- Practicing Wilderness, Preserving the World
Wilderness may be an ancient idea, but it is a modern practice. Early scholarship—including such foundational American studies texts as Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land (1950) and Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind (1967)—focused on the idea of the wild. It is a perplexing and convoluted idea, rich with historical anomaly and hence great fodder for intellectual history. Yet however interesting and fertile, the idea of wilderness intersected with the actualities of environmental politics in complex ways that make the idea alone seem undemanding or even facile. Happily, in the last decade new scholarship has focused not just on the idea but also the practice of wilderness—the bureaucratic processes by which wilderness areas are created and the manners in which people interact with wild lands. Among the many salutary qualities of these new studies of environmental politics is their insistence on how messy the practice of wilderness has actually been and how connected to questions of citizenship, belonging, and power.
James Morton Turner’s excellent and engaging study of the politics of wilderness protection begins, as William Cronon notes in his introduction, where most previous studies of wilderness politics end: with the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. This focus and periodization immediately undermines common misunderstandings of the politics of creating wilderness areas that [End Page 267] arose partly because of the scholarly emphasis on ideas rather than practices. Scholars of the wilderness idea have criticized it as implying the bifurcation of humans and nature; the wild is where humans are not. This split leads to pernicious ends, those critics charge, because it has focused environmental-ism’s energies on wild nature at the expense of human well-being. Hence most histories of environmentalism, to account for the great concern with human health that has animated environmental politics—notably the fights for clean air and water and against toxic pollutants—situate the politics of wilderness as coming before the modern environmentalist movement supposedly ignited by Rachel Carson and her 1962 best seller Silent Spring. Wilderness politics thus plays little role in standard accounts of the last fifty years of environmentalism, such as Hal Rothman’s Saving the Planet (2000) or Benjamin Kline’s First along the River (2007). Yet many of the most visible recent environmental battles—over oil drilling in northern Alaska and spotted owls in the timber-rich Pacific Northwest, to name just two—hinge on wilderness. Such battles show that rather than understanding wilderness in its early twentieth-century sense, that is, as a refuge from industrial civilization that mostly appealed to elite men, we ought to understand it as the product of a particular form of cultural and political work. The work of designating and preserving wilderness areas is, as Turner emphasizes, “an effective vehicle for engaging local citizens as political advocates and leveraging the resources of local and national groups toward a common goal.” At their best, wilderness advocates “have brought together diverse groups of citizens, from ranchers and hunters to wildlife enthusiasts and hikers, in common cause to manage the federal lands in the public interest” (5).
In Turner’s telling, environmental politics, which thrived with the reform liberalism of the 1960s and early 1970s, flowed from the local to the national. As local citizens fought to designate public lands as wilderness areas, they had to learn the political geography of national interest group politics and act pragmatically. The emphasis on the local also contradicts the intellectual history approach to wilderness politics that views environmentalists as fighting for an abstract ideal of transcendent, unspoiled wilderness. In fact, some lands that became wilderness...