Paul Andersen: Defending wilderness is a moral calling |

Paul Andersen: Defending wilderness is a moral calling

“Doesn’t the present owe the future a chance to know the past?”

Wilderness historian Rod Nash poses a moral question. As a prominent historian, he realizes the importance of experiencing wilderness as a way of connecting with the roots of our national character.

Despite the Antiquities Act having set aside rare lands as cultural treasures, and despite wilderness designations through the congressional mandate that created the Wilderness Act of 1964, our wild lands heritage is often at risk.

Wilderness protection is subject to the shifting values of national leadership. That’s why each generation has the responsibility to protect wild lands as a national legacy for its progeny.

“Trump declares war on our national monuments,” warns a recent bulletin from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The alliance is girding for the fight of its life as the Trump administration threatens to undo the protective designations given red rock desert sanctuaries by Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Threats to protected wildlands are acute as proposals to privatize public lands have been proposed to the Interior Department. That’s why groups like Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop are raising alarms. Sound arguments must be made to head off the wholesale gutting of wildlands protection.

So, why wilderness?

It was the crucible of the wilderness frontier that forged our national sense of independence, our penchant for innovation, our drive for exploration. It was the demands of life on the frontier that constantly refreshed the principles of democracy.

Only remnants of that wilderness survive today, just 2 percent of the lower 48 states — the same amount that’s paved. This makes wilderness an endangered geography.

Administrations come and go, and every time a conservative Republican administration takes power there rises the need to prove the value of our wild public lands. That’s why wilderness will need convincing arguments if it is going to weather political whims.

With Trump we face one of the most strident anti-wilderness administrations since the Wilderness Act was passed. He and his minions are promoting industrial incursions into roadless areas that could destroy their wilderness qualities.

Aldo Leopold, America’s first conservation biologist, explained that access is not a matter of roads: “Recreational development,” he observed in 1938, “is a job, not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

Rod Nash, who spends summers in Crested Butte and who co-moderated the Wilderness Seminar with me 15 years ago at the Aspen Institute, offers potent rationale for wilderness conservation.

Scientific value: Wilderness is a “safe deposit box” for biological diversity, a repository for as yet undiscovered biological resources that may offer solutions to diseases. We risk our own futures by “tinkering” with the web of life. Aldo Leopold urged that we “save the instructions” for healthy ecosystems by preserving them intact.

Spiritual value: Wilderness as a temple reaches back to antiquity when the great religions were born of epiphanies in the wilds. Jesus, Moses, Mohammed and Buddha sanctified what the transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson, expressed poetically.

Aesthetic value: Wild nature as a sublime influence describes aesthetics far beyond mere “scenery” into a scale of beauty that has inspired great art. Shelley, Ruskin and Wordsworth brought nature to the arts in rhapsodic verse and pastoral painting, as did American artists Moran and Bierstadt. John Denver put his wilderness passion into song.

Heritage value: Wilderness is a source of freedom and self-determination, offering escape from conforming institutions. Wilderness has imbued America with vitality.

Its wild landscapes have honed the American character so that future generations will appreciate and champion the formative powers of America’s wildest places.

Psychological and spiritual value: Wilderness provides solace for the over-stressed, an antidote to the frenetic pace of industrial life, a sanctuary for the deepest expressions of spiritual enrichment. The Huts for Vets program I run offers these benefits to veterans who need peace and comfort, which they find in wilderness.

Intrinsic value: This implies planetary humility, the extending of rights to all of nature, acknowledging that we humans have an ethical responsibility beyond our own species. Wilderness is a place to learn reverence for life, a value we need more than ever.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at

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