The Right to Be Wild

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

Photo: <a href="" target="new">Tom Till</a>

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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.


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Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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