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Mountain-Prairie Region

50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act: Standing Trees & the Many Faces of Wilderness

By Ryan Moehring

September 3, 2014


Sunrise in February on the Charles M. Russell NWR auto tour route. Credit: Mary Jo Hill/USFWS.
Sunrise in February on the Charles M. Russell NWR auto tour route. Credit: Mary Jo Hill/USFWS.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964, I find myself thinking about the Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax. The book published in 1971, at the height of the U.S. environmental movement, and it chronicles the fate of a once-beautiful land that is systematically destroyed by the Once-ler, a greedy entity that cuts down all of the Truffula trees in order to gather material to knit “thneeds” – an invention of his own, “which everyone needs.”

By cutting down the trees, however, the Once-ler inadvertently summons the Lorax from the stump of a Truffula tree. The Lorax “speaks for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,” and warns the Once-ler of the consequences of his unregulated consumption. Undeterred, the Once-ler carries on with the “biggering” of his operations. Soon all of the trees are cut down and, without materials for his thneeds; the Once-ler is forced to shut down his factory. As he ponders his mistakes from his crumbling house, he takes note of a cryptic message the Lorax had inscribed on a stone before he left. It simply said, “Unless.”

The repentant Once-ler then gives the last Truffula seed to a little boy in town and tells him to plant it, saying that if the boy grows a whole forest of the trees, the Lorax, and all of his friends, may come back.

He finally understands the message of the Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

Unless.

Not unlike a treasured literary work, sometimes an idea comes along that is so powerful it changes the way human beings feel about a subject forever. For me and for many other environmentalists, this powerful idea came in the form of a question:

“Should trees have standing?”

The question was posed in 1972 by environmental scholar and attorney, Christopher D. Stone—just one year after the Lorax was printed, causing some to question if the Truffula tree was his inspiration. Stone’s essay became a rallying point for the burgeoning environmental movement of the 70s, and it launched a global debate about the nature of legal rights.

The anthropocentric view of the environment holds that nature’s ethical value is derived solely from its value to humans, whether economic, aesthetic or otherwise. Stone advanced a compelling argument that trees – and, in fact, the entire natural environment – should be granted legal rights because of their inherent value.

The idea of giving rights where none existed before, he claimed, was not unprecedented. Women, slaves, Indians, even children – all had experienced extended periods without legal standing that were later remedied.

Human beings have also endowed all manner of inanimate objects with legal standing. The United States itself is an entity that enjoys legal protection, along with municipalities, states, and corporations. That the environment should also enjoy certain rights seemed obvious to Stone – and to many others.

A decade before Stone asked his famous question, some of our nation’s most revered conservationists – Aldo Leopold, Olaus and Mardy Murie, Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, and many others – were looking at the problem underlying Stone’s question in a different way. They were working towards a new, higher standard of conservation: wilderness. The 1964 Wilderness Act definition of wilderness is poetic and worth repeating:

“…Areas where the earth and its communities of life are left unchanged by people, where the primary forces of nature are in control, and where people themselves are visitors who do not remain.”

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This way of thinking about the environment was almost unheard of at the time. Human beings were unaccustomed to being treated as visitors anywhere, and wilderness designation did not come without a fight. Howard Zahniser wrote 66 drafts of the Wilderness Act between 1956 and 1964 and navigated the bill through 18 exhausting Congressional hearings.

Shortly before the Act’s passage Zahniser said, “I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.”

Perhaps unwittingly, Zahniser laid the groundwork for Stone’s profound question. With the passage of the Wilderness Act, forests may not have been given the right to be represented in court as Stone would later argue they should, but through the Act the nation declared unequivocally that the environment has its own intrinsic value that should be protected by law.

Since the 1964 passage of the Act, which designated 9.1 million acres across 54 areas in 13 states, America has grown the National Wilderness Preservation System to include 110 million acres across 756 areas in 44 states and Puerto Rico. Here in the Mountain-Prairie Region, we are privileged to be entrusted with the protection of many established and proposed wilderness resources.

