It was a hot day in July 1985. I was stuffed in a minivan with my two sisters, my brother, and my parents. We had driven ten hours from Los Angeles, through the Mojave Desert and into northern Arizona. Somewhere along the way I dozed off, and I finally woke up just as we pulled into a parking lot at the rim of the Grand Canyon. I stumbled out of the car, rubbed my eyes in the late afternoon sun, and what I saw was almost beyond the ability of my 13-year-old brain to comprehend – one of the most amazing sights in the world.
Nine decades before I saw the Grand Canyon from a minivan, John Muir, the Sierra Club’s founder, saw the same view from a steam train. “You come suddenly and without warning,” he wrote, “upon the abrupt edge of a gigantic sunken landscape of the wildest, most multitudinous features.” He said it was impossible to describe it. And then, being John Muir, he wrote an 8,000-word magazine story to do exactly that. He was compelled to convey that experience to his thousands of readers who had never been west of the Mississippi.
In any case, I think John Muir had it right when he said that the Grand Canyon can’t be fully captured by a painting or by words. You can’t get that experience on YouTube or Facebook. I don’t think even a 3-D Imax movie is up to it. You have to experience the Grand Canyon for yourself, just as I did – and as more than 4 million people from all over the world do every year.
Believe it or not, there are people who question whether we should protect places like the Grand Canyon. They don’t see the value of such protection. Or, in some cases, they’re more concerned about the value of the natural resources that such protection might place off-limits to development.
For me, the value of wild places is, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, something I hold to be “self-evident.” It’s been self-evident ever since that day in Arizona. And I know the importance of wild places is also self-evident for most Americans. Just think back to the uproar and outrage when our national parks were shut down last year. A poll found that 70 percent of American voters say it is very important for the federal government to permanently protect and conserve public lands “for future generations.”
It wasn’t always that way, though.
When Muir saw the Grand Canyon, it was unprotected. True, everyone who saw it was impressed. Just as the first European-Americans to see the giant sequoias were impressed – right before they started chopping them down.
Protection didn’t happen overnight, even for one of the most spectacular natural features of the planet. It happened gradually, with President Theodore Roosevelt making the Grand Canyon one of our first national monuments in 1908 – over the objections of mining companies. Not until 1919 was the Grand Canyon finally protected as a national park.
When you look at our history of protecting wild places, this is a recurring theme. Almost every time, it’s an uphill battle. Many of the challenges haven’t changed much in 100 years, either. Mining companies still want to dig in the Grand Canyon region – these days for uranium. Politicians still drag their feet when it comes to lands protection. When, earlier this year, Congress designated 32,500 acres of new wilderness along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, it was the first lands protection bill passed in more than five years.
Some things have gotten better, however, and we owe a lot of that progress to the Wilderness Act of 1964. The passage of the Wilderness Act did not change everything overnight. At best, it moved the needle from “next to impossible” to “really difficult.” But the Wilderness Act was a watershed moment for conservation – the beginning of a slow, steady march toward an enlightened policy. On the whole, it has been an extremely successful march. When the act was passed, the original wilderness areas covered 9.1 million acres and included mostly western high peaks. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System includes nearly 110 million acres in 758 wilderness areas stretching from the Brooks Range in northern Alaska, to islands off Cape Cod, to the deserts of the Southwest, to the cloud forests of Puerto Rico.
Every one of those 758 wilderness areas was championed by citizen activists – people who loved their particular prized piece of Earth and were determined that it not be exploited and destroyed for private profit. These passionate citizens and wilderness champions waged campaigns that sometimes took decades of hard work, heartache, and personal expense to secure.
Such sacrifice made possible an enduring legacy of wilderness for present and future generations. Most of us will never know their names, but the gift they gave us will last an eternity, thanks to the permanent protection guaranteed under the Wilderness Act.
That brings me to the wilderness issues we face today. Because our long march has not finished. We still face significant challenges – challenges that were unimaginable 50 years ago.
The first of these concerns the benefits of wild places – and, more specifically, how we can be sure that everyone has the opportunity to experience those benefits.
When you look at the history of protecting wild places, almost every time it’s an uphill battle.
Wild places, of course, are essential to the survival of countless species. We are not saving them simply because humans enjoy them. But it’s also true that while parks and wilderness areas are open to all, remote wilderness areas today are predominantly used by the same white recreationists who started the conservation movement more than a century ago.
Love of nature is shared by people of all cultures. All too frequently, though, there are barriers that make it more difficult for those with low-incomes and people of color to experience nature and wilderness. Wilderness advocates need to join with our natural allies to remove these barriers and form a powerful partnership to protect wilderness and wildness for everyone. This will also broaden and deepen the movement of those demanding more protection for wild places and for action on climate disruption.
Even as we continue to discover just how important wildness is, our wild places are facing their greatest threat ever from global warming. The promise of the Wilderness Act was that, once we established a wilderness area, it would be protected forever. Human-caused climate disruption is eroding that promise. You don’t have to look hard to find grim predictions. Scientists project that Joshua trees may no longer be able to grow in Joshua Tree National Park Wilderness. We could lose up to 90 percent of our native amphibians and native trout and salmon. By the middle of this century there may be no glaciers left in Glacier National Park.
All are reasons why the Sierra Club, which has spent more than 100 years defending wilderness, has made it our number one priority to replace the dirty energy sources that are causing climate disruption. We have not forgotten our roots or abandoned the wilderness cause. But we have realized that the most important thing we can do to defend wilderness, nature, and humanity, is to address climate disruption.
Today’s Sierra Club wants to do for clean energy what John Muir did 120 years ago for wilderness.
At the same time, we need to establish large, landscape-level protection plans that spread across public and private lands. As the climate warms, many species will need to shift to new habitats where they can survive, frequently migrating up in elevation or toward the poles to find the acceptable climatic conditions. Many species will be able to survive only if there is a protected corridor that makes migration possible.
Our work is far from finished. Although we have protected more than 250 million acres of parks, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, national monuments, and other preserves, we still have a lot to do. On top of that, we have a deadline. We don’t have another 120 years to finish this job. The next 100 million acres will need to be protected by this generation and the next – otherwise, it will be too late.
Ultimately, why do we do all of this?
With apologies to John Muir, I think the most eloquent case for protecting wild places was made by the novelist Wallace Stegner, who was elected to the Sierra Club’s board of directors in 1964, the same year that the Wilderness Act was passed. In what has come to be known as “the Wilderness Letter,” Stegner wrote:
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
I believe in that geography of hope. It’s why working to save the wild places is more than just our responsibility – it’s essential to our own sanity and salvation.
Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered earlier this year.
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