50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act: Standing Trees & the Many Faces of Wilderness
By Ryan Moehring
September 3, 2014
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.”
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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