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Wilderness Under Siege, The Ongoing Battle Over Public Lands In America


Editor's note: Is there too much public land in America? Some think so, which is why it's important to understand the ongoing battle over those lands, whether they fall under the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, or U.S. Bureau of Land Management or other federal land manager. The following essay by Dr. Alfred Runte initially appeared in Educational Bulletin #14-1,a publication of the Desert Protective Council.

As a historian, I believe that thinking in terms of time provides perspective on the critical issues of our day. Certainly, that was one motivation for my becoming a specialist on the nation’s public lands. The rest started with my family. We grew up discovering the public lands together, finally to understand how special they truly are. Even today, I cannot imagine the United States without them, nor can I imagine why anyone would wish to part with the legacy that so distinguishes our national character. The point is that some people not only imagine it; as in the past, they insist we “reconsider” our public lands. What they really mean to say—and have always meant to say—is that we have too much public land.

The sharpness of the current debate may be traced back to 1995 and an essay by William Cronon, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He begins with a revealing title: The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Normally, the shelf life of an academic paper is short; in contrast, this essay has been widely read for twenty years. After all, a tenured historian at a major university has insisted that environmentalists are flat out wrong.

How so? Because wilderness, their signature landscape, is a contrivance and not reality, Cronon argues. “As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”

“For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem.” Nor should we forget the human cost of institutionalized wilderness, he writes. “The removal of Indians to create an ‘uninhabited wilderness’— uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is.”

In short, the contrivance is supported by a sinful history. The charge works quietly in the background, but that is exactly why it is sinister. Lest anyone openly defend wilderness, the subliminal works to destroy the defender’s character. Until you can justify what your country did to the Indians, you have no right to believe in wilderness. Nothing about wilderness can be trusted, and that goes for the country that established it, too.

Add a euphemism to those accusations and the formula for “reconsidering” all of our public lands is complete. We need “green” energy—and need it fast—to reverse the catastrophe of global warming. Where should we put it? Of course, inside wilderness, and by extension the public lands, from which the “Wrong Nature” derived.

No wonder environmentalists have come to doubt themselves. How does anyone get cleansed of original sin? As for green, it was once just a color in our paint boxes. Suddenly, it is a faith no environmentalist dare refute. In the past, every American landscape was filled with wonder; now biologists are also warned to support the “cause.” There is now a greater priority—saving the planet. Think of everything green— everything vulnerable—we will lose without doing that.

The power of a euphemism grows ever more powerful as it becomes a convenient shortcut for the press. Thus the Los Angeles Times, in reporting the Ivanpah Valley solar power project, itself recently headlined a sports cliché. Despite the undeniable damage done to the Mojave Desert, environmentalists had agreed to “take one for the team.” No worries here, folks. There is nothing worrisome about undoing our public lands when environmentalists themselves are members of the team.

Historically, every form of landscape has suffered such callousness, even the mountain cathedrals where the national park idea began. A century ago, “take one for the team” meant the Hetch Hetchy Valley inside Yosemite National Park. San Francisco wanted Hetch Hetchy for a dam and reservoir. The park could easily give it up, the city argued; after all, Yosemite was the greater valley. In short, preservationists were just being selfish by refusing to support “the greatest good.”

The difference between the preservation movement then and now is to explain why wind and solar power have made such inroads. At Hetch Hetchy, preservationists stood their ground, as they would again in the mid-1960s when Grand Canyon was on the chopping block. “If we can’t save the Grand Canyon, what the hell can we save?” asked David Brower. His Sierra Club then tripled its membership while fighting off two high dams in the inner gorge.

In the end, Brower and the Sierra Club prevailed, having learned their lesson at Hetch Hetchy. In a series of full-page ads for The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and others, Brower ripped apart the Interior Department’s arguments that the dams were even needed. Eventually, the Bureau of Reclamation hung on by its fingernails, arguing that its dams would be more “democratic.” Boaters and water skiers, not just whitewater enthusiasts, would be able to enjoy the canyon’s unseen walls. SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING? Brower asked in his most famous ad. The point is: There was a time when mainstream environmentalists knew exactly where they stood— and why.

The "Green Energy" Argument

Now that the movement has bowed to a euphemism, the public lands have been the first to pay the price. In contrast, David Brower understood exactly what a euphemism was meant to accomplish—shut down thinking for a premeditated response. Today, his battle ads undoubtedly would ask as follows: Is green energy worth the sacrifice of everything else? Just what does renewable energy “renew” if entire landscapes must first be compromised? Did San Francisco “renew” Yosemite National Park? Or did the city then, like green energy now, simply go after the cheapest land it could get?

