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Wilderness And Who We Are

Late July in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness area:  a sweeping cloak of flowers still silently blooms on a high alpine meadow.  Some are rare; all are beautiful.  There are few places like it, even in Montana.

The plateau on which I sat that day, with the mountains and lakes surrounding it, rests in one of the five wilderness areas in Montana first protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964.  The courageous and visionary leaders who fought for places like these understood the importance of wilderness and how central it is to who we are as Americans.  Wallace Stegner wrote of the wilderness idea as “something that has helped form our character and that certainly shaped our history as a people.”

Of course, much of our American character came from subduing the wild.  Public lands historically were for civilizing and exploiting.  Montana’s motto, after all, is Oro y plata, gold and silver.   We dug mines, clear-cut forests, and killed many game animals to the edge of extinction.

But Americans also recognized the devastating costs of degrading nature.  Our democratic impulses stirred the sentiment that wild places have value beyond the money they can make for the wealthy and powerful.  They are for the benefit of all people.  So we set aside National Parks.  And the 1964 Wilderness Act recognized value in public land even apart from human interests.

Montanans, though, saw like no others how central wild places are to our self-understanding.  The Montana State Constitution begins with these words:  “We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.”

Many other state constitutions begin with gratitude to God for liberty, but only Montana’s takes gratitude for quiet beauty as the starting point for how we see ourselves, our freedoms, and the good life.  Quiet beauty, of course, is found only where mechanized activity is not, in other words in wilderness.

Protecting wilderness is not for the benefit of a few but is a central expression of liberty itself.   A truly free society, as philosopher John Stuart Mill reminds us, must encompass a diversity of pursuits.  These include activities and experiences not possible in the motorized world, yet certainly essential to human freedom and well-being.

Wild places are refuges from our noisy, mechanized, everyday lives.  They are places of spiritual renewal.  They provide opportunity for more primitive forms of recreation.  They teach us reverence and respect for land and living beings.  And time spent in wild places reveals the interdependence of all things, and that our survival requires acting upon this truth.

But wilderness, Aldo Leopold wrote, can shrink but cannot grow.  And the visionaries who have fought to protect wild places had the wisdom to know that sometimes we have to protect something invaluable from the side of ourselves that seeks to dominate for short-term gain.  And they have done that best through the hard work of bringing these dual aspects of ourselves—conqueror and conserver of the wild—together at the same table:  Oro y plata meets quiet beauty.  That struggle is part of who we are too.

Some of our legislators get that.  Others do not.  Despite talk of putting Montana first, politicians who fail to stand up for wilderness ultimately stand for politics and the powerful.  They do not stand for what most Montanans want.  They do not stand for the quiet beauty that defines us.

So thanks to those who fought for wild places.  Thanks to activists like Bob Marshall.  Thanks to forward-thinking senators like Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield, who worked to pass the Wilderness Act.  Thanks to recent and current leaders like Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and to all of those who continue to fight for wilderness.  And let us most of all be grateful for places like the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area, whose quiet beauty endures, protected fifty years and forever.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana, inviting you to attend the Mansfield Center’s fall conference, “The Storied Past, the Troubled Future:  The Imperative of Wilderness at 50 Years,” September 10 through 12, at the University Center Ballroom.

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