Friday, December 4, 2020

Bob Marshall’s long-lost arguments for wilderness

The original ideas and arguments organizers used to create roadless wilderness were created by New York’s Bob Marshall. All our ideas about the value of wilderness began with him.  If we ever have to mobilize to save public lands, or if we want to create more of it we need to revisit his arguments that motivated the country to acquire it in the first place. Unfortunately, in the last 50 years many of his arguments have been lost and forgotten, but they worked well once and will work again if we can recover and reintroduce them into the next generation’s advocacy conversation.

From the 1930s through the ’70s, the arguments used to persuade voters that roadless wilderness must be preserved, originated in Bob Marshall’s 1930 essay, “The Problem of the Wilderness.”[1] In that essay, parts of which ended up in the 1964 Wilderness Act, he creatively explained the many diverse and marvelous reasons the preservation of roadless wilderness was essential if mankind’s basic humanity and civilization itself were to survive.

Using his arguments, activists in innumerable public meetings and every kind of media convinced millions of working people in urban areas that roadless wilderness was far more important to them and their children’s futures than mere jobs and economic activity produced by dams, logging and mining.[2] The essay demolished the specious arguments against wilderness we hear today including, “We must punch roads into wilderness so disabled people can access the wilderness like everyone else,” or “It is selfish to set aside huge tracts of land for just a handful of people.”

The current generation of wilderness activists has lived in a regulatory and legal world with almost no resemblance to earlier times. After the federal environmental and wilderness protection laws passed by huge margins in the 1960s and ’70s, conflicts over wilderness issues became viewed almost exclusively as legal matters to be settled in courts by lawyers and judges. Today, when the U.S. Forest Service announces it will gift a mountainful of ancient trees to a logging company, the first thing activists do is to call an environmental attorney. In earlier generations, the call would have been to reserve a hall for a public meeting, or alert a newspaper editor, or ask a wealthy friend for money to pay for ads or make a movie about the land about to be ruined. Once, before we could invoke laws as a universal solvent to dissolve bad ideas and bad people, wilderness activists had to win their appeals in the court of public opinion and job number one for advocates was education, not litigation.

As the need for public education seemed to disappear after the 1970s, so did the memory of Marshall’s arguments for wilderness. His arguments became less and less articulated, and most wilderness activists have probably never even heard many of them. But if you think the debate over American wilderness disappeared because the issues have largely been resolved, think again. Eighty-five percent of the 3,000 counties in the U.S. including almost all the counties with true wilderness, voted republican in the 2016 and 2020 elections. As the excerpt from the current platform of the Republican party (below) states, the party is no believer in federal protection of wilderness.

The federal government owns or controls over 640 million acres of land in the United States …It is absurd to think that all that acreage must remain under the absentee ownership or management of official Washington. …We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands, identified in the review process, to all willing states for the benefit of the states and the nation as a whole. The residents of state and local communities know best how to protect the land where they work and live

Local control always favors the short-term interests of local developers, big oil and gas, mining and other extractive industries, which test, distort or simply ignore wilderness  protections. All laws rely on public support for enforcement. Laws are not self-enforcing; they depend on district attorneys and sheriffs and other elected officials. After 50 years of relying on lawyers to do the heavy lifting to preserve wilderness, we must educate a new generation of voters on the values of wilderness if we are to not see, as we often do today, the old discredited arguments against wilderness pass unrebutted. Too many Americans  have forgotten what wilderness is and what it isn’t. Too many don’t understand why all of us— not just physically fit yuppie tourists —need wilderness.

Following, condensed and abridged for easier reading, is a summary of the highlights of Bob Marshall’s original essay from 1930, “The Problem of the Wilderness.”


To avoid wasting time in useless arguments, when you debate wilderness issues, be sure people know what it is and what it isn’t. The dictionary says wilderness is a solitary uninhabited pathless place you cannot cross with a motorized vehicle, and to walk across it requires a night sleeping out. It must not have roads, power or settlements —in short it is a primitive, savage place.

Once, all of America was wilderness. Before Columbus, native tribes made few changes in the environment, and never desecrated it. Wild animals browsed unmolested and forests grew and died as they had forever. When Lewis and Clark crossed the continent in 1805, everything was wilderness, but beginning with white settlement, a disruption of natural conditions began which continues to today with no thought about wilderness except how it can be abolished. To pioneers, wilderness was an obstacle to progress and industry, so highways and neatly planted gardens replaced the tangled confusion of the primeval forest, and factories belched great clouds of smoke where trees had grown for undeterminable centuries.

