The Right to Be Wild

With its ruling against protecting public lands as wilderness, the Bush administration is challenging a fundamentally American idea.

When we were children growing up in the suburbs of Houston, there was a bully in our neighborhood who, maybe it was karma, lived right next door to us. He was younger than I was -- I had my own set to deal with -- but he was hell on my younger brother Frank, who finally, in what I think was a fine piece of self-taught therapy, began compiling a list, titled, simply, "Bad Things Jimbo Has Done to Me." It was a long list, though not as long as the dossier I find myself compiling about the current chief executive, also from the nether regions of Texas. I'm not going to cover the waterfront, won't tell you everything, but as a Texas native and ex-petroleum geologist who has some thoughts on the subject of wilderness, I'd rather try to posit why the Bush administration's death knell for wilderness is wrong in a fundamental way: It strips away or eradicates not just a cultural cornerstone, but yet another of our rights -- the biological and utterly democratic right to know a piece of wild country will always exist under its own awesome powers of grace and logic.

With his public-lands antics, Bush is stealing both our history and our future. He started in Utah, in Orrin Hatch-land, where residents of that state had spent years using a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) tool known as the Wilderness Handbook to inventory areas of the state's incredibly remote federal lands that had never been identified as wilderness. They found 3.2 million acres' worth, and 22 million acres of noninventoried BLM lands nationwide that were in need of federal protection. But in April, the administration slashed back: Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced that her department would no longer consider any public lands -- in Utah or anywhere else -- for new wilderness protection. The administration further argued that although it would manage these lands for other values -- oil and gas production, coal extraction, irrigation and hydroelectricity, timber, grazing, etc. -- it no longer had the authority to designate any of the public's lands as wilderness.

The hypocrisy and unethical secrecy of it goes off-scale even for a president from whom, following the lead of the Cheney secret energy task force, we have come to expect these sorts of things. (Nor, as we're finding out, was the Cheney task force's bag of purloined jewelry limited to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding Alaskan wilderness. The task force's plan seems to have included more sweetheart deals, along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, the high deserts of Colorado and Wyoming, the Utah red-rock country, and New Mexico's fabled Otero Mesa, in the fragile Chihuahuan Desert.) Like the Thief of Baghdad, like infidels inside America's wild castles, Bush and his Republican guard are reigning over a series of court "settlements" in which the Department of so-called Justice lays down its arms -- the law -- and surrenders, in one industry-friendly lawsuit after another, with negotiated settlements that allow industry to proceed through these wild gates, uncontested, and plunder the public's riches.

But that's what corporate conservatives do. As a 20-year activist in the environmental movement, I understand that. I loathe it, and rage against it, but I understand it. Money matters more than integrity, or the desires of and opportunities for future generations. I have observed, and believe I understand, the motives.

What grieves me most, I think, is the burden of knowledge I have, coming from the land of the Beltway Texans. Before I went to work as an oil geologist, searching in ancient buried deltas for the hidden treasures of black gold, in a wonderful and intoxicating profession that engages the imagination as well as one's scientific knowledge and ability, I hunted deer in the Texas hill country, not far at all from Crawford. One of my worst fears is that I know precisely where these guys are coming from, and it's this: They don't even know what wilderness is. They don't even know what it is they're killing.

What is wilderness, and what does it do to your heart? Never mind that 80 percent of our nation's freshwater originates in the last roadless areas on our public lands, or that these biologically intact places offer natural immunity, through the design of a diversity more complex than we can ever know, self-medicating and "healing" and remaking themselves through the centuries, without our interference. Never mind that wild country filters the air we breathe and the pollution we exude. Never mind that many in this nation believe such places have their own right to exist -- that they still possess not just the vibrant echo of the original creation, but are representatives of the original creation itself, made visible.

I will no longer buy the administration's claims that destroying these last places provides jobs. The simplest of conservation measures would save far more oil than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could ever produce. The Roadless Rule -- developed dur- ing the Clinton administration to protect these values for all time, and over which the timber lobbyists have contorted themselves with such dexterity in an effort to undo the will of the people (the U.S. Forest Service received 1.7 million public comments on the rule, with 95 percent favoring maximum protection) -- affects almost nil timber value: one-half of 1 percent of the nation's annual supply. In fact, road building in our national forests is a huge drain on the federal treasury; at present, we are burdened with more than $8 billion of outstanding repairs for these taxpayer-funded roads, which were built to allow the timber industry more access to the last of the big trees on our public lands.

These national forests are not the Texas hill country, where, indeed, the encroaching ashe juniper (due to fire suppression and overgrazing) is strangling a hardscrabble and often abused land. The American wilderness is much larger, still intact. It is still a living organism, with its own pulse, its own system of checks and balances -- fires and floods, snowy winters and heated summers. It is a repository for a mysterious and teeming assemblage of invisible, undisturbed microrhizae in the soil, which power the production of all other life -- life in such quantities that it is measured not in grams, but in tons per acre. These last few wild gardens still possess undiscovered lichens, in the farthest crowns of the oldest trees, and are a refuge for a shamefully long list of threatened, endangered, and sensitive spe-cies whose existence has become imperiled by our insistence on viewing this last wilderness as yet another commodity to be altered and modified.

