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The wider the base, the better the democratic system will work. The more interests represented, the less danger there is that a single one will be able to dominate.  Alexander Hamilton

By Skip Clement

“In a constant state of an energy crisis and the growing awareness that the undeveloped country in the Rocky Mountains states and Alaska – both some of the most significant energy mines on earth has brought forward individuals, corporations, and conglomerates all eager to serve their country by strip mining and drilling for oil and gas.” Paraphrased Stegner intro to Wilderness Letter

This economic temptation begets politicians willing to serve special commercial interests, and they, in turn, bring on a new wave of states’ rights agitation, previously called the Sagebrush Rebellion. Its purpose, a land-grab to force the transfer of public lands from federal control to the control of the states, which will know how to make their resources available to those who will know what to do with them. After that, they can be returned to the public for expensive rehabilitation, which has been so common it’s forgotten after a few news cycles. The offenders untouched by the damage they promised couldn’t happen.

Here’s what Wallace Stegner said about a betrayal his generation faced down and that we are facing today from a cowardly senate, the richest man in Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, and a man-in-charge so ignorant he cannot be compared to on any scale of measurement known.

Watercolor illustration by Thom Glace. Trouts – Rainbow [Oncorhynchus mykiss – native to America’s Northwest], Brown [Salmo trutta, native to Europe], and Brook [Salvelinus fontinalis – is a char and native to Northeastern America’s].

The man in charge

From my childhood to now, 81 years, as it was then for Stegner in 1961, the air is already less clear, its distances less sharp – water tables continue to sink out of sight, springs will keep to drying up, streams shrink and go intermittent.

How few are the local supporters of the federal agencies that are the only protection against the best thing in our lives that have been preserved for us by national management, and how much they will locally lose if this new Sagebrush Rebellion has its way.

The land that the Trump Administration wants to be transferred belongs to me, the code writer at Facebook in Palo Alto, the cop in Harlem, or the grocer in Little Havana in Miami… as to anyone else.

Are you willing to see it wrecked to increase the corporate profits of a foreign-owned company set to destroy the world’s most fabulous salmon run, Alaska’s Bristol Bay sockeye?

The Wilderness letter of 1961 written by Wallace Stegner:

Los Altos, Calif., December 3, 1960

David E. Pesonen, Wildland Research Center, Agricultural Experiment Station, 243 Mulford Hall, University of California, Berkeley 4, Calif.

 Dear Mr. Pesonen:

  I believe that you are working on the wilderness portion of the Outdoor Recreation Resources

   Review Commission’s report. If I may, I should like to urge some arguments for wilderness

   preservation that involve recreation, as it is ordinarily conceived, hardly at all. Hunting, fishing,

   hiking, mountain-climbing, camping, photography, and the enjoyment of natural scenery will all,

   surely, figure in your report. So will the wilderness as a genetic reserve, a scientific yardstick by

   which we may measure the world in its natural balance against the world in its man-made

   imbalance. What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but

   the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will

   seem mystical to the practical minded–but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is

   likely to seem mystical to them.

 

   I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has

   certainly shaped our history as a people. It has no more to do with recreation than churches have to

   do with recreation, or than the strenuousness and optimism and expansiveness of what the

   historians call the “American Dream” have to do with recreation. Nevertheless, since it is only in

   this recreation survey that the values of wilderness are being compiled, I hope you will permit me

   to insert this idea between the leaves, as it were, of the recreation report.

 

The name “sockeye” is a corruption of an Indian tribes’ word “sukkai.” They average of 8-pounds and grow to 3-feet long. While spawning, the sockeye salmon is bright red with a greenish head. Later in their lives in the ocean, they turn to a silver with some blue and black on the head. Colors of the sockeye are very dependant on what stage of its life it is in. Life span is about five years. Sockeyes usually spend about one or two years in freshwater before migrating into the ocean. Adults usually stay in the ocean for two years and then go back to the freshwater to spawn. Wikipedia commons [Google Sites] image.

  Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be

   destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette

   cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we

   pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of

   the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the

   exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the

   chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the

   environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and

   competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without

   chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological

   termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need

   wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge

   against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still

   there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for

   us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and

   rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is

   there–important, that is, simply as an idea.

Wetlands in Cape May, New Jersey. Photo by Anthony Bley, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – a commons image.

   We are a wild species, as Darwin pointed out. Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically

   bred us. But for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to

   modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to

   domesticating ourselves. Not many people are likely, any more, to look upon what we call

   “progress” as an unmixed blessing. Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more

   material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein

   that will destroy us. One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar

   as we can, good animals. Americans still have that chance, more than many peoples; for while we

   were demonstrating ourselves the most efficient and ruthless environment-busters in history, and

   slashing and burning and cutting our way through a wilderness continent, the wilderness was

   working on us. It remains in us as surely as Indian names remain on the land. If the abstract dream

   of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream,

   mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we

   conquered.

Regarding the destruction of Bristol Bay Watershed in Alaska, only foreign investors, curmudgeons, fools, current administration cabinet members and other paid off politicians are for the Pebble Mine. Photo: Luke Strickland / Alaska Marine Conservation Council — December 17, 2014.

   The Connecticut Yankee, sending likely candidates from King Arthur’s unjust kingdom to his Man

   Factory for rehabilitation, was over-optimistic, as he later admitted. These things cannot be forced,

   they have to grow. To make such a man, such a democrat, such a believer in human individual

   dignity, as Mark Twain himself, the frontier was necessary, Hannibal and the Mississippi and

   Virginia City, and reaching out from those the wilderness; the wilderness as opportunity and idea,

   the thing that has helped to make an American different from and, until we forget it in the roar of

   our industrial cities, more fortunate than other men. For an American, insofar as he is new and

   different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild. The American experience

   has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just risen from

   the sea. That gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and excitement can be passed on

   to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But only so long as we

   keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise–a sort of wilderness bank.

