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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Wildlands in a New Century

It's no longer whether, but where and how

Centuries and millennia correspond raggedly to human epochs. Europe's 19th century actually began at Waterloo in 1815, and ended in Sarajevo in 1914. America's 19th began when Lewis and Clark left St. Louis in 1804 and ended in 1890, when the Census Bureau reported that the frontier had closed. The new century could be said to begin with the founding of the Audubon Society (1886) and the Sierra Club (1892).

We're too close to the 20th century's end to be able to limn it precisely. John McPhee has suggested July 1, 1999, when Maine's Edwards Dam was breached, the first major dam to be torn down to liberate a free-flowing river. I nominate October 13, when the Clinton-Gore administration announced that it planned to end logging in all 52 million acres of the national forest system still unscarred by roads.

Over the past century we debated whether we want America tame or wild: whether we want to create a domesticated, second Europe, or to find a new way of living with the land, cherishing and renewing its wildness. Neither side prevailed. Yosemite was saved from grazing, but its Hetch Hetchy Valley was drowned. The national forest system was created, but left open to logging. In the 1930s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes rescued Olympic National Park, but the surrounding ancient forests were cut in the 1970s and '80s.

In the 1940s John D. Rockefeller quietly bought up the core lands of Grand Teton National Park, but the Yellowstone ecosystem remains a fragile patchwork. President Eisenhower created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the late 1950s, but left it open to oil drilling. In the next decade the Sierra Club blocked dams on the Colorado inside Grand Canyon National Park, but failed to stop Glen Canyon Dam just upstream. In the 1970s we added Big Cypress to the protected portions of the Everglades ecosystem, but as we did, sprawl, agribusiness, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were busy destroying the hydrological system on which the Everglades depend.

In the 1980s we stopped James Watt from shutting down the national parks, but Reagan's forest boss, John Crowell, doubled the cut on the national forests. In the 1990s we protected the California Desert and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but failed to block the salvage clearcut rider, which felled thousands of acres of our ancient forest.

Even though we lost some painful battles in the 20th century, we are winning the wilderness debate, as evidenced by President Clinton's historic proposal to protect the nation's roadless areas. If it succeeds, it will be the first time that land has been protected solely by virtue of being ecologically intact. The model for last century's national park system was "Save one of everything, the best example you can find." The model for this century's roadless-area policy is "Save everything that is left." The first led to unsustainable islands of wildness in a sea of human appropriation. The second model is the first step--and only the first step--in creating a landscape of wildness.

The administration adopted its roadless policy after a temporary moratorium a year and a half ago. At the time, D.C. policy makers considered this a radical move, even though the moratorium left out many of the most important roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Northern Rockies. But public support for wilderness was so overwhelming that the administration chose to proceed with one of the boldest land-conservation initiatives in U.S. history.

Had 19th-century pioneers shared this spirit, it all might have been different. We might have moved across the North American continent, setting some of it aside as we passed: a continuous wildway, the major riparian zones connected by ridgetops and mountain ranges, and then perhaps one watershed in five, from ridge to river, set aside for wilderness, spiritual refuge, watershed protection, a genetic reservoir--a means of honoring our obligations to the rest of the living world.

It's too late for that now, but not too late for still intact systems in places such as Alaska, Utah, the Northern Rockies, and the Adirondacks. Elsewhere, we need to find a way to give back some of what we have already occupied. Here we are aided by robust natural processes like flood and fire to regenerate wildness around us. At present, we spend billions of dollars each year in futile attempts to prevent floodplains from flooding, barrier islands from migrating, chaparral from burning, and predators from predation. We need to let these inexorable natural processes teach us where we do and don't belong and how to live in greater harmony with nature in the places where we remain.

Giving back space is one of the hardest challenges our culture faces. We have adopted the nomadic ways of the first Americans--living across the landscape--without living as lightly as they did. While the administration's roadless policy would be an enormous step, it would affect a tiny fraction of the continent, and a tiny fraction of federal policy. In the debate over saving the Everglades, politicians have been far more willing to offer money for piecemeal restoration than to return natural water flows to agricultural land owned by big campaign contributors. And even after enormous flood losses in the Mississippi valley because of the draining of wetlands and the constriction of the river by narrow dikes, only modest progress has been made in restoring the Big Muddy's floodplain.

The debate over whether there should be wildness is coming to an end. How to find the wisdom and the means to relinquish space for wildness, and how to re-create it, is the challenge of the next century.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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