Cheering 50th Anniversary of Wilderness Act
By Michael Frome
Early in my career, when I was writing travel articles for various magazines and newspapers, I found myself reading the travel section of The New York Times every Sunday. The attraction for me was not in the stories about going places, but in a column called “Conservation,” in which the writer, John B. Oakes, expressed his lifelong concern for the environment.
In the edition of May 13, 1956 his conservation column commended new legislation introduced by Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota to establish a national wilderness preservation system. It was another step in the long political fight leading to passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. That column impressed me as something I should know more about, and do something about too. It set me off on a path of identifying and celebrating wilderness wherever I found it, and now to cheer the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014.
But first a few words about John Oakes, who was a hero and friend of mine. His job at the Times initially was editor of Review of the Week; the conservation column was something he did on the side. Then, in 1961, he was named editor of the editorial page. For the next 15 years, until his retirement, Oakes editorialized about civil rights, the presidency, foreign affairs, politics and the environment, defining a lofty agenda of public policy. Even after retirement Oakes contributed powerful opinion pieces to the Op-Ed page (which he had started in 1970), including “Watt’s Very Wrong,” December 31, 1980, when James G. Watt’s nomination was pending in the Senate; “Japan, Swallow Hard and Stop Whaling,” January 19, 1983; and “Adirondack SOS,” October 29, 1988 (which elicited a letter to the editor of the Times from Gov. Mario Cuomo pledging renewed commitment to preserving the Adirondacks).
He was the kind of person I met and associated with in advocacy of the Wilderness Act. Another was Rep. John P. Saylor, a Pennsylvania Republican, who was the sole sponsor of the Wilderness Bill in the House. It was uphill all the way but he never gave up. “I cannot believe that the American people have become so crass, so dollar-minded and exploitation-conscious that they must develop every last bit of wilderness that still exists,” he declared on the floor of the House in 1961.
Meeting and knowing such people spurred me on to a new career leading to publication of “Battle for the Wilderness” in 1974. I found the Wilderness Act opened the way to a new level of citizen involvement and activism, a grass-roots conservation movement in which local people could be heard in behalf of wilderness areas they knew best.
In time I went to many different wilderness areas. I met with individuals and groups in many parts the country, observing the work that individuals do, rising above themselves and above institutions. I came to appreciate wilderness preservation as an idea that works, a manifestation of democracy, an expression through law of national ethics.
The American wilderness is many things to many people of our time: a sacred, spiritual place to the sheer idealist who persists in dreaming the old American dream; a laboratory of learning to the natural scientist; a test of hardihood to the outdoorsman and hunter; and rather an encumbrance on the land to the materialist whose modern view dictates that real estate must be used in order to be useful. I think that many scholars and educators would insist on speaking objectively with scientific rationale. But Aldo Leopold, even though equipped with the proper education and credentials, demonstrated emotion and aesthetic sensitivity as wholly compatible with science.
I met a different kind of people who showed ethical concern, a creative force in the battle for wilderness. They are legendary. Olaus Murie was already gone, but his wife, Margaret, or “Mardy,” and I became lasting friends. She had been with Olaus on his pioneering surveys and research in Alaska and elsewhere for the Biological Survey (later the Fish and Wildlife Service) until he left the government to be free of its restraints. And she had been with him in the epochal 1956 expedition that led to establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, embracing the largest mountains of the Brooks Range and their foothills sloping north to the coastal plain and southward toward the Yukon River as a book the way God made it.
Olaus was a leader of the Wilderness Society from its incorporation in 1937 until his death in 1963. In addition to extensive technical and popular writing, he executed many exceptional paintings of animals as he saw them in the wild. His strength, like the strength of Aldo Leopold, Howard Zahniser and the others derived from more than admiration of nature, but from the desire to save nature through personal involvement.
The Wilderness Act, however, stimulates a fundamental and older tradition of relationship with resources themselves. A river is accorded its right to exist because it is a river, rather than for any utilitarian service. Through appreciation of wilderness, I perceive the true role of the river as a living symbol of all the life it sustains and nourishes, and my responsibility to it.
Wilderness is friendly, not forbidding. Now that experts have so many plans for its disposition, enlightened use, enthusiasm and appreciation will help place it in proper perspective. Best of all, perhaps, is that wilderness is endowed with the absence of artificial noises, the absence of artificiality and a tremendous store of basic nourishing reality.
Land use embodies both science and philosophy, but the philosophy is more important by far. It must come first, based on love of the earth and respect for all creatures with which we share it. How to utilize wilderness, and public lands in general, as an educational and inspirational resource so that upcoming generations respect the natural world, is part of the fundamental challenge as we look ahead to the next 25 years and beyond.
We need to learn much more about wilderness: where it is and where it was; its physical and psychic therapeutic qualities; its relation to science, art, ethics, and religion; the contributions of individuals who have helped, in their own way, to save it and give meaning to it for society.
No other country is so enriched by its parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other reserved administered by towns, cities, counties, states and the federal government. Land is wealth, and we the people ought to hold onto every acre of it in the common interest. Public lands provide roving room, a sense of freedom and release from urbanized high-tech super-civilization. Without public lands there would be no place of substance left for wildlife, which has shared our heritage since time immemorial.
Americans should be proud of the many millions of acres safeguarded by the Wilderness Act, for wilderness preservation treats ecology as the economics of nature, in a manner directly related to the economics of humankind. Keeping biotic diversity alive is the surest means of keeping humanity alive. But conservation transcends economics—it illuminates the human condition by refusing to put a price tag on the priceless.
Michael Frome, Ph.D., has pursued an illustrious career as author, educator and tireless guardian of the environmental commons. Former Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin declared in Congress: "No writer in America has more persistently and effectively argued for the need of national ethics of environmental stewardship than Michael Frome. " Michael has been a member of Wilderness Watch's board of directors or advisory council for nearly 20 years.