Jamie Williams

Of all the legislation passed by the US Congress, the Wilderness Act of 1964 is among the most eloquent. The law is distinguished by its poetic definition of a wild place: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

photo of a smiling man in a meadow fringed by pines in sunlight

The wilderness ideal was one of the animating forces of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American environmentalism. Today, however, in the era of climate change, the environmental movement has shifted from a focus on wildlands preservation to human self-preservation. Some voices in academia, and even within green groups, have argued that wilderness is now irrelevant, if not obsolete.

As president of The Wilderness Society, Jamie Williams is determined to make the case that wildlands remain as important as ever – as a spiritual and physical retreat for people, a refuge for wildlife, and a repository of biodiversity in a warming world. Williams grew up in Oklahoma, and as a kid spent a lot of time in the outdoors, including family trips to the Rocky Mountains. He has especially fond memories of a vacation to Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness when he was 13. The trip, he says, changed his life: “That really had a profound impact on me, and started getting me to think that I wanted to live a life like that and protecting places like that.”

Now, he’s committed to ensuring that all Americans have the opportunity for that same experience. “People come from different backgrounds, but our public lands brings us together as one nation,” he told me recently. “Everyone really cares about these places in their own way.”

The fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act’s passage is this year. What kind of an opportunity does it offer to reignite a spark for wilderness conservation?

I think it’s a huge opportunity to elevate the importance of wilderness to our country. Wilderness is so core to what makes this country unique and who we are as a nation. It’s vital to our well-being. I think the anniversary is a real opportunity to, as a country, take stock and reflect on where we’ve been. And also to really understand the importance of wilderness to our nation in moving forward. We need to continue to protect the wildlands that remain unprotected today.

There are some voices out there – Peter Kareiva who works for The Nature Conservancy would be one – who say that in the era of climate change, wilderness isn’t as important as it used to be, because every place is touched. What do you think about this new critique, and do you think we have to redefine wilderness for the twenty-first century?

Well, I think that the critique goes a little overboard in suggesting that we need to give up on one form of conservation for another. Really what it’s about is sustainability for nature and people. And to be sustainable we need green cities, we need sustainably managed working lands, and we need wildlands that renew our soul and our spirit and also are critical to sustaining wildlife and clean water and so many other things that are important to us.

But climate change does seem to be something of a game changer in that it’s harder to find a place that is “untrammeled by man.”

I think “untrammeled by man” was a very deliberate use of language. I think even when the Wilderness Act was created it was understood that potentially every place is affected by human beings, which is why the authors of the act didn’t say “unaffected” by man. They said “untrammeled.” So the idea really was to preserve nature in its most natural state, recognizing that there’s no purity in that.

Certainly climate change presents unprecedented challenges. We should never kid ourselves that wilderness protection alone will protect nature. Wilderness is not sufficient to protect nature. But in my view climate change continues to reinforce the need for large wild areas. We’ve learned that we’ve got to protect much larger areas, and that these areas can include a variety of different human uses that are still compatible with sustaining natural systems. So I think moving to the future what we’ve really got to be thinking about is how do we sustain large connected landscapes that are able to adapt to a changing climate and give us the best hope that nature will be able to preserve the diversity of life on Earth.

This is the idea of resilient landscapes, right? We need a mix of wilderness, working landscapes with space for wildlife, bird corridors, etcetera?

Yeah, exactly. There are two things here. First of all, no parks or wilderness areas are big enough to sustain the diversity of wildlife that they have already been established to protect. Then you add climate change on top of it, and you recognize that with unpredictable changes it’s going to cause movements of wildlife. So we need to really think bigger about connecting existing protected areas into larger theaters for nature to evolve. And that will be inclusive of working lands, conserved working lands, and all the way up to wilderness. Those things that have done well can all work together.

You mentioned that wilderness is essential to our well-being. That might be self-evident to some people, but not to others. How, exactly, does wilderness restore that well-being?

The wilderness experience is very personal and probably means something different to everybody, but certainly there’s a real sense of renewal that comes from it, from the physical to the spiritual. So I think wilderness is very important to our mental, physical, and spiritual health, each in our own personal way. The one thing you consistently hear from people that spend quite a bit of time outdoors is that those experiences can be life-changing. It changes peoples’ lives in different ways, but it has deep personal meaning for them. I think that’s really important – and I think that every American should have the opportunity to have those experiences.

I also want to add another thing more broadly: I think we’re all focused on sustainability both for nature and for people now, and wilderness is sometimes critiqued as setting people outside of nature. But I think the wilderness experience provides just the opposite benefit to society: Wilderness reconnects us to the natural world. It reminds us that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. And it’s that connection and understanding and perspective that’s really the foundation for building a sustainable society in everything that we do.

I mean, wilderness might not teach you how to manage an organic farm, but it inspires you to think about how to manage a farm that’s sustainable and compatible with environmental processes. So I think if we’re going to build a sustainable society and decrease our footprint, address climate change, and build cities that can be sustainable, the wilderness experience – whether it’s in a local park or in a remote wild area – really gives you that perspective. Wilderness is the inspiration for how to build a society that’s in concert with natural processes.

I’d like you to talk about the work that The Wilderness Society is doing to keep wilderness meaningful for a new generation that might not have much experience with it, the tech-obsessed generation that is affected by what has been called “nature deficit disorder.”

