Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones… God has cared for these trees… but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.
– John Muir, from Our National Parks (1901)
In Austin, Texas there’s a Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) called the Treaty Oak. Its branches stretch 127 feet across and it is believed to be over 500 years old. The tree was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes. According to folklore, Texas icons Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston paid respects here. In 1989, a vandal dumped buckets of herbicide around the base of the Treaty Oak. Two-thirds of this monumental tree is now dead.
In Trinidad, California a mighty redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) known as the Crannell Creek Giant stood for an estimated 3,000-plus years. Until a few decades ago, it was the largest living tree known to man, estimated at over 400 feet tall. But in the mid-1940s it was cut down by a logging company.
In Birmingham, Michigan, a patch of woods stood at the corner of Cranbrook Road and Lincoln Street… just across from Seaholm High School. In 1968-‘69, my friends and I box trapped small animals there. Some of these traps we built from scraps of particle board and coat hanger wire. Seaholm Woods was one of the few wild enclaves near our suburban Detroit neighborhood. We formed a “Safari Club” and spent countless hours scrambling through the hardwoods, feeling the scrape of briars on our skin, and peering into a small murky swamp abundant with strange, hidden creatures. But like so many other wooded glens in the ‘burbs, Seaholm Woods fell victim to a housing development. The raccoons, foxes, opossums, crows, grackles, and bullfrogs have long since disappeared.
Tree and rock, bird and mammal, swale and swamp. Wild places provide nourishment to the soul. Fraught with hidden activity and complexity, the rainforests, alpine meadows, deserts and rivers also give us tranquility and space. Whether we realize it or not, wildness is an essential antidote to industrialization, commercial and residential sprawl, and an increasingly mobile and high-tech culture that seems to be dragging us further away from not only each other, but also the earth.
Long-distance hiker/folksinger/wilderness activist Walkin’ Jim Stoltz was once asked by the “Wall Street Journal” how he defined the term “wilderness.” Stoltz thought for a moment. He then offered this: “Wilderness is a place where things work the way they’re supposed to work.” I can’t think of a more appropriate definition.
But the term “wilderness” also has a legal definition, at least in the U.S. It was interpreted by Congress 50 years ago, on September 3, 1964. Although it took eight years to happen, eventually the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson. It established the National Wilderness Preservation System and declared that:
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.
The Wilderness Act is one of the most significant environmental achievements in the U.S., just as important as the national park system. It designated nine million acres for protection from commercial and recreational use. This has since expanded to about 108 million acres, managed (and sometimes mismanaged) by four agencies: The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.
Designated U.S. wilderness areas contain 157 ecosystems with extensive flora and fauna, including such endangered or threatened species as whales, wolves, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, and numerous migratory birds. The ecosystems encompass national parks and forests, grasslands, wetlands, trails, wild and scenic rivers, monuments and cultural sites.
The 50-year-old Wilderness Act may not have saved the Treaty Oak or my own Seaholm Woods. Had it been around in the 1940s, though, it certainly would have prevented the murder of the Crannell Creek Giant.
But, as significant as the Act is, there are still millions of acres of mountain, forest, glacier, and other fragile eco-habitat without protection; magnificent public lands that are susceptible to drilling, mining, logging, over-grazing, damming, and road-building. And the money-changers won’t rest. If they can’t turn a profit by gouging the planet one way, they’ll find another.
So, if you’ve had the stamina to read this far, and value the concept of “wilderness,” try to make a difference. Sign a petition, make a donation, plant a tree, invest in a rain barrel. Trade in your gas hog for a fuel-efficient car. Avoid synthetic lawn chemicals. Cast a green vote.
America is blessed with some of the most awe-inspiring biodiversity on the planet. We all share the bounties of this ecological Eden: tree huggers, free-market junkies, Democrats, Republicans, top 1% and lower 99%. In the long run, it’s about our own physical and mental well-being, but it’s also about the other 21,714 vertebrates and plants in America who share our “home.”
HAPPY EARTH DAY!