On my desk sits a spiral-bound sheaf of papers. If they look time-worn and dusty, it’s because they spent weeks in a backpack, getting carried up mountains during a youthful summer I spent in Montana. That they survived all the moves I’ve made since then, and still find a place on my bookshelf, is a testament to my packrat’s temperament.
“Backpacking for Credit” was not the official name of the college course that brought this reading material into my life, but that’s what we called it, the half-dozen of us who earned credits together that summer. Along with some old slides and memories, this spiral-bound document is all that remains of my time studying areas in Montana to see whether they should be recommended for Wilderness designation. That’s “Wilderness” with a capital “W” because the designations being sought required an act of Congress.
I pulled these old materials off the shelf a few weeks back, when I was invited to write an article for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine about the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Those making the assignment had no idea about my early brush with Wilderness. That I possess my own copy of the act, underlined and annotated as one does in earnest college days, might surprise them. That I’ve read Roderick Nash’s classic work “Wilderness and the American Mind” cover to cover would blow them away.
I love assignments like this. It’s a privilege to write about something that has mattered in my life, as well as in the world. My first draft weighed in at about double the assigned word count, partly because I had so much to say and partly because I wanted to recognize all the wise people (from Henry David Thoreau through Aldo Leopold to Wallace Stegner) who have written about wilderness, producing prose that echoes through the ages.
Much of that had to be cut, given the context and desired word count, but I still like the draft I produced. I wanted to convey something about why the Wilderness Act matters, which has to do with why wilderness itself matters. But in this case, oddly, I believe Congress said it best, in the Wilderness Act itself:
“In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” Wilderness Act of 1964, Sec. 2 (a)
An “enduring resource of wilderness.” For something written by Congress, it’s lovely, isn’t it?
The Wilderness Act turns 50 on Sept. 3. My article, currently titled “Theater of the Wild: Celebrating 50 years of the Wilderness Act,” is scheduled for publication in the September/October issue.