A traditional conservative take on wilderness

By JIM DIPESO, REP policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech at Golden Gate University Law School’s “Wild Ideas: George W. Bush on Wilderness and Wildlife” conference in San Diego, California, on September 13, 2003.


Yes, I am with a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection. For many people, that sounds like an oxymoron, sort of like diet ice cream or the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act.

But we’re a real organization with real members around the country in 49 states — although we’re still looking for that elusive first member in North Dakota.

My goal for this presentation is to show you why we’re not an oxymoron — that wilderness conservation is an American tradition, with a bipartisan pedigree. My colleagues on this panel will talk about the policy and legal ramifications of wilderness. I’m going to talk more about wilderness conservation as an expression of our values, because values are the soil from which the nation’s laws spring.

Let’s start with a profile of a congressman most people don’t remember but who had a critical role in passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

In the summer of 1956, Congressman John P. Saylor stood on the floor of Congress and gave an extraordinary speech about the American wilderness.

He quoted Thoreau and called preservation a great American tradition.

He talked about wilderness as a challenge, a way to ensure that American citizens don’t go soft amidst our nation’s material affluence.

He talked about wilderness fulfilling a deep need for areas of solitude and quiet, where people can find relief from jaded minds and tense nerves, restore peace, and realign their lives, if only temporarily, with the dawn-to-dusk rhythms that used to guide our lives since time immemorial.

Finally, he talked about wilderness as a moral compass that keeps us from getting too big for our britches. He said the following in his speech:

“In the wilderness, we can get our bearings. We can keep from getting blinded in our great human success to the fact that we are part of the life of this planet.”

John Saylor was a co-sponsor of the Wilderness Act and the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. During the 1950s, he fought the proposed Echo Park Dam within Dinosaur National Monument, the battle that launched the modern conservation movement. He even fought his fellow Pennsylvanians over a dam on the Allegheny River.

John Saylor was a conservative Republican. Yet he was a strong advocate of protecting wilderness and wild rivers.

Is this a contradiction? No it is not. Conservation is conservative. Yet today, many of today’s political leaders who call themselves conservative are hostile to conservation.

Their notions take little notice of our history and traditions.

One of the philosophical taproots of America’s conservation achievements is “traditional conservatism” — what some may call paleo-conservatism.

Edmund Burke was an 18th century British statesman and philosopher who is often thought of as the father of traditional conservatism. Burke was a practical man who sought concrete answers to public policy problems. One of his precepts was that society is an intergenerational contract. The present generation has an ethical obligation to secure the achievements of past generations and to deliver them intact to future generations.

Traditional conservatives value freedom and limited government greatly but they also value order, since freedom yields its sweetest fruits in an orderly society.

Protecting the wild heritage that inspires us and also serves as part of our global life support system can certainly be thought of as promoting an orderly society.

So, let’s take a quick tour of American history and see how the wilderness conservation ethic evolved and the role Republicans played in that.

The American conservation movement emerged in the mid-19th century. As our nation grew and expanded, there was a growing sense of unease that we were losing wilderness, a fount of our nation’s beauty, vitality, and its culture of democracy, mobility and individual enterprise.

People realized that the natural resources of our continent were abundant, but not unlimited. The passenger pigeon is a case in point. In the early years of the 19th century, passenger pigeons filled our nation’s skies by the billions. Their flocks darkened the sky at noon. Sometimes, so many would roost in trees, the branches would break. Less than a century later, in 1914, the last passenger pigeon on Earth died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha. It took us less than a century to shoot them all out of the sky and destroy their habitat.

The first step on the hundred-year road to the Wilderness Act took place in 1864, when Abraham Lincoln signed a bill deeding Yosemite Valley to the state of California for a park. President Lincoln’s action set an important national precedent – reserving a natural landscape for public recreation and viewing pleasure.

Another reason for protecting wild lands that was well known in the 19th century was their concrete value as sources of clean water. That’s why the New York State Constitution has a clause in it declaring the Adirondacks to be forever wild.

That clause was not the brainchild of hippie vegetarians looking out for the flowers or the tweetie birds. It was the handiwork of very practical New York City businessmen who wanted an assured source of water for the city’s needs.

Today, we know that wildlands produce other valuable goods and services in addition to clean water. More on that later.

Forest conservation was always high in Theodore Roosevelt‘s mind. He set the conservation gold standard during his presidency. Eighteen national monuments, 55 bird and game preserves, five national parks, and 130 million acres of national forests, all set aside on his watch. His administration put conservation front and center onto the nation’s agenda.

Roosevelt had a lifelong interest in natural history and wildlife, but his conservation achievements stemmed from something much deeper — his insight that conservation was essential to securing the nation’s strength and prosperity long into the future. Conservation is our ethical obligation to unborn generations.

Many point out that Roosevelt was a utilitarian conservationist — he was interested in protecting forests for their timber supplies. That was true. But Roosevelt also had a preservationist streak in him. He wanted special lands and wildlife protected because they were beautiful, not just because they were useful.

He said some places should just be left alone. At the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1903, he said:

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

The 1964 Wilderness Act was the fruit of a revived conservation movement, concerned by the nation’s rapid growth and informed by the ground-breaking ecological ideas of Aldo Leopold. Leopold said that we are an inseparable part of a community — the land community. As he put it in a seminal essay,

“a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

The Wilderness Act and other conservation laws passed in the 1960s and ’70s were the combined work of both Republicans and Democrats.

