Taming 'Wilderness'

A Bush-Utah pact challenges what's 'pristine'

Ever since Thoreau wrote this phrase - "in wildness is the preservation of the world" - the American ideal of wilderness has grown stronger. It's led to more and more protection of landscapes as well as to powerful "wilderness" lobbies in Washington.

But in April, the Bush administration took an unusual step that challenged the popular meaning of wilderness.

In an agreement with Utah's governor, the US Interior Department effectively declared that the existence of many old and little-used roads built on millions of acres of certain federal lands would mean that those backcountry lands would be off limits for any federal designation as wilderness. The roads, although cutting through federal lands, would be under state or county control. (See story.)

The agreement has opened up a political battle in Congress, since other federal lands in the West that also contain thousands of miles of old roads - specifically, those built between 1866 and 1976, which were mostly used by prospectors and cattle ranchers - could also be denied protection as "wilderness."

The House last month passed a bill that would partially roll back the Interior-Utah agreement. A Senate fight is expected to start this fall, perhaps throwing the debate over defining wilderness into the 2004 presidential campaign.

Interior's action could be seen as simply a conservative nod to states' rights, off-road vehicle owners, and the interests of oil, timber, and mineral companies. Or it might be seen as merely a corrective balance to the Clinton administration's bold attempt to hastily designate some 200 million acres as wilderness without congressional authorization.

Wilderness Act's vision

In a strict sense, however, Interior's action appears to be in line with the Wilderness Act of 1964, which stated that any designated land must be a place "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Finding land that is untrammeled and unmarked by humans has been a tall hurdle. Long before white settlers discovered the "virgin" land of the New World and went on to exploit the West, native Americans hunted down entire herds of animals and deforested land by lighting fires. Many of today's "wild" areas have been retrofitted by nature to some new state.

Such human-altered scenery is often described with ambiguous phrases such as "near wild" or "relatively pristine," although with very little knowledge of the land's prehuman, primeval character.

But that fuzziness has not stopped efforts to set aside more public land as "genuine" wilderness, even though lesser designations, such as parks, might be more fitting. Congress has so far set about 106 million acres as wilderness.

Few Americans would want the ecology of public lands to be despoiled beyond recognition. But it's also difficult to ignore the human uses on such lands in the past, many of which has been sustainable.

Communities define 'wild'

That leaves the designation of wilderness as mainly a political construct, a recognition of a human need for "wilderness values," such as scenic beauty, outdoor solitude, a return to a precivilization experience, and an appreciation of ecodiversity.

But preserving "wild" lands from Americans rather than for them takes a great deal of denial about the history of those lands. Even John Muir, considered the father of the wilderness ethic, ran a sawmill at Yosemite Falls.

Yet this continent's stunning landscape scenery has been an integral part of American history and identity. It's easy to sympathize with the extreme goal of naming more and more wilderness areas, especially when so many national parks are overrun with visitors and vehicles. Each cordoning off of "wilderness" seems to signal a new beginning for an old America.

For more than a century, Americans have tried to define a sense of national community in how they treat "wild" land. Like the old New England village commons, those lands are to be shared, but in deciding how to share them - with other humans, and with wild species - differences must be settled, and in settling them, human law and natural law find common ground.

That can be as natural as any wilderness.

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