Grasslands Wilderness: Its Time Has Come

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech at the Grasslands Wilderness Symposium in Rapid City, South Dakota on November 13, 2003.


Good afternoon. I am Jim DiPeso from Republicans for Environmental Protection. Two pieces of housekeeping I’d like to take care of before I get into the meat of my talk.

Number one. Yes, we know, Republicans for Environmental Protection sounds like the world’s funniest oxymoron, sort of like “working vacation” or, my personal favorite, “the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act.” But, all kidding aside, we’re a real organization — ordinary people who identify with the Republican Party and are working to get our party’s leadership back onto a constructive track when it comes to protecting America’s natural heritage.

Number two. I am acutely aware that I stand between you and the next item on our agenda, which is the cash bar. I’ve been given 30 minutes and by God, if I know what’s good for me, I’ll keep it to 30 minutes.

A few weeks ago, as I was flying home from West Virginia, I looked down at a most amazing sight. Several miles below were the corn, sorghum and pasture lands of the Great Plains, all marked out in quarter-mile sections, as if giants had passed the time at an old-time quilting bee.

Then, I imagined another amazing sight: grasslands as they were, say, 200 years ago, when Lewis & Clark were moving their way up the Missouri River here in South Dakota.

For someone like me who was born, raised, and lives in a landscape dominated by mountains, the eye is overpowered by the vast scale of a prairie landscape stretching to the sky at all points of the compass. I am reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s reflections on what he called “the wide waste places of the Earth, unworn of man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting.”
Slow change — sounds like something a conservative would approve of. Left to her own devices, Mother Nature does things conservatively – keeping things in balance, requiring her charges to earn their own keep, looking out for the long term, and above all, not wasting anything.

That’s why wilderness conservation and conservatism go well together. Now, I know that these days, such a notion strikes people as odd. Some of my fellow Republicans in Congress and the administration seem indifferent and, in many cases, even hostile to the idea of protecting a few places where plants, animals, soils, water, and the other countless, sublime denizens of the wild can be left in peace to work out their own destinies.

Which is really a shame. Because if you do a little genealogical research on the wilderness conservation movement’s family tree, you’ll find a fair number of Republicans there — some people you’ve heard of, maybe some you haven’t heard of.

We fear that many of our party leaders have taken a wrong turn. We want them to grasp a simple idea – that conservation is conservative. REP, the national grassroots organization of Republicans for Environmental Protection, feels so strongly about that idea that we have even taken out service mark protection for “Conservation is conservative.” But feel free to use the phrase in your conversations.

Let’s take a brief ride through American history, climb that family tree and see some of those conservative Republicans who worked to protect our great American landscapes.

Let’s review some of the traditional conservative values that support the need for land protection. And then let’s return to the present and look out at the future, where we’ll see that some of those traditional conservative ideas make powerful arguments for expanding the wilderness conservation ideal — to the native grasslands of South Dakota and other ecosystems worthy of protection.
First, let’s talk about a few of those traditional conservative values. One is the idea of intergenerational equity. In the 18th century, a conservative British statesman and philosopher named Edmund Burke talked about society as an intergenerational contract – we of the present generation have an ethical obligation to secure the achievements of past generations and deliver them, intact, to unborn generations.

It is not within the present generation’s rights to, as he put it, “commit waste upon the inheritance.”

There is the cardinal conservative virtue of prudence, of looking before you leap and avoiding irreversible errors rooted in the rash conceit that we always know what we’re doing. As conservative author Richard Weaver wrote decades ago, “we live in a universe which was given to us, in the sense that we did not create it; and we don’t understand very much of it.Therefore, make haste slowly.”

I will leave you with one more traditional conservative value and that is reverence – reverence for the awesome beauty and power of untamed creation, which provides us with the air, water, topsoil, green plants, and hospitable climate that supports our existence.

I am reminded of Herbert Hoover‘s quotation about the joys of fishing: He said, “It’s a chance to wash one’s soul with pure air, with the rush of the brook, or with the shimmer of the sun on the blue water. It brings meekness and inspiration from the decency of nature, charity toward tackle makers, patience toward fish, a mockery of profits and egos, a quieting of hate, a rejoicing that you do not have to decide a darned thing until next week. And it is discipline in the equality of men, for all men are equal before fish.”

Yes, I know, Herbert Hoover will be forever tarred in our collective memory for his ineffectual response to the Great Depression. But let’s give the Great Engineer his due for his unremembered conservation achievements. Herbert Hoover expanded our national park system by 40 percent. His legacy includes expanded protection for the Grand Canyon, and national monuments such as White Sands in New Mexico, Death Valley in California, Arches in Utah, Saguaro in Arizona, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River in Colorado.
Herbert Hoover was a conservative, one of those forgotten names in our wilderness family tree who believed that outdoor recreation was a counterbalance to the decadence he feared would arise in lives overly focused on materialism.

