There are many good reasons given for establishing more designated wilderness in the United States. Wilderness designation preserves important ecological features and ecological processes. They can serve as fountainheads for our rivers and drinking supplies. Wilderness lands can provide us a place to recreation, relax, reflect, physically and mentally challenge ourselves. These are all valid reasons for preserving wilderness, and any of them alone would be sufficient reason to support wildlands preservation.
But there is yet another reason to support wilderness designation for the country. We are not creating wild landscapes by legislating wilderness areas—the wildness already exists and is waiting to express itself. Wilderness designation merely recognizes that we as a society feel it’s important to allow wildness to dominate the landscape. By legislating wilderness protection we are contributing to a great healing of the land as well as ourselves.
In a ritualistic sense, preserving wilderness is about preserving a part of our selves as well—our common humanity and humility. Wilderness designation is a gift to future generations. It is also a gift to each of us. It is recognition of limits; a willingness to draw a line in the sand and say here we relinquish control and begin to live with restraint.
Most of the United States has suffered great abuses from humankind. We have cut the forests, plowed the prairies, overgrazed the deserts, dammed rivers, drilled and mined much of the rest. A certain amount of exploitation is necessary to sustain life. But our relationship with the natural world has largely been wasteful and brutal. We have had a dysfunctional relationship with the rest of life on the planet.
Our culture and relationship to Nature has been based upon exploitation, not mutual acceptance; It has been more about manipulation, not cooperation and power and control; not love and kindness.
But in protecting wild places we adopt the best of our human traits. It requires restrain and an acceptance of limits. When we draw a line in the sand or a line on a map and say legally say that in this place, on this land, and upon this soil we will relinquish control, we free ourselves metaphysical and spiritually.
And by consciously making such a commitment to preserve wildlands, we demonstrate to ourselves that we can be a better people, and live in a better way with the natural world. By permitting the land to recover, to heal, to restore itself, we heal and restore ourselves at the same time.
This opportunity for healing, both of ourselves as well as the land, is perhaps more than any other reason, the great value of wilderness to society.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist, photographer and writer with 34 published books on natural history and environmental issues.