Paul Andersen: Fair Game
June 20, 2010
“We can’t begin without the pledge of allegiance!” spoke out a patriot to the assembled throng packed onto bleachers at Eagle County High School.
“But there’s no American flag,” said another, pointing out the absence of Old Glory. “I have one!” A man stood from the audience wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the stars and stripes. Hands went to hearts and the pledge was recited. So opened a public meeting with Rep. Jared Polis on the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal, a meeting tagged with patriotic verve.
If Polis needs a rationale for supporting wilderness, patriotism is it. Wilderness values stem from the deepest roots of our national heritage. American democracy was inspired by wilderness and born of it.
Wilderness fashioned the American character during our country’s formative years on the frontier. Wilderness evoked a sense of independence, freedom and rugged individualism. American history is rich with wilderness experiences that provided a crucible for the young, the strong, the adventuresome, the risk-takers, the pioneers.
The anti-wilderness stance attempts to claim a higher patriotic virtue by aiming at the masses, but that’s a weak argument when the passion of patriotism has long been derived from the American wilderness legacy. Wilderness is an inheritance to which all Americans have rights. “Doesn’t the present owe the future a chance to know the past?” asks wilderness historian Rod Nash, suggesting that in wildness, to paraphrase Thoreau, is the preservation of what it means to be an American.
Some argue there’s already enough wilderness. As if to say we have enough national character and no longer need the wild lands on which to reaffirm it. Our national heritage did not evolve from the cushioned seat of an ORV, but from standing on two legs or astride a horse, ears and eyes open to the enormity of wild lands that spoke to our forebears in nature’s pure voice with the pledge of freedom.
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Eco-slander has become a tactic among those who equate wilderness conservation with elitism. But wilderness is not elite, it is inclusive for anyone willing to look beyond a road and away from a machine. Wilderness is the birthplace of American democracy, and the more Americans who can share the purity of that experience, the better the essence of democracy will be insured into the future.
Wilderness provided the blank slate for self-governance. Wilderness demanded inclusion in political processes that created civil society on the raw fringes of a new country. Wilderness brought people together in a relationship with themselves and nature that was refreshed again and again with each new milestone of the frontier. Wilderness exposed its witnesses to an awe and drama that opened hearts and minds to the divine.
What’s been at debate with Hidden Gems is leisure time, not wilderness. Catering to mechanized leisure by sacrificing pristine lands is like borrowing against the future in sums that can never be paid back. Once wilderness is trampled, there is no going back. We owe to future generations the best and highest use of the land, in its natural state. We owe our successors wild places protected against the press of industrialization and mass commercialization.
Wilderness makes up only 2 percent of the lower 48 states, about equal to the amount that’s paved. That’s not a balanced equation, but a sign of imbalance. America has the wealth and generosity to set aside more wild lands for the future. It’s like adding to a savings account from which future generations can draw interest without eroding principal.
Rather than begrudging this investment, Americans should be proud of the wealth we are creating, a wealth that is beyond capital or material. To bequeath this wealth to the future is an act of patriotism more tangible than symbolic. Wilderness is real, and the wealth of wilderness is a source of pride for Americans with the vision to grant something invaluable to the unseen future.
Wilderness protects wildlife habitat and the species that depend upon it. Wilderness protects watersheds, airsheds and inspiring panoramas. Wilderness preserves an all-too-rare experience of silent wonder at the beauty and drama with which nature has blessed this land. Wilderness connects humanity through our common ancestry in the wilds. Wilderness is the ultimate American birthright, a symbol equally as potent as the stars and stripes, and equally in need of our collective allegiance.
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