If we continue to roam about the wilderness conservation family tree we will see two famous names whose faces are forever etched in stone on Mount Rushmore: Abraham Lincoln, the first and greatest Republican, and Theodore Roosevelt, the most learned naturalist ever to sit in the Oval Office.

Writers from Frederick Jackson Turner to Wallace Stegner have commented eloquently on the formative influence of the frontier in shaping the unique blend of enterprise, community, freedom, equality, and practicality that is our American national character. Mr. Lincoln was perhaps the finest example of the American character. Half a century ago, biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote of Lincoln:

“The traits of birds and farmyard animals, the majesty of forests, plains and rivers, the beauty, the mystery, the bounty, and the dreadfulness of nature quickened his imagination, bestirred his reflections, and increasingly adorned his speech.”

His presidency, of course, was occupied by the conflicts of man against man rather than man against nature. But in 1864, at the Civil War’s bloodiest height, he found time to sign a bill deeding Yosemite Valley to the state of California for use as a public park.

The Yosemite precedent opened the door and Republican presidents, congressmen, and state leaders walked through it, establishing Yellowstone National Park in 1872, passing the Forest Reserve Act in 1891, declaring the Adirondacks “forever wild” in 1894.

All of which set the stage for the spectacular conservation achievements of Theodore Roosevelt. So many of the landscapes that we cherish today were protected on his watch or as result of his inspiration.

About 100 miles southeast of here in Bennett County is the Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge, a great place to see High Plains trumpeter swans, pelicans, and other waterfowl.

National wildlife refuges were Theodore Roosevelt’s idea. A hundred years ago he established the first one in Florida to protect the waterfowl there. Now, we have more than 500 covering 95 million acres in all 50 states.

Thanks to the authority granted by the Antiquities Act, which was passed by a Republican Congress,TR established 18 national monuments, including Jewel Cave just south of here. Five national parks were created during his presidency. And, 130 million acres of national forests.

Theodore Roosevelt was a hunter, birder, and naturalist, but his reasons for conservation were much broader than his personal interests in the outdoors. Roosevelt’s greatest insight was that conservation was essential to keeping America strong and secure, for generations to come.

Roosevelt believed in keeping up his generation’s end of that intergenerational contract. As he said,

“We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages.”

He talked about conservation as a strategy to help us live within our means.

It is true that Roosevelt’s conservationism had a utilitarian bent. One of the reasons he established national forests was to ensure their scientific management as assured sources of timber for a growing nation.

But Roosevelt also had a preservationist streak in him. During his 1903 Western tour, he chastised the good people of Santa Cruz, California, for pasting advertising posters on a stately redwood tree. He said some places should just be left alone. At the rim of the Grand Canyon, on that same Western tour, he told his countrymen:

“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

In 1908, at his White House Conference on Conservation, he said,

“Natural resources are the final basis of national power and perpetuity.”

In 1910, he said,

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”

Keep America strong. National power. Living within our means. Patriotism. Those, my friends, are the words of a true conservative defending his homeland.

TR’s record and his charisma tend to overshadow other Republicans who were conservation leaders, but let’s not forget them.

Congressman John Weeks, whose name is on the 1911 law that authorized national forests east of the Mississippi River.

President Calvin Coolidge, Silent Cal, who established large national monuments in Alaska, California, and Idaho.

President Dwight Eisenhower, who set aside a huge wildlife sanctuary on the north coast of Alaska that today we call the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Senator Barry Goldwater, champion of the Grand Canyon. Late in life, he did something that some may consider to be unusual behavior for a politician. He admitted he was wrong. He told a TV interviewer that he shouldn’t have voted to build the Glen Canyon Dam.

Dare I mention his name, President Richard Nixon, who got Congress to pass the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, and many other beneficial laws that have made our nation stronger and healthier. In 1970, he went before Congress, handed them a 37-point environmental platform, and said it’s now or never to protect our environment.

And one of my personal favorites, Congressman John Saylor from Pennsylvania. As conservative a Republican as you could find in Congress during the mid-20th century, John Saylor was one of the most relentless, dogged advocates for wilderness conservation our nation has ever seen.

One day, Saylor was hiking through what is now Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona. He spotted a tourist picking up a piece of petrified wood and pocketing it as a souvenir. Saylor was a big man. He had a loud voice. And he liked to use it too. He strode purposefully over to the man and bellowed at him: “Put that back, it’s mine!” “What do you mean it’s yours?” the man replied defiantly. Congressman Saylor said that if every person takes away a piece from our common inheritance, soon there will be nothing left to pass on to future generations. We hope that that piece of petrified wood is still in its rightful place in the Arizona desert.

