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.