Wilderness: Where Life Begins
What is wilderness? It’s a word that means different things to different people. For many, it’s understood in the general sense as a natural area or an open space untouched by humans, such as an uncultivated forest. For others, it’s a place to recreate and experience nature – a place to hike, backpack, climb, kayak, snowshoe, or ski. For you, the word might bring a particular area to mind, and the friends and memories you’ve made there.
While I think of general wilderness in all these ways, particular areas immediately come to my mind. I think of the official “wilderness” areas I’ve visited countless times in Washington State, where I reside. These areas include the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the Mount Baker Wilderness, and the Mount Rainier Wilderness, to name a few. After moving from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest in 2013, it was there where I gained a transforming sense of curiosity, inspiration, and renewal. It’s not an overstatement to say these areas slowly shaped how I saw my place in this world and ultimately changed what I do from day to day.
In fact, Congress has legally designated these areas as “wilderness” under the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created our country’s national wilderness preservation system. By virtue of their legal designation as “wilderness,” these areas enjoy the highest level of conservation protection for federal lands.
So, why designate an area as “wilderness” under the Act? It ensures each designated area is “untrammeled by man,” and maintains its status as “undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation.” This wilderness is primarily affected by the forces of nature, not the forces of mankind. It’s where we are merely visitors who do not remain.
Although I’m an avid hiking, backpacker, and climber in the Pacific Northwest, I more recently had the opportunity to visit the State of Alaska and experience several of its natural areas and wildernesses, including the Denali Wilderness and Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness. It was there in our country’s “last frontier” where I gained an even greater sense of wildness. The sweeping landscapes, the widespread wildlife, and the pristine terrain. The Denali backcountry, in particular, with its unspoiled wilds, left me with a new understanding of “wilderness.”
While Congress has designated over a hundred millions of acres of federal public land as wilderness, there are still many areas in need of this heightened level of conservation protection.
In Alaska, one such area is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which includes 19 million acres of land. The Arctic Refuge is the home to polar and brown bears, wolves, muskoxen, caribou, many species of fish and migratory birds, and so much more life. For hundreds of generations, the native Gwich’in people of Alaska and northern Canada have depended on this land and, in particular, its 169,000-member Porcupine caribou herd as a way of life. Indeed, the Arctic Refuge, in the Gwich’in language, means “the sacred place where life begins.”
Today, the Arctic Refuge does not enjoy protected “wilderness” status under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Unlike so many special areas to you and me, the Arctic Refuge does not currently benefit from the heightened level of conservation protection.
With this lack of protection comes the risk of exploitation. The Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain region, in particular, which itself includes over 1 million acres of land, is threatened by the possibility of oil drilling and industrial development. If immediate action isn’t taken, the fossil fuel industry may take advantage of the Arctic Refuge and forever impact its natural resources and wildlife.
This leads to you. You have the opportunity to help ensure the survival of the community of life that calls the Arctic Refuge home. You can decide to be indifferent. Or you can decide to take action. The choice is yours.
If you’re like me, you believe the Arctic Refuge and its coastal plain region is worthy of official wilderness protection. Having experienced the awesome wilderness areas here in the contiguous United States as well as in Alaska, I believe the Arctic Refuge should retain its primeval character – that it should be protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition.
Now, today, take steps to recognize the intrinsic value of these wild lands. Do so “for the permanent good of the whole people,” the same rationale underlying the historic Wilderness Act of 1964. Do so for present and future generations, so they too can experience the benefits of our enduring wild lands.