And as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act this year, I believe it is worth exploring the many faces of wilderness. Too often we think of wilderness as some far-off land, walled off from the rest of the world by towering, snow-covered peaks – a wild place ruled by large carnivores. But the reality is that wilderness is as diverse in its nature as the many conservation leaders who worked so hard to make the designation a reality.

Nowhere is this diversity more evident than in the Mountain-Prairie Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where I work.

Leadville National Fish Hatchery. Credit: USFWS.
Leadville National Fish Hatchery. Credit: USFWS.

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is the only place in North America where five distinct ecotones merge: sandhills prairie, mixed-grass prairie, Rocky Mountain coniferous forest, eastern deciduous forest, and northern boreal forest.  It is also the only wildlife refuge I know of where you can float down a river in the heart of wilderness and 15 minutes later grab a double Whopper with cheese.

Two hundred miles to the southeast, Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge is home to proposed wilderness unlike any other. Here, you will find the Nebraska sandhills, which are the largest expanse of sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere, where solitude – like the hills – rolls on for miles.

Nowhere along the Continental Divide does the ground rise higher than the Sawatch Range, the crest of this continent, where Colorado’s second-highest peak rises behind Leadville National Fish Hatchery (NFH) in the Mount Massive Wilderness Area. The hatchery’s grounds lay almost entirely within the wilderness area, and three hatchery trails allow visitors easy access to an absolutely stunning landscape.

Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS.
Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS.

Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge is only 868 miles away from Leadville NFH, but the landscape feels worlds apart. The refuge is located in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region, which is often referred to as America’s "duck factory" because it is the most productive area for nesting waterfowl on the continent. The rolling hills in Lostwood’s wilderness areas feel endless, like a calm sea of grass, providing visitors with a singularly unique wilderness experience.

Drive nearly 300 miles to the west and you’ll see that the coulees, badlands, prairies and river bottoms that make up the wilderness at Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) are virtually unchanged since Lewis and Clark passed this idyllic land 200 years ago.

The wilderness characteristics found across CMR will be protected for future generations thanks to the foresight of conservation heroes like Olaus Murie.  Murie, who would later become president of the Wilderness Society, visited what is now the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in 1935 and wrote:

“This region as a whole is extremely picturesque. There is glamour of early exploration over it all, the romance of historical events.  The very landscape is appealing.  A camp out in the badlands, with the jumble of carved and stratified buttes perhaps mellowed by the setting sun or set off by cloud formations at dawn, leaves nothing to be desired.  In such a setting, the sight of a group of antelope on a ridge or sharp-tailed grouse whirring from the head of a coulee completes the picture. An occasional prairie dog or burrowing owls are interesting details that belong to the whole.  Simplicity on a grand scale is the keynote of this whole outdoor picture.”

In Murie’s words we see the essence of the Lorax’s teachings and the genesis of Stone’s question. Because we see that the land itself is alive – that it has its own, dare I say, spirit – it makes sense that we should protect it, that we should endow it with certain rights. Indeed, there are many faces of wilderness. And like you and I, each has its own special qualities that are worthy of preservation. We are fortunate to be the heirs of an amazing conservation legacy on a scale that would have made even the Lorax proud.

Fifty years after the passage of the Wilderness Act, we still have Truffula trees standing tall in our forests, and in our hearts.  

Learn more about the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act: http://www.wilderness50th.org/

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie. Connect with our Facebook page, follow our tweets, watch our YouTube Channel, and download photos from our Flickr page.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Office of External Affairs

Mountain-Prairie Region

134 Union Blvd

Lakewood, CO 80228

303-236-7905

303-236-3815 FAX

www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/



Contacts

Ryan Moehring
303-236-0345
ryan_moehring@fws.gov
 



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The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with Others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American People.
Last modified: September 03, 2014
All Images Credit to and Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Unless Specified Otherwise.
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