  • Improves health. More than mere clean air which you can get in any rural situation, carrying a fifty-pound pack over an abominable trail, snowshoeing across a blizzard-swept plateau or scaling some jagged pinnacle develops a body distinguished by a soundness, stamina and élan unknown to city-exclusive dwellers.
  • Improves your outlook on life. Being in a true wilderness where you are not coddled by civilization creates physical independence because if you are ill-prepared, you perish. If we truly prize individuality and competence, we need the harsh environment of untrammeled expanses to retain opportunities for self-sufficiency inconceivable in domesticated urban settings.
  • Satisfies our need for adventure and exploration. The longing for physical exploration and a craving for adventure implies breaking into unpenetrated ground, venturing beyond the boundary of normal aptitude, extending oneself to the limit of capacity, and courageously facing peril. Life without the chance for such exertions would be for many persons dreary, unbearable and horribly banal. Some people need physical challenges, others don’t; each viewpoint is valid. But if both groups are to be accommodated, we need to preserve wilderness for those who need it.
  • Encourages independent thinking. Original ideas require an objectivity and perspective seldom possible surrounded by a lot of people. America’s best minds, including Thomas Jefferson and Henry Thoreau withdrew from their neighbors to meditate undisturbed by civilization.
  • Allows true repose. Civilization requires most lives to be passed amid continual dissonance, pressure and intrusion. The chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of forests is a psychic necessity for many people. The mere possibility of convalescing in wilderness can save one from being destroyed by the mental stresses of modern existence.
  • Provides an alternative to war and gangs. When the need for adventure is suppressed, some people may become so mentally disturbed by the monotony of their lives that they are susceptible to lurid diversions. They imagine that in war they will find the glorious romance of futile dreams. Enthusiastically endorsing, they march away to stirring music, only to find disillusion and misery. Wilderness provides a harmless, peaceful alternative for the same things bloodshed and gangs instigate, and it preserves the ideals of hardihood without destroying anyone. Bertrand Russell said, “…many men would cease to desire war if they had opportunities to risk their lives in Alpine climbing.”[3] In wilderness we can find hardihood’s moral equivalent to gangs and war.
  1. Multi-dimensional. Human-created forms of beauty, like paintings, music and architecture, are mere two or three-dimensional objects which can be experienced in a few moments. But standing on a lofty summit viewing a tangle of deep canyons and cragged mountains, of sunlit lakelets and black expanses of forest, provides a fourth dimension of beauty; an incommensurable immensity of beauty as different from human-created beauty as a living thing is to the periodic table of the elements that make it up.
  2. Outside vs. inside beauty. Because of its size, the beauty of wilderness has an immensity to it most forms of beauty lack. One looks from the outside at works of art and architecture, listens from outside to music or poetry. But when one looks at and listens to the wilderness, he is encompassed by his experience of beauty and is within its beauty in the midst of an aesthetic universe.
  3. Beauty as a dynamic continuity. A Beethoven symphony is static; when it ends, it is over. But the wilderness is in a constant flux of beauty unconstrained by time; a beauty immemorial. A seed germinates, battles for decades, grows, matures over endless eons, drops millions of seeds, eventually topples and admits the sunlight which begins a new woodland generation.
  4. Multi-sensory beauty. Wilderness gratifies all the senses. No one who has ever strolled in springtime through seas of blooming violets, or lain at night on boughs of fresh balsam, or walked through the forest in early morning can omit odor from the joys of the primordial environment. No one who has felt the stiff wind of mountaintops or the softness of untrodden moss will forget the exhilaration experienced through touch. “Nothing ever tastes as good as when it’s cooked in the woods….crossing a river on tenuous foot log or ascending a perilous precipice creates a blithe exaltation of the sense of equilibrium.”
  5. Beauty of the sublimation of self. In wilderness, beauty is observed as a unity and pure aesthetic experience and requires what is observed to completely fill the spectator’s cosmos. In the wilderness, with its entire freedom from the manifestations of human will, that perfect objectivity, which is essential for pure aesthetic rapture, can probably be achieved more readily than among any other forms of beauty.

Arguments against wilderness often say that since only a handful of people care for wilderness recreation and possesses the physical capability to enjoy it, far more people could enjoy the forests if allowed to access it with ATVs, snowmobiles and 4WDs. Moreover, far more people want to spend their vacations in summer hotels than in leaky, fly-infested shelters far away in the brush. Why then should a small minority force the majority to give up its rights to derive any amusement whatever from these areas?

