The Privilege of Wilderness


When the United States established the first national forest at Yellowstone in 1891, the conservation of land for recreation was nearly incidental. Instead, the primary motivation was to protect game, water, and timber resources. They weren’t even called “National Forests” at first—Yellowstone started out as a “Timber and Land Reserve” and graduated through “Forest Reserve” in 1902 before arriving at “National Forest” in 1907.

The general public now associate National Forests with recreation, but the reality is that many of our policies still treat National Forests as reserves of resources—not for conservation’s sake, but for ongoing exploitation. I find it a little worrisome that our largest national protection of wilderness does so out of economic self-interest instead of intrinsic value. A part of me wants to say it doesn’t matter if the end result is the same—but the more I think about it, the less I believe that.

When we think about our wilderness as an economic resource instead of a social resource, the way we manage it changes. It leads us to assume that access to wild places is a peripheral privilege, and like so many privileges, it is given mostly to those who can afford it.

Living where I do, I have the privilege of access to wild places, but it disturbs me that I have that only through accidents of geology, geography, and genealogy. For me, wilderness is a necessity. I feel much more at home in wilderness than in our concrete urban jungles with mountains of glass and steel. I feel lost and purposeless in the asphalt bayous of suburbia, with their tarpapered atolls and manicured landings. And though I commute some mornings, I couldn’t without a glimpse of mountains along my way.

Were I born in parts of this country without mountains to restrain development, or had I grown up in an urban area with only a few well-contained patches of nature, I might never have come to realize how empty a life without wilderness would be for me. But I think it would still have been there as an unfulfilled need. And if I were a little poorer, I would never have had the privilege of understanding that need.

I don’t know that everyone needs wild places, but I do think more of us do than we acknowledge. The natural world teaches lessons about humility, and respect, and coexistence that I don’t think we teach very well on our own. The natural world reminds us that we are smaller than we imagine, and weaker than we imagine, and supported by all the systems around us. The natural world is the context for all the existential questions that arise when we try to figure out who we are and where we belong.

Of course we must also use natural resources in order to live. But spending time in the natural world, we learn that those resources are not simply ours—they have purpose in the places they already are, and that we ignore that purpose at our peril. As Aldo Leopold aptly noted, “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

To which I think I must add that we do not see land as our community, in part, because so many of our communities are so divorced from the land. Some are kept apart from it by poverty, and some have had it taken from them for the same reason. And many, so very many now, simply don’t encounter wild land because their neighbors have diligently filled it to bursting and beaten the wilderness out of it.

And the places we have preserved, the largest tracts of wild land, are still protected for us to eventually dismantle more than out of respect.

At the end of it, I don’t really know what to do with this knowledge. I am greedily thankful for the wilderness I have, and I know there isn’t enough of it, and that we save it often for the wrong reasons, and that it is a privilege now instead of a core part of our humanity.

But that is why I think conservation of wilderness for its own sake is still actually conservation for ours. I think we are tied to the land whether we want to be or not—and that if we fail to value and conserve the land, and if we fail to make it open to everyone, we fail also to protect a part of ourselves.

4 comments on “The Privilege of Wilderness

  1. Very interesting post. Given your thoughts on this matter, I’d like to ask for your opinion on an emerging trend in conservation science. The more I read publications on that subject, the more I encounter authors who claim that one reason we’re losing species and wilderness so quickly is that they’re viewed as “free,” meaning they’re not part of the capitalist market. There’s a growing push for the economic valuation of nature: figuring out how much money it’s worth and using that to argue for its protection. As I understand it, once a smart person has figured out how much money a stretch of wilderness is worth they’d argue that we shouldn’t destroy it because it saves us X amount of money.

    There seems to be considerable disagreement about this topic, so I’m interested to learn what you think about it. Thank you for indulging my curiosity!


    • JD says:

      Thanks! I’m really torn about that issue–half of me wants to reject the entire premise and say no, the problem isn’t that we don’t put monetary value on wilderness, the problem is that monetary value is the only value we consider when making decisions. Ecosystems aren’t seen as free so much as they’re seen as only valuable as individual parts, not as intact wholes.

      So even though putting a dollar value on ecosystem services gives us a value for wilderness, it doesn’t fix the underlying assumption that monetary value is what SHOULD be important there. I don’t think it is.

      But the other half of me knows that if we fight that big picture fight, we lose a lot along the way. Putting a value on ecosystem services does mean that we value ecosystems in the meantime, and start considering things we wouldn’t otherwise.

      I’m not 100% sure those two things conflict. Maybe (I hope) we can value things in the meantime and still change how we consider value overall. So I think maybe the problem with ecosystem valuation is just that it isn’t the complete solution some people think it is.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, that was a really helpful answer. I’ve also been torn on this issue. There seems to be evidence that ecosystem valuation can encourage environmental protection in some cases, and that policy makers pay more attention to conservation-related proposals when there’s a financial argument for doing so. But there’s also evidence (or so I’ve been told) that even thinking in monetary terms can make people less likely to care about the environment.

      So I also don’t think ecosystem valuation is the ultimate answer. If it buys us some time and produces some conservation successes then that would be fantastic. But we also need to try to shift the way we view not just the natural world, but our entire value system. Monetary value should not be the only, or even the most important, value to consider. Of course this isn’t going to happen overnight.


  2. venice967 says:

    wow! This is quite a bushel of issues contained in this blog. I think there are several problems with attitudes about ‘nature’ and wilderness. The first, as you stated, is the attitude that it has to have some monetary value. Realistically, land does have value to someone who wants to purchase a lot. But there is nothing inherently wrong with value. It’s the underlying motives that corrupt that value. And it’s the attitude that ‘now it’s mine and I can do whatever I want with it’ thinking that tends to devalue things like ecosystems and forests and the indigenous wildlife.
    In the ’70s, I was reading magazines that had articles about managing wood lots and living on the land in non-toxic way. It is the respect for the land and wildlife that engenders this way of living. I lived in the concrete jungle for many years out of necessity but I never lost that yearning to be closer to the land. There are many people who live in cities who still act responsibly and live as if conservation is an integral way of surviving.
    This all goes deeper than economics. This goes deeper than conservation even. There is an attitude of privilege that pervades this society we live in. Everything has been distanced from the source. People don’t think about the food they eat as something from the earth. Clothes are not associated with the fibers woven from sheep or plant. They are not associated with the skill it takes to cut and put together said garment. It’s all about convenience and availability. Small wonder there isn’t the appreciation for the animals who no longer roam the land because their homes were ripped out from under them. And there has also been a distancing from the Source of all that exists. There is no gratitude or wonder when everything is reduced to privilege and dollar signs. So, yeah, it’s all deeper than just outward actions. I think if there were a return to the basic attitudes of gratitude, appreciation and sharing, we could bring about some change that would benefit all living creatures.


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