The value of wilder­ness

We are on track to wipe out half of the wilder­ness in the world in the next 35 years

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Noah Comet Noah Comet is a pro­fes­sor at the U.S. Naval Academy, a con­ser­va­tion­ist, wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher and avid hiker. His email is

We have just been asked to ab­sorb some shock­ing news, cour­tesy of a study pub­lished in the jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­ogy: In the past 20 years hu­mans de­stroyed 10 per­cent — over1mil­lion square miles — of the planet’s wilder­ness. With­out de­ci­sive ac­tion, we will prob­a­bly de­stroy all that re­mains un­pro­tected by 2050; and that is a large ex­panse, ap­proach­ing 20 per­cent of the planet’s en­tire land-area.

This in­for­ma­tion ar­rives at a time when en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism is on sounder foot­ing than ever be­fore. Some of us will re­mem­ber the Rea­gan years, when it wasn’t un­com­mon to see bumper stick­ers bear­ing the slo­gan “Earth First! We’ll log the other plan­ets later.” Such sar­casm is far less preva­lent in 2016. Many on the right now find it stylish both to view the planet in mer­ce­nary terms — as so many min­er­als and strip malls — and to ad­vo­cate for pro­tect­ing cer­tain places from de­vel­op­ment. At the 100th an­niver­sary of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, we wit­nessed the bi­par­ti­san spirit of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism at work when Demo­crat Barack Obama (our most con­ser­va­tion-minded pres­i­dent in terms of acreage saved) quadru­pled the size of a marine pre­serve in Hawaii that was es­tab­lished by his pre­de­ces­sor, Repub­li­can George W. Bush. More­over, hunters and fish­er­men — groups that trend Repub­li­can — have in­creas­ingly come to back the en­vi­ron­men­tal causes their li­cens­ing fees sup­port. As we bet­ter un­der­stand the link be­tween eco-stew­ard­ship and healthy game, we also see one form­ing be­tween con­ser­va­tion and con­ser­vatism.

It’s not all op­ti­mism, of course. There are some who will re­main un­con­vinced. For ex­am­ple, the Am­mon Bundy crowd may op­pose fed­eral pro­tec­tions on prin­ci­ple (as gov­ern­ment over­reach), and they have vo­cal cham­pi­ons in Congress. And even with fur­ther gov­ern­ment set-asides and reg­u­la­tions, we will be play­ing catchup for decades as the reper­cus­sions of past en­vi­ron­men­tal abuses con­tinue to ap­pear: One thinks of the re­cent fish die-off on the Yel­low­stone River; more wor­ri­some still, the record re­treat of Antarc­tic sea ice.

Add to this our cur­rent Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, who has called cli­mate change a Chi­nese hoax (even if he hopes to walk that claim back now). But what­ever the bat­tles to come, there is rea­son to be­lieve that com­mon sense and re­al­ism are win­ning the over­all war against ne­glect and out­right hos­til­ity on the Hik­ers ex­plore the sum­mit of South Sis­ter, west of Bend, Ore. Of­fi­cials are con­sid­er­ing lim­it­ing ac­cess to the most pop­u­lar re­gions of the Three Sis­ters Wilder­ness area in the Cas­cade Moun­tains to main­tain their wilder­ness char­ac­ter. en­vi­ron­men­tal front. A Mon­mouth poll from Jan­uary sug­gests that 70 per­cent of Amer­i­cans now ac­cept cli­mate change as real even if they dif­fer on its causes.

What in­ter­ests me is a ba­sic ques­tion: What is the con­cep­tual value of wilder­ness? Why do we need large ar­eas that are im­pen­e­tra­ble to us?

The an­swer can’t be about beauty or sub­lim­ity. Yes, many of these places are spec­tac­u­lar, but only in the eyes of some, and such value judg­ments are du­bi­ously po­lit­i­cal. Ad­di­tion­ally, some of our wilder­ness ar­eas are down­right mo­not­o­nous — stands of de­cid­u­ous trees that, scale aside, re­sem­ble a sub­ur­ban back­yard.

Sadly, the an­swer can’t be about wildlife and bio­di­ver­sity, ei­ther. While I would save ev­ery bee, bird and bear in their natural sur­round­ings, I have met many peo­ple over the years who are con­tent to rel­e­gate wildlife to zoos.

The an­swer is more elu­sive. The wilder­ness has al­ways been both a real and imag­i­nary fron­tier, and the lat­ter de­pends on the for­mer. In epic quests and fairy­tales we have strayed into fic­tional wilder­nesses that have, in turn, in­spired us to value the real thing. We don’t yet have other plan­ets to log, but even if and when we do, think about the psy­chic toll we will pay when a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren must read the Broth­ers Grimm or Tolkien or Thoreau with no real-world corol­lary to the green, shady places they ex­plore — here, on this planet. And this would not only be a loss of con­text for un­der­stand­ing imag­i­na­tions past; it would di­min­ish what we might imag­ine in the fu­ture. En­tire cul­tures, re­li­gions and tribal iden­ti­ties have emerged from the wilder­ness; what will emerge from its dis­ap­pear­ance?

Wilder­ness rep­re­sents mys­tery, potential and the free space of imag­i­na­tive play, with­out which in­no­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity stag­nate. If you don’t be­lieve me, con­sider how many of our great in­no­va­tors have also been read­ers of sci­ence fic­tion and how many of their fa­vorite au­thors based their oth­er­worldly cre­ations and land­scapes on worldly wilder­nesses.

It would be a new kind of poverty to live on a planet de­void of such ex­panses, fully ex­tracted, mon­e­tized and dis­cov­ered. We need the wilder­ness — and we value it in abun­dance — be­cause the paean to “progress” must also and al­ways be an ode to the stone un­turned.


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