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.” 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. 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.”
WHAT IS WILDERNESS AND WHAT HAPPENED TO OURS?
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.
ROADLESS WILDERNESS IS IMPORTANT TO HUMANS BECAUSE IT:
- 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.” In wilderness we can find hardihood’s moral equivalent to gangs and war.
WILDERNESS CREATES FIVE NEW TYPES OF BEAUTY
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
WILDERNESS DOESN’T STOP PEOPLE FROM ACCESSING FORESTS
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.