeds. Combining spiritual and practical arguments, poet and author Terry Tempest Williams addresses an ongoing political struggle over wildlands in Utah, and we’ve provided a list of resources to give you the opportunity to participate in this debate.

How can we simultaneously recognize the mythology of wilderness (which may be nothing more than a reflection of our own suppressed wildness) while fighting to preserve what’s left of our wildlands? In the end, wilderness itself may hold the answer: Although it sometimes seems like the future of the wild in this country hinges on a ballot cast in some faraway city, an oil well being drilled, or a bullet finding its mark, wilderness—no matter how you choose to define it—holds on with a patience and stubbornness that is positively exhilarating. Inspired by its beautiful scrappiness perhaps we can find, as a country and as a people, enough hope to carry on the struggle.