The Wilderness Act at fifty
Conservation Northwest / Sep 03, 2014 / Work Updates
Mitch Friedman reflects on wilderness in a changing planet
Fifty years ago, after a persistent bruising effort, Congress passed The Wilderness Act to set aside and protect areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”
You can use Google as well as me, so I won’t bore you with how many, how large, or how breathtaking our nation’s great wilderness areas are. I know that, like me, you’ve visited them and seen with your own eyes the mountains, forests and wild, cascading rivers that stretch to the horizon, unaltered by humanity.
Pondering the significance of the Wilderness Act as it turns fifty, what I did Google is the definition of “untrammeled”. This word, the standard by which we manage some of our last best wild places, means “not deprived of freedom of action or expression; not restricted or hampered.”
Wilderness by its very definition is freedom. Now that’s inspiring!
I was only one year-old at the time, so I didn’t know Howard Zahniser or other environmental titans of the day. I have little unique perspective on what they intended with this unique term. Perhaps they meant it in the frame of scenic majesty, as though the land should be allowed to express its beauty free from human overseers. Maybe they felt, like the great Edward Abbey, that wilderness is “not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
Alternatively, maybe it was to convey their understanding of nature as dynamic, instead of the static view that most people held then (and still do today). Wilderness must be untrammeled because wild ecosystems require freedom of action, expression and the ability to change constantly in order to sustain wildlife and the other benefits we derive from nature. Where there is wilderness, life itself plays out its wild arc without human restriction or hampering.
The Greenhouse Effect, what we today usually refer to as climate change, was already on the minds of some people in 1974, and the science was already well established. Today many of us understand that wilderness serves as a natural bastion against the human forces that fuel the changing of our climate. Still, I doubt this was on the minds of whoever chose the word untrammeled. But I’m sure glad they did.
I love wilderness as much as the next guy. I hike there and take inspiration from it. I work to protect it. I’ve been in designated wilderness areas from Olympic National Park to Goat Rocks to the Pasayten to the Salmo Priest and many more. But while I believe most such areas were set aside to prevent direct “trammeling” by bulldozers and chainsaws, today I believe the greatest need for more wilderness and other land protections is specifically to enable nature to adapt to the indirect trammeling of climate change.
For many plant and animal species, survival during the era of a rapidly changing climate will require a resilient landscape. Nature must be provided the freedom of action and expression to change. Science shows that wilderness areas in the Lower 48 are already providing “air and water filtering, carbon storage and climate regulation services“. Transformation, adaptation and evolution are the cycle of life, and have been for thousands and millions of years. But for this cycle to run its course in the face of a rapidly changing world, life needs areas that are untrammeled, places where wildlife and ecosystems can survive free from man’s alteration. And even heal the land of it.
In the face of a changing planet, wildlife, and human life, needs wilderness more than ever.
The ranges of species will shift, and wilderness areas and other conservation lands that remain untrammeled have more means to adapt (unrestricted and unhampered) in how they act, how life expresses its ecological will.
In this way, the untrammeled wilderness concept that was such a breakthrough five decades ago remains fresh and vital today. And perhaps it will be even more so tomorrow.