The Making of a Wilderness Ethic

PBS show traces how three early activists struggled to preserve a vanishing world

THE preservation ethic is unique to the United States. No country before the US had ever set aside large tracts of land in an effort to offset national expansion into pristine wilderness. No other country had stopped to consider whether nature was vital to the human spirit.

This historical perspective, intrinsic to both modern environmental efforts and the nation's view of itself, is explored in a documentary called "Wild By Law: The Wilderness Act and the Redefinition of American Progress," which airs on PBS Jan. 27.

"The reason I wanted to do this film," says Florentine Films co-producer/director Lawrence Hott in an interview at his western Massachusetts home, "was that environmental battles ... are always played out without any historical context."

"Wild By Law" examines the work of Aldo Leopold, author of "A Sand County Almanac," Robert Marshall, founder of the Wilderness Society, and Howard Zahniser, the man behind the Wilderness Act of 1964. Their stories are that of America grappling with its industrial progress and shrinking primitive lands.

This dilemma of progress is readily apparent with the automobile, which Mr. Hott and co-producer/director Diane Garey, his wife, find a fitting metaphor early in the film: "For Americans, the automobile was the symbol of freedom and progress.... For the American wilderness, progress meant destruction."

Americans built and bought cars with great zeal. Roads and highways cut deeper into the landscape, widening the range of loggers, miners, and tourists. Wilderness was disappearing. There were warnings from John Muir and forester Gifford Pinchot, whom Hott and Ms. Garey examine in a previous film. In their battle over the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park in 1913, Muir and Pinchot argue the often-antagonistic views of preservation and sustainable use.

Then came the Depression-era dust bowls and the New Deal conservation camps, the production years during World War II, and the post-war expansion of American suburbs into what was rural land - each placing different demands on natural resources.

As a young forester, Leopold watched the wholesale slaughter of wolves in Arizona and New Mexico and the subsequent explosion of deer populations and began to question whether man should have absolute dominance over the balance of nature. Years later, Zahniser challenged a proposal to build a dam in the Dinosaur National Monument along the Utah-Colorado border. He saw more value in a pristine river canyon than in hydropower.

"Leopold, Zahniser, and Marshall all have this passionate sense that something is being lost, something sacred, something important is vanishing or is very much at risk in the modern world," says historian William Cronon in the film. "And so they use the organizations, the structures of modern bureaucracies, of government agencies, of nonprofit organizations, to try to defend this thing that is being lost, which for them is where America came from."

Hott and Garey meet with grace and humor the difficult task of telling the story of this land ethic in one hour. They deftly blend archival footage and interviews with Leopold's and Zahniser's grown children, historians, philosophers, and writers.

The film is, not surprisingly, weighted in favor of preservation and wilderness. Both filmmakers are environmentalists. They make little attempt in this film to explore what was good about technological progress; their focus is on the significant ideas that developed in reaction to it.

There are no Leopolds, Marshalls, or Zahnisers in the American environmental movement today. Individual activists have been replaced by organizations. But the battle remains the same.

This spring, as Congress and interest groups debate the Endangered Species Act and protection of California's deserts, as the international community digs deeper into the problem of rain forest depletion at the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, they will act according to two prevailing notions: One is biodiversity, the idea that the health of an individual species depends on the health of the community of species within which it exists; the second is a growing sense that the most effective argument s for preserving nature are economic, not ecological.

"Wild By Law" explores the historical context of these modern environmental battles. The idea that Leopold, Zahniser, and Marshall set in motion is that the integrity of nature is essential to both the economic and spiritual needs of human beings.

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