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Wilderness: Thunder to Lightning

Ed. Note: This essay by Dick Carter was solicited by the Utah Society for Environmental Education and published in their journal, The Web, Nov./Dec. 1998.

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 "plain member" of our planet as Aldo Leo-pold 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 or hunt or 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 but all that isn’t... 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 processes 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-- wildness-- 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 para-digm must be re-evaluated as a process-- wildness. While wilderness translates from an old Celtic language 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 don’t occasionally rage doesn’t matter. Wilderness where desert bighorn sheep must be watered with man-made water troughs doesn’t 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 wilderness.

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