The Wall Street Journal reports that within fifteen years half of America’s shopping centers will be gone—victims of the Internet and gargantuan parking lots that no longer attract aging shoppers. Just the parking lots surrounding those 25,000 shopping centers cover an area of 7,000 square miles. That is equivalent to the state of Connecticut—all of it under asphalt and most of it in open sun. Why not put our solar panels in those parking lots and be done with it? That is what David Brower would know to say.

Green energy knows to say the opposite. After all, the industry wants control. In the first place, converting shopping centers into solar power plants would require extensive studies and permits. Every city would want to determine the viability of each plant—then tax all of the plants as commercial property. Nor would the owners of the shopping centers want less than market price.

Face it. It is much easier convincing the federal government to allow development on the public’s land, especially now that so many environmentalists agree with the White House: We have no other choice. To reemphasize, if David Brower and the old Sierra Club had believed that, we would have lost Grand Canyon. Seriously, does anyone believe they were wrong? If not, is our judgment so much improved we know when to give up on wilderness?

Certainly, there is nothing new in the argument that we must sacrifice the world to save it. But what is the real intent of those arguments? There, the timeless words of caution remain John Muir’s. “Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded,” he wrote in 1910. Contrast that with Gifford Pinchot’s statement in The Fight for Conservation, also from 1910. “The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon.”

But of course, Pinchot, as Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, had promised to remake the West. Limiting the agency’s control was the last thing he wanted, and indeed, the “efficient” use of natural resources has forever been a government mainstay.

It is no wonder that those promoting renewable energy sound like Pinchot instead of Muir. Only a brazen agenda can possibly convince the public that its brazenness is required. In turning back global warming, it is imperative we control the earth. Back to Muir’s interpretation. Those offering up the public lands for any reason merely hope to profit at the public’s expense.

Global Warming Solutions

Certainly, environmentalists supportive of the alleged necessity risk their movement’s cultural cement. The public is already losing faith that government programs are real solutions to global warming. Just how do environmentalists expect to maintain their credibility by renouncing landscapes they swore for a century to protect?

Abraham Lincoln said it best. Only some of the people can be fooled all of the time. Still the deeper problem— unrestrained growth—is the real cause of global warming. Fifty years ago, three billion people made CO2. Now seven billion people are responsible, and the number is still going up. More people make more byproducts—another convenient euphemism for their garbage. The earth cannot handle it all. And so we have global warming. Where is the surprise in any of it? Fifty years ago, even thirty years ago, educators honestly taught cause and effect.

Then revisionists—the heart of the Baby Boom generation— wanted the curriculum changed. Why? Because the civil rights movement and Vietnam War had finally colored everything they thought about their country. It was time for the government to make amends. Americans consumed too much (true); they believed in their right to consume (also true). Then the big leap. Americans are guilty of everything wrong in the world and must prove to the world their willingness to “take one for the team.”

As a first step, talk of population growth went silent. Numbers were not the issue; greedy Americans were the issue. We were no longer to offend the world by mentioning numbers, and yes, we should also let our numbers grow.

From that, it was but a small step to the death knell for everything idealistic, including our public lands. We should be ashamed of ourselves for blocking off so much land to serve a myth, in William Cronon’s words, the illusion of pristine wilderness. The point remains: The myth is what makes us special, as was the discipline required to save it. We believed that once the discovery of America ended we would never be the same. As Aldo Leopold put it: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Treasure Those Open Spaces On The Map

To be sure, lest anyone doubt what those blank spots mean to our national character, think of all the countries in the world without them. Think of the foreign visitors coming here to see our blank spots—40 percent of the visitation at Grand Canyon National Park alone. Last year, giving a series of lectures in Zion National Park, I heard every major language in the world. “You have so much space!” one German visitor exclaimed to me. It was the space she had come to see.

Must we give that up to become like the rest of the world? Are we not entitled to be a country with space? I will gladly correct where I possibly consume too much, but why should I feel guilty about marveling in space?

In old German, Runte denotes a muddy field. Obviously, my ancestors were medieval serfs. The lords and ladies lived in the castles overlooking the Rhineland while my ancestors worked down in the mud. Somehow, their offspring survived another five centuries of conquering armies, poverty, and disease, until finally my father reached the United States. He himself had been badly wounded in World War I, having fought in the trenches for the Kaiser. That is the story I want my culture to tell, not how guilty he was for having followed Columbus.

In a world now of seven billion people, they are millions of arrivals and departures every day. Just as serfs named Runte lost their land in Europe, most Indians lost theirs here. Both are tragedies, but how is either an indictment against anyone not alive at the time? Rather, knowing what they lost, and what we still might lose, is all the more reason to cherish our public lands. We still have open space and most of the world has converted it. That is the history we need to teach.

