It’s safe to say, I suspect, that the concept of wilderness is far from universally popular here in Tulare County. In recent times, most of our elected officials have been opposed to the idea, and the political party that dominates our region has long made it clear that the whole idea is a complete mistake. And all this, I fear, without most people even knowing exactly what wilderness is.
So let’s take a moment this week to review the wilderness idea and how it has come to be applied locally. Our timing in this is appropriate, for next Wednesday, September 3rd, will mark the 50th anniversary of the approval of the federal law that started the modern designated wilderness movement.
The signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964, marked the end of a bi-partisan campaign that had gone on for more than a decade. It’s hard to imagine now, but the idea of creating a national wilderness system made sense to a handful of legislators in both major parties, and they worked together to get the bill through congress.
The idea was simple: portions of our public lands should be left undeveloped forever, but with the proviso that they should remain open to traditional recreational use. Areas designated as formal wilderness areas would have no roads and would be closed to motor vehicles of all sorts, but would remain open for hiking, camping, and horseback riding. Areas that previously had been open to hunting and/or grazing would also continue to allow those uses.
Fifty years later, that’s pretty much the way it has worked out. Since 1964, piece by piece, congress has created a federal wilderness system that covers about 2.7 per cent of the contiguous forty-eight states.
Still speaking of the forty-eight states, California has more designated wilderness than any of the other contiguous states. Arizona comes in second. (And it shouldn’t surprise that Alaska – the last frontier — has more designated wilderness than all the rest of the country put together.)
Since 1964, most of the rugged backcountry of the High Sierra has been designated as wilderness. Local wilderness areas include, the Domeland Wilderness (created in 1964), the Golden Trout Wilderness (1978), the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness (1984), the Jenny Lakes Wilderness (1984), the Sierra South Wilderness (1984) and most recently the John Krebs Wilderness (2009). Adjoining Tulare County on the east side of the Sierra is the 600,000-acre John Muir Wilderness, also created in 1964.
Today, the wilderness areas of Tulare County are known to hikers and mountaineers worldwide, and tens of thousands use and enjoy them each summer.
All of this sounds innocent enough, so why do many local residents find the concept of wilderness so objectionable? Two reasons usually come up.
The first argument is that wilderness limits economic activity, even though over 97% of the land base of the 48 states remains outside the system. The other reason is that wilderness is exclusionary, denying use of the land to those who will not or cannot walk to enjoy it.
It will not surprise readers of this column that I don’t find either of these arguments particularly compelling. Are we really so desperate economically that we cannot afford to set aside less than 3% of the acreage contained within the forty-eight states for something other than commerce? I doubt it, especially when you consider that most of the land involved is either desert or high mountain country.
And is wilderness “exclusionary?” Well yes, in a certain way, it is. Wilderness is closed to machines like 4×4 trucks, ATVs, motorized trail bikes, and even bicycles. But so are most churches, schools, city parks, and shopping centers, and we don’t seem to think that these are unreasonable closures.
At its heart, wilderness is a form of respect for the beautiful planet we inhabit. Wilderness allows us to enjoy nature on its terms rather than our own. It is, if you think this way, a recognition of God’s handiwork.
Personally, I’ll be toasting the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act this coming Wednesday. I hope that you’ll join me.
© Wm. Tweed