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The Wilderness Act

The Wilderness Act is a sweeping, even profound, document. Debated in the '50s (the law was first introduced into Congress in 1956 and by some accounts there were over 65 separate bills introduced and discussed), it became law in the '60s and is more pertinent now than ever. It was a defining moment that swept our collective imagination and relationship to land into a new paradigm. It was a process of deep thinking and, while still hotly debated, it stands as a symbol. We can't help but wonder whether Congress of this era would even be able to produce legislation of such depth. The law had no sunset, so it has become a perpetual, controversial sunrise of meaning.

Public Law 88-577, The Wilderness Act, fits on seven 6" x 9" pages (think of the 100s, even 1000s of pages of legislation today) and is divided into 3 major components: Section 2, policy and definition; Section 3, allocation of wilderness; and Section 4, management of wilderness.

The illustration below was designed by artist Margaret Pettis, HUPC editor/board member, for the fifth Anniversary of the Utah Wilderness Act in l989. Some of you may still have a tattered old t-shirt or canvas shopping bag bearing this design!

The policy is simply " assure that an increasing population... expanding settlement and growing mechanization... does not occupy and modify all areas within the United is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generation the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

The definition of wilderness? "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is... an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.... an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvement or human habitation...managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, without the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic or historical value."

The Wilderness Act originally designated 54 areas, 9 million acres, as wilderness and told the Forest Service to study an additional 34 administratively designated primitive areas/ 4.5 million acres (the old High Uintas Primitive Area was the only area in Utah, being a primitive area designated by the Forest Service in the late 1920s in an old classification called the L-20 regs). As the value of wilderness has been increasingly understood, particularly within an ecological context, the acres of wilderness designated by Congress have spiraled upward in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, usually with heated debate (far too often that debate has come from the Forest Service!) Today the National Wilderness Preservation System contains 625 wildernesses, about 105 million acres! Alaska harbors the bulk of the designated wilderness- 58 million acres. BLM manages 5 million acres, with much, much more to come, particularly in Utah; the Forest Service manages 35 million acres, the Fish and Wildlife Service 21 million acres and the National Park Service 44 million acres. And there will be much more to consider!

Wilderness harbors an immense amount of symbolism and imagery. It seems very few enter the debate without powerful images and perceptions. That is because wilderness is ponderable. The literature is replete with examples of wilderness being pure and rehabilitative. It goes far beyond solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation. Wilderness seems to tie us to something. Wilderness is at the base of our dialogue with the planet on which we live. Wilderness has done more to define our land ethic and our personal, humane and spiritual value toward land and its life than any other resource. Wilderness gives us the opportunity to become a ìplain memberî of our planet, as Aldo Leopold noted in his seminal work, Sand County Almanac.

But herein lies a problem of language. Wilderness becomes a resource-- something defined by and for humans. It provides us solitude, primitive recreation, a place to fish, hunt, hike or define our behavior or provide us spirituality.

To achieve these values wilderness has become a political icon. In Utah meaningful discussions about wilderness often disappear into the slipstream. Wilderness is bantered about as a tool used by some to argue that economic development will shrivel and social and cultural denigration will occur. Those same folks never honestly reflect on what it means to think that our economy must and will forever grow and grow until it subsumes all, not only all that is wild and but all that isnít... and yet, it still must grow more.

Others argue that because we've lost so much wilderness in the past that it has become a moral imperative to designate every acre of undeveloped land that qualifies as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Unfortunately both of these perspectives, which have little rationale in the real world, look at wilderness as real estate. Acres, boundaries, areas. It becomes a place, a place where our cultural values are defined. Place is very important to the human animal, to all living creatures, in fact, but wilderness as a place becomes static. To some wilderness has become, for example, a place where the battle wages over old growth timber or more broadly over acres, the most static idea of all.

But wilderness is far more alive and valuable. Wilderness isn't for something else. It isn't a management obstacle. It is moment to moment. Thunder to lightning. We don't administer it or to it. It is life and living, not real estate. Wilderness is wildness-- where ecological and evolutionary process are intact. Wilderness-- wildness-must be defined not by the bighorn sheep hunter, but by the millennial evolutionary dance between bighorn sheep and cougar. Wilderness-- wild-ness-- must be defined by native wild critters moving to and through their life patterns, not introduced or stocked non-native rainbow trout or mountain goats to provide us with a recreational experience whether it be hunting, fishing, or viewing. If wilderness-- wildness-- is to survive as something other than an abstract idea in a book then it can't be managed primarily as a recreational resource.

This old story-- that everything must become a resource for human use, even wilderness, as a place, a noun assures
the same downhill spiral into the sinkhole of never ending human growth. This old wilderness paradigm must be re-evalu-ated as a process-- wildness. While wil-deor-ness translates from old Celtic to "a place of wild beasts," we must allow it to remain wild and unfold not the way we want it to, but the way it will.

Far from excluding humans, this paradigm of wilderness/ wildness assures the human is but a plain member of wildness and not the sole determinant of wild places.

How much wilderness? A lot, as much as we can get of wild wilderness. Wilderness where we kill cougar because they kill bighorn sheep, which may prevent fewer hunters or wildlife watchers, is wilderness that doesn't matter. Wilderness where native Utahns like grizzly bear, wolverine or wolves are not wanted doesn't matter. Wilderness where fires donít occasionally rage doesn't matter. Wilderness where desert bighorn sheep must be watered with man-made water troughs doesnít matter. Those are static places defined by humans, not by ecological disturbance regimes-- the engine that drives evolution.

But for wilderness to achieve this full value, the conflicts must be resolved without the protracted bloody battles we've faced in Utah. That is a politics also of a new paradigm, worthy of a further essay, but just as important as wild

Dick Carter

Drawing by M. Pettis Drawing by M. Pettis

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