Two wild horses near an old pump jack in the Greater Chaco Region. Photo by Jonathan Thompson a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at jonathan@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

   As a novelist, I may perhaps be forgiven for taking literature as a reflection, indirect but profoundly

   true, of our national consciousness. And our literature, as perhaps you are aware, is sick,

   embittered, losing its mind, losing its faith. Our novelists are the declared enemies of their society.

   There has hardly been a serious or important novel in this century that did not repudiate in part or in

   whole American technological culture for its commercialism, its vulgarity, and the way in which it

   has dirtied a clean continent and a clean dream. I do not expect that the preservation of our

   remaining wilderness is going to cure this condition. But the mere example that we can as a nation

   apply some other criteria than commercial and exploitative considerations would be heartening to

   many Americans, novelists or otherwise. We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural

   world, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce. And

   one of the best places for us to get that is in the wilderness where the fun houses, the bulldozers,

   and the pavement of our civilization are shut out.

 

   Sherwood Anderson, in a letter to Waldo Frank in the 1920s, said it better than I can. “Is it not

   likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got

   a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost…. Mystery whispered

   in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the

   American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies…. I am old enough to remember tales that

   strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our

   people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain…. I can remember old fellows in

   my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the

   shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet….”

Orvis photo.

   We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we

   save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses as this, all the wild

   that still remains to us.

 

   It seems to me significant that the distinct downturn in our literature from hope to bitterness took

   place almost at the precise time when the frontier officially came to an end, in 1890, and when the

   American way of life had begun to turn strongly urban and industrial. The more urban it has

   become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our

   literature, and I believe our people, have become. For myself, I grew up on the empty plains of

   Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah, and I put a very high valuation on what

   those places gave me. And if I had not been able to periodically to renew myself in the mountains

   and deserts of western America I would be very nearly bughouse. Even when I can’t get to the

   back country, the thought of the colored deserts of southern Utah, or the reassurance that there are

   still stretches of prairies where the world can be instantaneously perceived as disk and bowl, and

   where the little but intensely important human being is exposed to the five directions of the

   thirty-six winds, is a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me. But as the wilderness

   areas are progressively exploited or “improve”, as the jeeps and bulldozers of uranium prospectors

   scar up the deserts and the roads are cut into the alpine timberlands, and as the remnants of the

   unspoiled and natural world are progressively eroded, every such loss is a little death in me. In us.

 

   I am not moved by the argument that those wilderness areas which have already been exposed to

   grazing or mining are already deflowered, and so might as well be “harvested”. For mining I

   cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is

   taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West

   the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren’t

   absolutely mortal. Better a wounded wilderness than none at all. And as for grazing, if it is strictly

   controlled so that it does not destroy the ground cover, damage the ecology, or compete with the

   wildlife it is in itself nothing that need conflict with the wilderness feeling or the validity of the

   wilderness experience. I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and

   the people who herd them have, in the wilderness context, the dignity of rareness; they belong on

   the frontier, moreover, and have a look of rightness. The invasion they make on the virgin country

   is a sort of invasion that is as old as Neolithic man, and they can, in moderation, even emphasize a

   man’s feeling of belonging to the natural world. Under surveillance, they can belong; under

   control, they need not deface or mar. I do not believe that in wilderness areas where grazing has

   never been permitted, it should be permitted; but I do not believe either that an otherwise untouched

   wilderness should be eliminated from the preservation plan because of limited existing uses such as

   grazing which are in consonance with the frontier condition and image.

   Let me say something on the subject of the kinds of wilderness worth preserving. Most of those

   areas contemplated are in the national forests and in high mountain country. For all the usual

   recreational purposes, the alpine and the forest wildernesses are obviously the most important, both

   as genetic banks and as beauty spots. But for the spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the

   birth of awe, other kinds will serve every bit as well. Perhaps, because they are less friendly to life,

   more abstractly nonhuman, they will serve even better. On our Saskatchewan prairie, the nearest

   neighbor was four miles away, and at night we saw only two lights on all the dark rounding earth.

   The earth was full of animals–field mice, ground squirrels, weasels, ferrets, badgers, coyotes,

   burrowing owls, snakes. I knew them as my little brothers, as fellow creatures, and I have never

   been able to look upon animals in any other way since. The sky in that country came clear down to

   the ground on every side, and it was full of great weathers, and clouds, and winds, and hawks. I

   hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone. A

   prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as

   lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea. It is as good a place as any for the wilderness

   experience to happen; the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the

   alpine forest.

   So are great reaches of our western deserts, scarred somewhat by prospectors but otherwise open,

   beautiful, waiting, close to whatever God you want to see in them. Just as a sample, let me suggest

   the Robbers’ Roost country in Wayne County, Utah, near the Capitol Reef National Monument. In

   that desert climate the dozer and jeep tracks will not soon melt back into the earth, but the country

   has a way of making the scars insignificant. It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such as

   wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and

   worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in

   hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country

   like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into

   it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who

   haven’t the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two

   hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael

   Swell and the Robbers’ Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know.

   And if they can’t even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry

   them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and

   uncontrolled part of earth is still there.

 

   These are some of the things wilderness can do for us. That is the reason we need to put into effect,

   for its preservation, some other principle that the principles of exploitation or “usefulness” or even

   recreation. We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive

   to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a

   part of the geography of hope.

 

   Very sincerely yours,

   Wallace Stegner

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