In these forests, which have withstood centuries of wildfire without our intervention -- indeed, forests that have flourished because of the fires -- there is a force, a presence, that can calm, if only for a while, even the most troubled heart. Ours is an old world, and in our last untouched (and unprotected) remnants of wild country, we can still witness that antiquity, as well as the vibrant strength of life remade, again and again, in the wilderness. I'm 45 years old, and it still takes my breath away -- every time, every day.

If I could speak to my fellow oil-hunting, hill-country Texans, I think I would say this: Let me tell you what it is you're killing -- turning the dozers loose in the Utah red-rock desert, pumping MTBE into ranchers' drinking water in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, and blasting tunnels beneath the pristine mountain lakes in Montana's Cabinet Mountains wilderness, in my beloved Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, which possesses the most imperiled population of grizzlies on the continent. You're not going after the core of the dreaded American environmental movement, the way, with your hostility and attitude against "elite intellectuals," you might believe you are. No, you're killing your father's father, and your mother's mother: the history of this nation, your nation, itself. You're killing the very core of the frontier spirit that, as Wallace Stegner so eloquently explained, has shaped our American character and spirit. Perhaps for a Texan growing up in the 20th century, perched in that strange and unique and often violent land (three running wars were involved in Texas' birth: against the Native Americans, against Mexico, and, in the Civil War, against the United States itself), there was a confusion in our genius loci, our spirit of place. Were we from the Deep South, or of the Western frontier? Reared on the myth of the Alamo, we had grown up believing that always, farther west, lay the beginning still of boundless frontier, limitless opportunity, and unmapped territory of immeasurable riches.

But we Texans never knew what wilderness was. It was myth, it was fairy tale, it was history, it was bygone dust. Instead, all things relative, we made our own. Our grizzlies and bison and wolves and jaguars were long gone, so we substituted "nature" for wilderness, and in our hearts, I think, declared wilderness dead, a thing of the past, simply because ours was gone. We read of folks like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, who had been so stirred by a wild landscape, and because we felt some in-klings of that same rapture, gazing out at our grazed and pastoral or even rugged and scraggly land, and felt understandable pride in that view, we thought the two were equal and the same.

I loved, and still love, the Texas landscape. But I got lucky: I got out. I stumbled into Utah, where the scale of my existence was suddenly measured by the Western scale of distance, in hundreds of thousands of acres at a time, rather than by the Southern scale of time compressed. The vertical ladder of who your parents were, and their parents, and their parents, no longer mattered to the world. And yet, there was deep time present in the West, too: All the profiles of strata I had once merely imagined, as a geologist reading the squiggly electrocardiogram representations made by electric well-logs, were suddenly laid as bare before me as the giant handiwork and genius of creation.

And I got luckier still, then, wandering north and west, ending up in the Yaak Valley, where, to my astonishment, nothing has ever gone extinct -- not since the last Ice Age. This full inventory of speciation -- what was once every American's birthright -- can now be experienced only in a handful of places, and I will tell you that to be in the presence of such a roster, there is a different feeling, a different spirit: inexplicable, but real, and very healthy. And I fear future generations may never even know this feeling.

Legendary Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach writes in his classic, Lone Star, of how for generations, Texans were rooted in the belief -- true, perhaps, for a while -- that land, rather than knowledge, was the source of all wealth. As we pass from a country of adolescence into one of supposed maturity, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone now who would disagree that information and, even more importantly, knowledge, is the key to prosperity and security of all kinds -- economic, ecological, social.

That's what saddens and sickens me, as much as it infuriates me, about the extraordinary steps this chief executive, his office birthed in upheaval, is taking to kill not just symbolically but physically the very wellspring traces, the tabula rasa, of what this country has become and accomplished. We were born of this land, and of our struggles with it, and we were shaped, and continue to be shaped, by reverent reflection against the majesty of those remnant lands, once plentiful to our forefathers, where dirt bikes and chain saws and motorboats and bulldozers and jet skis and coal mines and snowmobiles and logging trucks have never gone, and never will, God willing. Our nation's last wild gardens, breathing mystery, the elegant elixir of humility.

"I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in," wrote American ecologist Aldo Leopold, 54 years ago, which, were he still living, would make him a very old man today. But that too is one of the greatest gifts of the wilderness -- of a vast and supple, connected, living, breathing system of wilderness, with as many different kinds and types represented as possible, from north to south and east to west. The American wilderness, more than any coin or currency, is -- or should be -- as transferable across the generations as a tale of ancient virtue, valor, or "mere" beauty.

Sometimes I'd like to believe that if I could separate the chief executive from his lobbyists and advisers for only a day or two, and take him on a bushwhack deep into the heart of one of these wild places, he might yet understand. That I -- or rather, the landscape -- could separate political policy and strategy and retribution and favor from the essence of human being, and that the landscape -- the wilderness -- would impress itself upon him, and that he would understand that there are still things in this world bigger than we are, and more powerful. Mysteries, shining things. And that it's wrong to crush those things, for any reason.