The Wild Side of Conservatism

By DAVID JENKINS, REP Government Affairs Director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This article first appeared in the C.E.P (Conservative Environmental Policy) Quarterly, Summer 2005, Vol. 1, #2


When Henry David Thoreau wrote “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” it is a good bet that he did not have the preservation of conservatism on his mind. The most profound truth contained in those words, however, is how critical wildness and wilderness are to the long-term maintenance of conservative values.

A more accurate statement would be “in Wildness is the preservation of conservatism and in conservatism is the preservation of the world.” Such a statement would come as a surprise both to wilderness opponents who consider themselves conservative and to wilderness advocates who consider themselves liberal.


Truly wild places inspire self-reliance, personal responsibility, faith and spiritual renewal.

Truly wild places inspire self-reliance, personal responsibility, faith and spiritual renewal in a world where those conservative values are constantly under assault. It is in wilderness that freedom is found in its most fundamental form, and from wilderness springs the headwaters that sustain mankind’s thirst for freedom.


By contrast, in our nation’s most urbanized areas, where natural wildness has been thoroughly subdued, conservative values have been eroded and in some cases are on the verge of disappearing. When people lose touch with the self-reliance, freedom and grandeur embodied in wilderness, the most basic foundations of conservatism are undermined.

American conservatism owes its existence and its longevity as much to the vast wilderness landscape that greeted our forefathers as it does to European thinkers like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. The American wilderness experience forged the ethic of responsibility, hard work and faith that not only informs our conservatism, but also underpins our resilience as a people and as a nation.



The willingness of people to rely on themselves and to accept personal responsibility for their actions is a core character trait essential to conservative ideology. Wilderness travel demands self-reliance and personal responsibility to an extent rarely found in modern society.

Those of us who venture into the wilderness quickly discover that making excuses and deflecting blame serve no useful purpose. The unforgiving nature of wilderness demands competence and prudence. Accepting the challenge of wilderness travel also means accepting the consequences of failure and shouldering that responsibility.

The small portion of Americans who still live at the edge of the wilderness, and who fully accept the challenges associated with the frontier life, also possess a clear understanding of what self-reliance and personal responsibility mean.

But for those who have lost their connection to the wilderness, the values of self-reliance and personal responsibility often give way. The government is increasingly relied upon and expected to meet peoples’ every need. Making excuses for one’s shortcomings is commonplace and blaming others for one’s own mistakes is often rewarded.



The willingness of individuals to engage in hard work and not shirk effort is an ethic not only fundamental to conservatism, it is also the heart of capitalism and the driving force behind our productivity as a nation. This ethic was forged in the American wilderness as our founders struggled to survive.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who valued wilderness and understood its positive impact on the American people, probably best captured the link between effort and character when he said:

“I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life; I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

Most modern Americans have little concept of the effort our predecessors expended in settling the land. Wilderness offers Americans their only remaining taste of the hard work required to survive in an untamed land. It is a great learning experience for Americans of today to rough it in true wilderness.

The effort required to travel by foot for many miles over wild and rugged terrain, to forego modern comforts, and to meet the elements with only what can be carried on one’s back builds character. It connects present day Americans with the internal strength that made our forefathers the great people they were.

We benefit greatly from modern conveniences, and they certainly represent progress, but they also weaken the toughness and work ethic that was born out of the American wilderness experience. Wild places and the effort required to enjoy them on their own terms serve to keep us grounded in what it means to be American.


Religious faith, Christianity and Judaism in particular, is the foundation of modern conservatism. The belief in God, the acceptance of Divine authority and the moral truth that stems from that authority through the scriptures have had — and continue to have — profound influence on conservative thought. If one subscribes to Divine authority and believes that God created the earth, wilderness is the most pristine example of His handiwork. Its intricate design and magnificent beauty provide testament to God’s existence and His glory. 


As more wilderness is lost and replaced with the works of man, God is made less visible and faith has less of an anchor.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus says:

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Wilderness, by revealing the wonders of nature in their untrammeled state, is uniquely able to reinforce
 mankind’s faith in God.

Therefore, people of faith should be the most ardent defenders of America’s remaining wilderness. It is an evangelical tool that mankind can never replicate.

As more wilderness is 
lost and replaced with
 the works of man, God
 is made less visible, faith has less of an anchor, conservatism suffers, and secular humanism gains a firmer hold in our society.



If we as a nation are to preserve the essential elements of conservatism, we must also preserve wilderness. This connection is lost on too many lawmakers who claim to be conservative yet vigorously oppose wilderness protection.

This opposition stems not from conservative ideology or tradition, but from a troubling combination of extreme libertarianism and the worship of material wealth. Those who adhere to such views are quick to eschew conservative values in the interest of placating the special interests that advance their political agendas.

Such agendas threaten America’s remaining wilderness. In some cases, the pristine beauty of wild places is a reason why they are coveted by those who seek to develop them for profit. In other cases, wilderness is seen solely as a warehouse of commodities that can be sold for profit. The shame in either case is that these profiteers see wilderness values mostly in terms of dollars and cents. Regardless of how little wilderness remains, there is always someone who is willing to trade it for profit.

Some of the most vocal opponents of protecting wilderness do so because they are unwilling to expend the effort required to experience it and learn from it as our forefathers did. They seek to make wilderness travel easy by opening it up to motorized vehicles. They care not that doing so destroys its wildness and undermines its intrinsic value to society.

With less than 5 percent the nation (half of that in Alaska) protected as wilderness, conservative columnist George Will pointed out one obvious problem with the opposition to wilderness that emanates from the motorized recreation community when he wrote:

“Pristine wilderness is an acquired taste and is incompatible with the enjoyment of some popular tastes such as dirt bikes, snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles. But surely there is no shortage of space in America for persons whose play must involve internal-combustion engines.”

Sacrificing the small amount of remaining wilderness for materialistic gain or convenience is not conservative. One of the primary dicta of conservative thought is to preserve what is worth saving.

From the time of Jesus until today, wilderness and its challenges have been a source of instruction, inspiration and strength for mankind. Wilderness keeps this nation con- nected to both its wild and religious heritage, and it perpetuates the conservative values that grew out of those traditions.

Wilderness is worth saving.