The Wilderness Act was remarkable, opening with a simple statement of hope and vision. It established clear standards for identifying wilderness, a single management directive, and a process for adding new wilderness areas to the system that empowered citizens. Republican lawmakers, from California’s Tom Kuchel to Rhode Island’s John Chafee, played a role in both establishing initial wilderness areas and expanding the system. Today, the system encompasses 106 million acres in 44 states.

1964 was a long time ago. Today, Republican leaders who care about wilderness conservation are small in number. Today, we hear that wilderness conservation locks up land, costs too much, abridges our freedom, or is part of a plot to undermine market capitalism. Land protection, like many other environmental issues, has become deeply polarized.

For example, legislation has been introduced to weaken the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law used by presidents in both parties to establish more than 100 national monuments that protect our nation’s natural and historical heritage.

Two of those presidents were such well-known left-wingers as Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge. Do you enjoy the beauty of Death Valley in the winter? You can thank Herbert Hoover for its protection. Have you ever been to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska? Thank Calvin Coolidge, who set it aside as a million-and-a-half acre national monument in 1925.

Curiously, some of those who say environmental protection is an example of overbearing government are often allied with commercial interests that benefit from government largesse that leaves depletion and pollution in its wake.

For example, sugar protectionism costs consumers billions of dollars. They also create perverse incentives to maintain a sugar industry in a Florida ecosystem not well suited for it, which has nearly wrecked the Everglades. Now, we have to spend billions restoring the Everglades.

There are more such examples, including the 1872 Mining Law, which has created a socialist paradise for the hard-rock mining industry.

Now, we hear Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader, say that opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling is a necessary precedent for opening other protected lands to commodity production.

Efforts to sweep aside land protections and push man’s works into the remotest reaches of wild nature reflect a disturbing arrogance that science will ultimately allow us to know everything, technology will allow us to do everything, and the market will allow us to buy everything.

There is a great deal at stake in resolving these debates, much more so than in Theodore Roosevelt’s time.

Untrammeled nature is under the gun 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. We are fragmenting habitat, the natural matrix that Aldo Leopold called the energy circuit that keeps us all alive. We are in the process of abrogating Edmund Burke’s intergenerational contract.

How do we find solutions? We could learn from an emerging socio-political subculture in this country that goes by the name “crunchy conservatism.” Crunchy conservatives are people who value natural beauty and worry greatly that sprawl and ugliness will destroy community, old values, and spiritual integrity.

The crunchies are telling us that conservatives can safely navigate environmental issues by returning to an older, less politicized conservative tradition that forms a deep attachment to permanent things.

So, let’s talk about George W. Bush and wilderness.

I believe he has a bond with the land that is genuine. You don’t go out and cut invasive plants in 100-degree Texas heat if you don’t appreciate the value of stewardship. I just wish that the care he gives his own land would translate into more thoughtful policies for caring for the public lands we all own. The Interior Department is in the process of expunging the word “wilderness” from the dictionary.

Why should President Bush care about adding more protected wilderness, beyond the 106 million acres we have today? There are good conservative reasons why, both concrete and intangible.

I hesitate to bring up the economic reasons for wilderness, because too often, these debates reflect a narrow mentality that only dollars and cents matter in our judgments about public policy. Nevertheless, in a society based on market capitalism, economics is a legitimate point of departure.

Wilderness has economic value — wilderness recreation yields about $30 per visitor-day in recreation spending, according to a 2001 study published in the International Journal of Wilderness.

More importantly, wilderness provides essential goods and services that we cannot do without. Protected wilderness is not locked up. It’s busy working for us. Clean water is one essential good. Another is carbon storage for regulating the atmosphere. An article in the peer-reviewed science journal Nature estimated that the value of carbon storage alone in temperate forests is $35 per acre per year. That works out to $1 billion in carbon storage services provided by wilderness forests in the Lower 48 every year.

Wilderness is a laboratory of the physical and social sciences. If we leave nature largely to its own devices in carefully chosen, representative ecosystems, we just might learn something about how nature works and about the relationship of people to the land.

In learning more about wilderness, we ought to broaden the array of ecosystems protected as wilderness — more tall-grass prairies, for example, more lowland forests, even marine environments. There is an emerging movement to broaden the wilderness protection idea to marine waters — ocean wilderness.

In doing so, we need to find more collegial ways of both expanding the system and managing what we have. The development of the Nevada wilderness bill signed into law last year was a good example of what I mean. All the interest groups worked it out at the conference table, under the tactful guidance of Republican Senator Ensign and Democratic Senator Reid. No one got everything they wanted, but it was a good bargain that showed polarization is not destiny.

Now, let’s close with those intangible benefits of wilderness that John Saylor spoke of so well. Wilderness is a refuge where families can strengthen ties frayed by over-scheduled busy-ness. We need a few places where we can experience freedom, slowness and transcendence, away from noise and the trivial distractions of pop culture.

Wilderness connects us to the wild America of our forefathers, a fount of our nation’s vitality. Wilderness is a living Smithsonian Institution of those cussed mountains, deserts, and prairies that forged our nation’s history and unique character. Wilderness is the greatest American history book imaginable.

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, conservative virtues of prudence, self-discipline and moderation in all things.

Wilderness is for everybody, everywhere, all the time, past, present and future. Wilderness truly is an expression of democracy. Thank you.