We have John Saylor to thank for sponsoring the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. I might add that one of the early co-sponsors of the Wilderness Act was Senator Karl Mundt, Republican of South Dakota.

Saylor fought the proposed Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument. He fought his own state’s congressional delegation, unsuccessfully, over a dam on the Allegheny River.

Like Theodore Roosevelt, John Saylor had a well-thought out, conservative philosophy of wilderness conservation. On the floor of Congress, in 1956, he laid it out:

Number one, wilderness is a form of national defense, a toughening experience that will prevent our people from, in his words, “deteriorating in luxury and ripening for the hardy conquerors of another century.”


Number two, wilderness is a place to seek refuge and restoration from what he called the “stress and strain of our crowded, fast-moving, highly-mechanized and raucously noisy civilization.”


Number three, and perhaps most important, wilderness is a place where we can get a much-needed dose of humility, that, in his words, “we are part of the life of this planet and would do well to keep our perspectives and keep in touch with some of the basic facts of life.”

The year 1956 was a long time ago. Today, such words challenge current dogmas that call for pushing man’s works into the farthest reaches of remote nature for quick gain.

Wilderness has become just another issue, one more piñata for the ideologues and the mendacious to bat around in that baffling city by the Potomac. Debate about the environment has been cheapened and distorted with vacuous sound bites: “jobs vs. owls. Fish vs. farmers.”

Some Democratic partisans want the issue all to themselves. Some Republican partisans play into their hands by dismissing legitimate environmental concerns.

For both parties, such game playing is entirely wrong-headed. Too much is at stake, much more so than in Theodore Roosevelt’s or John Saylor’s eras.

Untrammeled nature is being squeezed everywhere. Our world has become more crowded, our technology more powerful, and our consumption more demanding. When the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, we Americans numbered 190 million. Now we number 290 million. By 2050, we may be at 390 million.

Losing the wild would cost us the fount of our vitality. In protecting the wild, we are protecting ourselves.

We must protect the wilderness areas we have, and add new wilderness areas. We especially need new wilderness areas in ecosystems that perhaps lack the glamour of mountains and forests but are no less precious and no less beautiful.

Let me start with the native prairies of the Great Plains. REP is pleased to say that we endorse the Cheyenne River Valley proposal to add nearly 75,000 acres of South Dakota grasslands to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Grasslands have extraordinary ecological and cultural value. For giving today’s and tomorrow’s Americans a tangible connection to our nation’s history, it is vital to protect examples of prairie that drew our pioneer forebears seeking hope.

Let me suggest another ecosystem that is not represented at all within the National Wilderness Preservation System: the seabeds, coral gardens, and kelp forests of our nation’s marine waters.

I know South Dakota is a long way from the oceans that touch our nation. But even here in the heartland, America’s wild marine waters enrich, inspire and support life. The American sodbusters in Conestoga wagons crossing the prairie ocean and the American mariners in barkentines crossing the deep ocean were equally shaped by the wild.

The time has come to extend the concept of wilderness protection to our territorial waters.

There are other ecosystems that are due larger representation as protected wilderness: red rock deserts in Utah, bayou forests in Mississippi, beech forests in Pennsylvania, and of course, the incomparable coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

We must protect these special places for sound, conservative reasons.

Earlier, I spoke of three conservative values that support wilderness conservation:

  1. The contract we have with unborn generations, those Americans whom Theodore Roosevelt referred to as lying within the womb of time.
  2. Reverence for creation.
  3. And prudence, the art of thoughtful care and of first doing no harm.

Let me explore prudence a bit as I begin to wind this up. Wilderness is much more than postcard-pretty scenery. Wilderness provides essential goods and services. Just because wilderness lands are not producing commodities does not mean they are, quote “locked up.”
Wilderness produces clean water, clean air, fish, and wildlife. Wilderness is a barrier against the spread of invasive species. And wilderness stores carbon in wood, leaves, and soil. For example, an article in the science journal Nature estimates that every acre of temperate forests provides $35 worth of carbon storage services every year.

But let’s move beyond dollars and cents, lest we narrow our judgment. Wilderness is a laboratory of both the physical and social sciences, which can teach us much about how nature works and about our relationship with the land, if we care to listen.
Wilderness is a refuge where families can strengthen ties attenuated by over-scheduled busy-ness. We need a few places where we can experience transcendence. Wilderness is a place of solitude and freedom from the noise and shackles of industrial civilization. Wilderness invites us to take a personal journey like Huck Finn’s and “light out for the territory.”

Wilderness is a trust that embodies our ethical obligation to keep options open for unborn generations in the unknowable future. As former National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy said, we need to cultivate an ethic under which humans practice the selfless virtues of prudence, moderation, and self-discipline.

So, let’s add the great South Dakota grasslands to our National Wilderness Preservation System, which is a lasting treasure for everyone, everywhere, for all time.