This argument is as irrational as contending that since more people enjoy bathing than art exhibits, we should turn museums into swimming pools. Human beings have different methods of obtaining pleasure and developing their natures, and that is why governments spend prodigious sums of money to satisfy the expensive wants of fragments of the community on such things as concert halls, sports venues, botanical gardens and golf courses. All these things, like wilderness areas, are open to everyone, but only vital to a fraction of the population. Nevertheless, they are almost universally approved, and appropriations to maintain them grow phenomenally.


Preserving wilderness is critical to preserve the only trace of the forest primeval which has exerted a fundamental influence in molding the American character. Immediate steps should be taken to establish enough tracts to insure everyone who hungers for it has a generous opportunity to enjoy wilderness isolation.

Once natural areas are converted to industrial or motorized usage it is impossible to do the reverse, so friends of wilderness ideas and values must unite. If they do not, their opponents will certainly capture popular support. Then it will only be a few years until the last escape from society will be barricaded. If that day arrives, there will be countless souls born to live in strangulation, countless human beings who will be crushed under the artificial edifice raised by man. There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.

View of a small island on Evergreen Lake in the Wilderness Lakes Tract of the Five Ponds Wilderness of the Adirondack Park. Almanack archive.


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Jim Britell is a native of Utica and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at

14 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Many good points. Perhaps a generation or two too late. I hope not.

  2. Bill Ott says:

    I propose that this will be a short excerpt in some Wikipedia article of some more intelligent civilization some time from now.

    Humans were born of the wilderness. They learned and conquered the wilderness. They killed the wilderness. They died.

  3. Robert Gdyk says:

    “The essay demolished the specious arguments against wilderness we hear today including, “We must punch roads into wilderness so disabled people can access the wilderness like everyone else,”

    Reminiscent of the Boreas Ponds argument. However, Gulf Brook Road was “punched” long ago between 1865-1880 when Jeremiah and Daniel Finch, along with Samuel Pruyn, purchased the land. To suggest otherwise, the sake of forging new roads into wilderness so disabled veterans like me can gain access, is just simply misleading.

  4. Noel A. Sherry says:

    Thanks for sharing this Jim. I found Robert Marshall’s original piece at, so downloaded it and will read the original. I had not heard of Marshall, so this was refreshing. I spent my summers since the early 1950’s in a cabin on Twitchell Lake in Big Moose, NY, on the edge of wilderness areas, I am tempted to say about a million but I do not know. I orienteered miles of those tracts, explored old lumber camps, overnighted with my sons and daughter, and this resonates with me. I would add, that I find many “windows on nature,” such as through my telescope or binoculars, or through a microscope or closeup lens, in the botanical world, by the seashore, in awe of a brilliant sunset or rainbow, so I would want to include all those avenues as an escape from the stress of civilization, but the preservation of wilderness tracts without roads, or access by ATV and snow mobile trails, is important, vitally so, and so this is important reading, and a call to action to prevent the loss of what is left of wilderness. Thanks for sharing this. I will check out your website.

    • (re Twitchell lake) If you go to my website, on my blog there is a recent piece called “People and books” it has a discussion of Annie Labastille you will find interesting and a very different take on her from what you have probably read about her.

  5. David Gibson says:

    Thank you, Jim ! So important; your educational and organizing messages, and Marshall writings are at the beating heart, the very center of wilderness preservation and stewardship.

  6. Stacy McNulty says:

    The Marshall family (father Louis and brothers Bob and George) had a profound influence on Adirondack Park, as well as forest science and wilderness management across the United States. For those interested in further reading, the library at SUNY ESF has a helpful guide:

  7. Ed Zahniser says:

    Yo, Jim!

    Thanks for this great addition to the cornucopia of arguments on behalf of preserving wilderness and wildness.

    Cheers, Ed Zahniser

  8. Bill Ingersoll says:

    Interesting article, although it seems to have been inspired by two misconceptions: (1) Bob Marshall originated the wilderness idea (indeed, he didn’t) and (2) most people haven’t heard of him (indeed, we have).

    Bob might’ve been the first person to transport the idea of “designated wilderness” to the Adirondacks, but as an adult he spent very little time here — to the extent he was surprised to learn that fire truck trails had already been built in many places. In the 1930s, as a federal employee, his focus had shifted from the Adirondacks to the national scene, especially Montana (where he worked) and Alaska (where he traveled). Look up the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, where you can buy a Bob Marshall T-shirt online!

    Before Marshall had even graduated from college, others had already been working on the idea of government-protected wilderness areas. Significantly, Aldo Leopold’s efforts had already led to the designation of the first-ever wilderness in 1924, in New Mexico. This was the same year Bob graduated from Syracuse.

