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The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. By James Morton Turner. Foreword by William Cronon. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. xviii + 520 pp. Maps, photographs, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

The Wilderness Act of 1964, enacted by Congress after eight years of political struggle, immediately protected [End Page 101] 54 wilderness areas totaling 9.1 million acres of land, all in national forests. Despite the long battle to recognize those areas of the American landscape as untrammeled by man, “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” the act was just the beginning of a continuing clash over public lands and their use as well as a complex menu of other environmental concerns.

James Morton Turner here gives us a highly detailed, exquisitely researched, and exciting account of the nearly 50 years of political, social, and cultural history of the environmental struggle since the act, using wilderness as the flashpoint of that massive endeavor—an endeavor even more important today than it was a half century ago.

In one sense, there has not been true wilderness in North America since the first humans set foot here, changing the land just as the land changed them. Today, however, a battle rages because the multiple use of public lands means vastly different things to different groups. Can wilderness areas be logged, grazed upon, developed, and cultivated, or are they pristine areas where even roads are forbidden? The questions consume us.

This is a fascinating history of hard politics, community action, bureaucratic sluggishness, and great clashes among the environmental groups themselves, as more and more wilderness areas were proposed and adopted. The effort gave rise to eco- guerrilla-ism and monkey-wrench gangs that took direct action, as well as to highly sophisticated political lobbying, campaigns, and maneuvers in local battles and in the halls of Washington dc.

The latest major legislation for wilderness areas, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, added two million acres of wilderness areas across the nation, bringing the size of the National Wilderness Preservation System up to 757 areas protecting 109.5 million acres of federal lands in perpetuity. Almost all are in the American West and Alaska, with a scattering of areas on the western edge of the Great Plains.

That total came about even as the wilderness preservation movement survived the Sagebrush Rebellion of the Reagan administration, debilitating divisions among the environmentalists themselves, and the rise of oil, gas, and coal developments and encroachments on public lands. There were battles over grazing fees that spread to the Great Plains national forests and grasslands, savage fights over logging rights, and much more.

This is all well presented in Turner’s history. He has scoured the records of the Wilderness Society since its inception in the 1930s, followed the leaders and participants of that and other environmental groups, and brilliantly reported the complex moves these contestants made in the political arena.

While this book concentrates on the struggle over wilderness and its preservation in America, its true story is the half-century of environmental action that has led us to the greatest battle we humans face today— saving life on planet Earth in a time threatened by severe climate change. It is a fascinating guide.

Francis Moul
Lincoln, Nebraska


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pp. 101-102
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