It is no wonder that green energy needs to rewrite the history, and hopes to shame us into rewriting it first. In the past, no way would we have done that willingly knowing the convictions turned aside. Again, the memorable quote is Aldo Leopold’s. “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Technology can never be a substitute for the discipline inherent in those words. Expedience will never resolve the world’s ills—or ours. Extended to the public lands, Leopold’s beliefs—environmentalism’s beliefs—further secured the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, and finally, the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. Each was an enduring milestone in the protection of open space. No doubt, green energy remains bent on scaring us into giving up our public lands; there, we need to be just as resolute about the practical alternatives. Start converting those parking lots, and do it now.

As few scientists doubt, global warming is real. That said, any despoliation of our public lands can only make things worse. Then we will be equally saddened and diminished by our failure to protect our legacy. Once environmentalists spoke honestly about the limits of Spaceship Earth. Is it not time for such honesty again?

As the environmental journalist Michael Frome has said, “In the beginning, God created the Earth National Park. And we have been picking away at it ever since.” His point, and that of environmental history, is that nothing about the earth is frivolous. Open space serves civilization every bit as much as developed space—and biology would suggest far more. In the battle against global warming, technology is but a step. The rest of the battle depends on our humility to admit what we can and cannot do. Only then, perhaps, will we finally stop picking away at the planet, the planet that forever must be our home.

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I'm going to have to go back and re-read this more carefully, but right now I'm going to say that this is obviously an article that needs much wider circulation than just in Traveler alone.

Is there any chance it may be reprinted in other, more widely circulated media?

Cronon was the thesis advisor for a good friend of mine when they were at Yale, and I'm still surprised by this essay of his. Everyone knows that wilderness (like anything else) is always already a (human) construction. But so what? That certainly doesn't mean that it doesn't hold value in ways we cannot find through other constructions we inhabit. And in 1995 and onward, whom exactly is Cronon arguing against? Is it possible that the article and its currency derive from a (still?) timely importation of poststructuralism to the discipline of history?

Thanks for re-printing/-posting your piece here, Alfred Runte. Made my day.

The hand wringing over what it means to be an environmentalist and what is Wilderness always amuses me. Cronon was right though. Wilderness is an artificial construct, not that it's a bad thing in and of itself, but it is important to remember it, especially when we argue over what should be allowed in Wilderness.

"As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires."

This statement by Cronon is a platitude that could be applied to anything people value. Why do we value one cultural resource over another? One piece of literature over another? One piece of art over another? Of course wilderness reflects our longings and desires. Why shouldn't it? Our national parks and wilderness areas are an important part of our character.

Congratulations to Alfred Runte on a brilliantly written essay. And I like the idea of solar panels in abandoned parking lots, if the economics work out. (Solar panels in Syracuse, N.Y., may produce little electricity compared to an array in the Mojave Desert, which I assume Dr. Runte is objecting to.)

Yet I fail to see capital-W Wilderness under siege. I'm not aware of any serious discussion in Congress to decommission any Wilderness areas. Only Congress can do this; no federal agency can.

If there is a siege, it's against the creation of new Wilderness areas, not dissolution of the current ones. And there, Wilderness purists have chosen that trade-off by insisting that all human-powered travel in them be by 19th-century means: walking and horseback. This purist approach has narrowed the constituency for both existing and new Wilderness areas to a civic sliver. The Wilderness movement--and for better and for worse it is a movement, as Dr. Runte's elegiac words reflect--is fortunate that only Congress can undo a Wilderness area. Under restrictive rules that the Wilderness movement seems to revere like scripture, the public support base for Wilderness may be the proverbial mile wide (people like the idea); but it is also the proverbial inch deep (not many people can have a fervent emotional investment in something they've never seen and, whether it's their own fault or someone else's, have little prospect of ever seeing).

In addition to recreational, wildlife, and spiritual value, wilderness has economic value as well. I am mainly familiar with federally designated wilderness in California, where most of the rivers originate high in the mountains in wilderness areas. By keeping these areas undisturbed, we maintain water quality in cities and farms.

"inaccurate references to lands untrammeled by man"

I agree, imtnbke. That line erases or dehumanizes the indigene. But by 1995, everyone recognizes this. I think we disagree in our understanding of wilderness, but maybe there is indeed more productive language within which to explore that disagreement.

Obviously, nobody is disagreeing that all our wild spaces (Wilderness or not) are special and should be cherished. I take exception with the alarmist claim that wild spaces are under attack.

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