Letters From the West

Protecting wildness even more important than wilderness

Steam rising from a hot springs in central Idaho covers the grass and plants in white. (Rocky Barker photo)

Steam rising from a hot springs in central Idaho covers the grass and plants in white. (Rocky Barker photo)

It is fitting that we begin 2014 in Idaho with a debate over how wolves will be allowed to wander in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

This new year is the 50th anniversary of passage of the Wilderness Act, a law that Church helped pass by managing the floor debate in the Senate. His wife Bethine just passed at 90, fighting for protecting wild places right up to the end.

I am working on a story for the weekend on the reaction to the decision by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to hire a hunter-trapper to eliminate two of the six packs of wolves that live in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River that runs through the heart of the area we Idahoans’ simply call the “Frank.” The story is more about Idaho wildlife politics than wilderness.

But this year I expect a robust discussion about the relevance of wilderness in the modern world. Writer Emma Marris, author of the 2011 book “Rambunctious Garden” says nature is everywhere.

“But wherever it is, there is one thing that nature is not: pristine,” she writes. “There is no pristine wilderness on Planet Earth.”

Marris tells us we already control the earth and its time we admit it.

“We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us,” Marris writes.

She doesn’t want less wilderness but actually more. But she wants us to as a society to be honest with ourselves about what we are doing.

Not taking an action can change a landscape just as much as taking action. The Frank is under an invasion of spotted knapweed and other non-native plants that could dramatically change its ecosystem.

Should we let nature take its course to control the weeds?

I hope during this debate we can look at the difference between wilderness and wildness. A place, a predator, a plant does not lose its wildness just because it was touched by human hands.

Bill Cronon, is a University of Wisconsin environmental historian who showed that wilderness is a human construct, a place we built in our minds as a counter to our industrial and technological reshaping of the environment. What was an idea became a place that we enshrined in legislation in 1964. It helped us redefine how we understand its role in human culture.

But wilderness is not the same as wildness. Wildness existed before humans.
It was the place from which we came. As nature writer Sigurd Olson said, wildness carved the grooves of ancient truth into our souls.

Protecting wildness is far more complicated than protecting and managing wilderness. Henry David Thoreau said “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” But it really is about preserving our humanity.

Today movies can offer a viable love affair between a man and his computer, and many of us carry around computers that can answer nearly every question we have.  Will we place nanochips in our brains to assist us in the future or alter our DNA along with every other living thing on earth for advancement?

The lines we draw on wildness may someday define our existence.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West