Yes, we are very concerned about the growing disconnect of the country to its public lands. Largely because we are an urban nation now, with more than 80 percent of us living in cities, and also because we’re increasingly ever and ever more focused on our digital screens … we’re not getting outdoors as much. So we think it is really vital to reconnect America to its public lands – not just for conservation, but for the health of our society. Where would New York City be without Central Park? Where would Washington, DC be without Rock Creek Park? So we’re working to celebrate the importance of getting outside, and what it means to our health and well-being. And I hope people realize that it’s not just about protecting remote wilderness – it’s about getting out into the outdoors and wild places in urban areas on a daily basis. And the more that people can and will do that, the more people will also care about protecting wildlands, along the whole continuum from local parks to remote wilderness areas.

The idea being that if people get out in the front country, then they’ll have more of a commitment to the remote backcountry.

Exactly, yeah.

And how does that connect to the challenges of wilderness protection in an increasingly ethnically diverse country? There’s still a little bit of a stereotype that the folks who go into the backcountry are mostly white. How do we make sure that the outdoor experience is inviting and welcoming to everybody?

Well, first of all, I think it’s more diverse than it often gets criticized for. I mean, look at the local campaigns to protect wild places. Local people from all walks of life are standing up to protect very special places all across this country, and so I think we should resist the notion that experiencing and caring for America’s backcountry is only for one kind of person. That said, we’ve got a long way to go, and it’s really important that the environmental movement reflects the diversity of this country. The fact is that people come from different backgrounds, but our public lands bring us together as one nation, and everyone really cares about these places in their own way.

Now, how can we empower different constituencies to protect places that matter to them, in ways that work for them? I think we have to make sure that we’re hiring people who reflect the communities in which we work; I think that’s critical. We’ve got to support their efforts to protect special places. There have been great successes by Latino communities in California. The Hispanic community was pivotal in creating the new Río Grande del Norte National Monument that was just designated by President Obama in New Mexico. So there are plenty of examples that are out there right now, where emerging constituencies are leading on conservation issues. We need to do a good job of connecting to those leaders, and really supporting them with what they need to see their vision through.

You talked about how wilderness is a unique part of the American story. Wilderness used to be a bipartisan priority, but the last Congress was the first one since 1964 not to designate any new wilderness areas. Why do you think the bipartisan consensus on wilderness has broken down?

I think the bipartisan consensus to do anything has broken down. Let’s remember that most of the environmental laws that were passed in the ‘60s and ‘70s were passed with huge bipartisan support – the Wilderness Act was only one of those. I think we’re in a very different age now that has unfortunately become more partisan. That said, I think it’s less partisan in reality and on the ground than it is here in Washington, DC. So if you look at the current 29 wilderness bills that have already been introduced in Congress, about a third of those have Republican lead sponsors on them. Many of these bills have bipartisan support, and on the ground and in the communities there’s strong bipartisan and broad support for these bills. But then everything gets stuck in a more partisan and ideological gridlock that has become a political dynamic here. So I think we are suffering as much from that as we are from anything. I think there’s still a very strong interest within local communities to protect special places that are really important to a diverse nation.

Oil and gas extraction pose new threats to wilderness areas and our national parks. What are your thoughts on the Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy?

I think there’s a real opportunity here to change how energy is developed in this country. It’s been very reactive in the sense that the Interior Department has sort of historically responded to where energy companies want to lease, and then put up leases in those areas. And I think we need to flip the process into a more proactive approach that looks at a region and uses good science to identify where the really important biological and environmentally sensitive areas are, where the wild places are, and that also looks at where the energy resource is, and then comes up with a plan to lease in the lowest conflict areas.

The Obama administration actually has begun to move in this direction. There are some very good examples of how they’ve done this well, with the Mojave Desert solar plan, and also with the comprehensive plan with the national petroleum reserves up in the Arctic. Both were good planning processes that involved all the stakeholders to figure out how to have a win-win: to get the energy resource that America needs, but also to protect other important public values. I think if they can institutionalize that approach more systemically, then the “all of the above” energy strategy will be one that includes conservation and doesn’t compromise our wildlands-heritage in the process.

What do you think about [former Interior Secretary] Bruce Babbitt’s idea that the Obama administration should have a one-for-one policy? That is, any acre that’s open for oil, gas, or coal mining would then be compensated for by another acre of federal public lands protected either as a national park or monument or some other designation?

Well, we’re strongly in support of putting conservation on equal ground with development, so that when society moves to develop parts of our public lands, at the same time we’re moving to conserve the most environmentally important areas of those same landscapes. How that works out precisely on an acreage basis can vary, but the most important thing is that if you’re going to industrialize our public lands, first and foremost let’s make sure that we are developing those areas that are the most compatible areas and avoiding sensitive areas. And secondly, that we are getting conservation in really important places within those landscapes, so that they don’t just become inventory for future development. So we’re in strong support of that concept overall.

You talked about the 29 wilderness bills introduced in this Congress. If Congress doesn’t pass any of those, are you hopeful that the president will use his power under the Antiquities Act to safeguard public lands by creating national monuments?

Congress has every opportunity to pass the wilderness bills that have been introduced by local delegations. Our hope is that Congress is going to respond to local communities who have been collaborating – in some cases for decades – to protect important places for all Americans. But if Congress doesn’t respond, I think it’s completely appropriate for the President of the United States to step forward and respond to the American people.

Jason Mark is editor of Earth Island Journal. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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