Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 7, 2009
Mountain bikers and ATV riders fighting Hidden Gems claim wilderness “elitists” favor scenery and sentimentality over mechanized human access. Beauty and emotion, they say, are weak arguments for keeping their machines out of wild places.
What they fail to see are the higher values and long-term benefits of preserving wild places that inspire the heart and soul. Wilderness, they complain, is too strict, as if a vow of love should be conditioned with caveats and exemptions.
When the conservation movement began in the late 1800s, it faced the same criticisms as today. Still, the movement tapped a rising consciousness among Americans who rallied the political will for setting aside huge tracts of wild lands. The reasons for popular support ran much deeper than the naysayers were willing to fathom, either then or now, namely, the spiritual and moral influences of wilderness on the population at large.
Some of the first major conservation battles were staged in California where developers and conservationists fought over access to timber, minerals, grazing, and water. Yosemite National Park became a beachhead in a protracted debate between esthetics and utility, opposite ends of the pole in man’s world view of nature.
The chief spokesman for conservation was John Muir, whose wilderness gospel and scientific knowledge joined into a highly convincing persona. With his Scottish brogue and piercing gray eyes, Muir spoke eloquently for nature when nature had few other voices.
Muir eventually lost his battle for Hetch-Hetchy, a hidden valley within Yosemite Park that was dammed as a reservoir by the City of San Francisco in 1915, but his message endured. Through his conservation preaching, Muir brought man into the circle of life, linking us with nature through a sacred duty to protect “that which God made.”
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Donald Worster, in “A Passion for Nature,” a compelling biography of John Muir, distills Muir’s belief: “Beyond the beautiful, material face of nature breathes a world-controlling power called God, Beauty, or Love. Humankind is out of synchrony with that power – an alienation that must be healed by direct experience of wild, natural beauty.”
John Muir nurtured this power and radiated its joys to industrialists like Edward Harriman and U.S. presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft. Muir expressed an all-too-rare beneficence toward the natural world, a humble, caring connection that grew between him and all of existence. In this expression, Muir transcended the typically narrow view of nature as a mere backdrop for man’s whims and pleasures.
Muir and the early conservation movement also established a broad, popular following, making wilderness a national issue that put parochial self-interests in perspective. Hetch-Hetchy was dammed, but much more was saved, and this despite opposition from local developers who belittled scenery and sentimentality as irrational.
Mountain bikers and ATV riders who feel threatened by Hidden Gems might not seem so pivotal in a national forum where conservation of wild lands is high on the national agenda. Pit their self-interests against the future span of history and their arguments pale to insignificance.
Wilderness values reach far beyond the mechanized and materialistic world, said Muir, whose conservation mission was nothing less than saving the soul of America. Her citizens, he deemed, were being ruled by the tyranny of money and yet their souls hungered for the spiritual salve afforded by wild beauty.
In what amounts to a direct appeal to the mid-range elevations of the Hidden Gems, Muir weighed the “childish” public awe of stark mountains and gushing waterfalls against the rise of a more “mature” sensitivity when “the lowlands will be loved more than alps, and lakes and level rivers more than waterfalls.”
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