In mid-October, thousands of wilderness enthusiasts gathered in Albuquerque, N.M., for a national conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of America's great ideas, the Wilderness Act. Not far from the Gila Wilderness, where the idea of designating wilderness areas began in the mind and heart of Aldo Leopold, the conference attracted hundreds of young people, and featured a diversity of backgrounds including Native American, Hispanic and African-American voices.
This was the first wilderness conference where the directors of the "big four" federal land agencies — the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service — all attended. Each spoke eloquently on the need to expand our wilderness preservation system, and to defend existing wilderness. That was a breath of fresh air to wilderness old-timers, who recall previous years when the ranking leaders of federal agencies were seldom seen at wilderness gatherings, let alone voicing support.
Perhaps the most compelling call to action was provided in a thundering Sunday sermon delivered by Dave Foreman. Foreman is the founder of the Rewilding Project, one of a growing coalition of conservation organizations (my employer, WildEarth Guardians, among them) seeking to create a network of ecologically healthy reserves across the West. Central to a reserve system are linkages that would ensure the continuation of natural migrations, grant some resilience for wildlife and allow the natural systems on which wildlife depends to shift to higher latitudes or loftier elevations as our climate continues to change.
Foreman pointed out that wilderness areas are unique because these are the only lands primarily shaped by the forces of nature, while the rest of our country is dominatated by human activity. The designation of wilderness, said Foreman, is an act of humility, acknowledging that humankind need not be the masters of all we survey.
When one considers the relatively small expanse of designated wilderness, and by extension how much of the planet's land area — on this continent and others — humankind now dominates, the footprint of human activities on our planet is exposed as overwhelming, and reveals why we are causing such a catastrophic extinction crisis today. As "working landscapes" grow ever larger, the natural world shrinks into ever more isolated pockets of unspoiled native habitats. Our failure as a society to allow sufficient habitat for native wildlife can be measured by the recent news that we have lost half of the world's wildlife populations since 1970.
And while the delegates from across the nation came to celebrate the achievements of the Wilderness Act's first 50 years, 2014 also marks a darker anniversary. The last passenger pigeon died 100 years ago — the extinction of one of the most abundant birds the world has ever seen. In 1886, naturalist George Bird Grinnell was camped in Bates Hole, Wyo., when he witnessed a flock of greater sage-grouse that turned the entire valley gray with their shadows, recalling the vast passenger pigeon flocks of Grinnell's childhood. Today, sage grouse are dwindling away.
Additional wilderness preservation can be an integral part of solving the global biodiversity crisis by anchoring a network of protected reserves. But we need to be designing such networks at the scales of ecosystems and regions, along natural boundaries, rather than the traditional political borders of states, counties and agency jurisdictions.
The United States can do more to protect our wilderness legacy. An international treaty, signed by President Clinton but yet to be ratified by the Senate, recommends that 17 percent of each major ecosystem be safeguarded in protected natural areas like designated wilderness. In the United States, only western coniferous forest and "rock and ice" alpine regions meet this target so far. Sagebrush deserts, grasslands and eastern hardwood forests are each underrepresented in designated wilderness, and offer outstanding opportunities for expanding our wilderness system.
New wilderness legislation, sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats, faced death by committee in Congress in recent years. Rep. Doc HastingsRichard (Doc) Norman HastingsCongress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains Boehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform MORE (R-Wash.) has obstinately blocked new wilderness designations during his five-year tenure as committee chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Hastings retires in January. Will the ideological gridlock over wilderness be broken during the next Congress?
October's message of hope for future wilderness underscores that wilderness protection is more popular than ever. And now, with economic research pointing to greater job and business growth in rural Western counties with the greatest area of protected public lands, the best interests of jobs and the environment have come into alignment. Perhaps these factors will spur a return to the bipartisan days of the Wilderness Act's initial passage in 1964, and the next 50 years of American wilderness will eclipse the achievements of the first 50.
This piece has been corrected from a previous version.
Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and the health of the American West.