    But as “46er #3,” Bob’s reputation is still well known in the Adirondacks, and has been for many years. Phil Brown published a book in 2006 that collected all of Bob’s Adirondack-themed writing, and of course one of the High Peaks was named for the Marshall family in the 1970s. And of course, there have been proposals from time to time to designate a second “Bob Marshall Wilderness” in the western Adirondacks.

    So, Bob is hardly a secret.

    It’s interesting to contrast Bob’s arguments for wilderness with those that have been prevalent since the 1970s. Most people overlook the fact that Marshall’s reasoning are all anthropocentric. He wasn’t trying to save the environment, he was trying to save certain elements of the human experience — which he feared were about to be entirely replaced by motor vehicles. Basically, what he was trying to do — along with Leopold, Sigurd Olson, Arthur Carhart, etc. — was refine an idea that been started 30+ years prior by Theodore Roosevelt.

    Later, the idea of wilderness got adopted by the environmental movement, and since then it’s been a matter of protecting places, with the assumption being that a wilderness designation somehow confers a physical buffer of some kind to shield it from human impacts.

    As a wilderness advocate myself, and a big fan of people like Bob Marshall who helped shape the idea of wilderness, I find the environmental angle to be something that muddies the waters too much. Experience has shown that a wilderness designation itself doesn’t bring stringent protections, and lesser designations don’t lead to automatic degradations, because there are plenty of real-life examples that prove both assumptions wrong.

    But it makes a big deal to the visitor experience if one accesses a remote area by foot or by Ford, and this is precisely what Bob Marshall et al were getting at. Therefore the original pro-wilderness arguments hold up better than some of the newer ones, despite the passage of nearly a century.

    I do heartily agree, though, that the operating environment has changed significantly since the 1930s. Once, if public intervention was required to stop a controversial project, it often required the citizen-advocate to address the issue directly to Washington (or Albany, for Adirondack matters). But Albany’s legislative interest in the Adirondacks has outsourced been outsourced to the Adirondack Park Agency in Ray Brook, leaving only the state’s executive branch to deal with. And advocacy itself has become professionalized, meaning the average person now has to do little more than send a monetary donation to the organization of choice, and submit a form letter every now and then, if that’s all they want to do.

    • Very useful and interesting comments. You obviously know a lot about Bob Marshall. One correction though- the article wasn’t inspired by my concern that people don’t know who Marshall is. Everybody knows who he is – they just don’t know the original arguments he made for preserving wilderness. I thought making them easier to read, would help wilderness advocates rebut the pro-roads and pro-vehicle arguments Marshall demolished 90 years ago but still come up everytime land is added to the park.

  9. George L says:

    Okay, we love the Adiirondacks, but let’s spread the environmental credit a little.

    Bob Marshall was not the first American environmentalist, and the Adirondacks was not the first protected place.

    What about John Perkins Marsh (“Man and Nature” 1864)? John Muir (“Father of the National Parks”)? The Yosemite Grant (1864)? Yellowstone (1872)?

    The Marshall who did have a huge (and overlooked) impact on the Park was Bob’s father, Louis. who was a lawyer and a legislator, not a hiker.

    If any Marshall deserves credit for creating and protecting the Adirondacks, it’s Louis, not Bob. By any measure, Louis is the real hero.

    • Yes you are correct Louis Marshall put Forever wild into the NY constitution and kept it there through the 1920’s. Then from the 30’s through the 70’s Paul Schaefer kept the protections from being watered down by his activism and the arguments he used were developed by Bob Marshall. The present state of the adirondacks are due to the joint efforts of Louis Marshall, John Apperson, Paul Schaefer (his protege) and Bob Marshall his muse. Their contributions were different in type and time but all are indispensable. Also the history of the protection of America’s natural wonders like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon as opposed to Roadless wildernesses are different, with different, champions, and legislative history but with some overlap in Bob Marshall.

      • Todd Eastman says:

        Differing management perspectives between the NPS and USFS come into play. As the Parks were heading towards being glorified theme parks, the FS was wondering how to deal with its abundance of low-yield lands, especially the remote alpine sections, B Marshall’s Wilderness gained interest.

      • Tom Kligerman says:

        Hard to make a short list of the key persons who we can thank for the preservation of the Adirondacks without adding Verplanck Colvin to that list. Colvin’s prescient and inspirational reports of not only what he saw from the summits but how these lands could be protected by the state greatly influenced Bob Marshall and many more.

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