By Chris Morrill, Executive Director
In a continued effort to elevate conservation, President Biden declared September as National Wilderness Month. Additionally, we are quickly approaching 2024, which marks the 60th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. This bill enabled Americans, at a time of growing environmental awareness, the opportunity to protect a quickly fleeting resource: the last remaining wild places in the United States. As a result, today the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) encompasses over 109 million acres. As a brief disclaimer, “Wilderness” with a Capital “W” is used here because this is land designed as protected under the Wilderness Act and not just land seen as wilderness in the general sense.
California has almost 15 million Wilderness acres (nearly 15% of the state) within its boundaries. That means, as a percentage of the state, it has more Wilderness than any other state except for Alaska. This is an amazing achievement in a state with almost 40 million people and with a population density many, many, many times over what Alaska has.
In the lead-up to the signing of the Wilderness Act, author Wallace Stegner wrote in his “Wilderness Letter”:
We need wilderness preserved – as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds – because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.
How younger generations connect with wild places
A 2022 Forest Service report looked at the continued value and relevance of wilderness. At the signing of the Wilderness Act, non-Hispanic whites made up more than 80% of the population. Since then, significant demographic, ecological and climactic changes have created a profound change in what wilderness means to many people. For example, today California’s population is
Stegner’s sentiment of an emotional or spiritual connection to wilderness regardless of proximity was common in the early wilderness advocacy efforts. Today, younger generations are less inclined to support wilderness simply for wilderness’ sake. There are many hypotheses about why that might be.
The first hypothesis is our increased urbanization with many young people growing up in larger cities and at a greater distance from areas of wilderness. A second is the increased use of technology. Although we have all adopted more regular use of technology, the average usage is significantly higher in younger generations. That increased technological use has resulted in less time spent in natural spaces.
Many younger generations seem to connect to a notion of “wildness” more than they do to wilderness as described in the Wilderness Act. They feel the “wildness” of their local or regional parks and don’t require the lack of human presence as is often a defining feature of wilderness. As studies have shown, this makes them more inclined towards actions, like restoration or active management, that historically would have been banned in legally designated wilderness areas.
We are talking about two conceptions of wilderness. One is a culturally constructed concept. This conception has been built over decades. And it can vary significantly by community. The second is Wilderness, with its very specific definitions, as described in the Wilderness Act.
The continued value of Wilderness
This second conception of wilderness is one that remains important to this day and will continue to be important into the future. Wilderness, as large-scale conserved areas, provide many benefits for the future of our society. How much water will be stored in the mountains of California? Will our lands be resilient in the face of growing wildfires? Will the animals and plants be able to migrate to more suitable habitat as our climate changes?
Large-scale contiguous Wilderness areas are essential in a changing climate and all the challenges to come. We should continue to prioritize Wilderness designations in areas that have been neglected, particularly at lower elevations. There tends to be a disproportionate number of certain types of ecosystems within the National Wilderness Preservation System. That diversity will be especially important for the future of plant and animal species.
As noted above, the commitment to a cultural idea of wilderness, as it was developed by early conservationists and adheres closer to the definition in the Wilderness Act, is not likely to endure for many generations into the future. The impacts of human development and the overarching impact of climate change due to human use of fossil fuels makes it harder to argue that these areas are without human influence. Additionally, the mainstream understanding of historic human impacts on these spaces is evolving. We know that Indigenous Peoples lived in these areas and significantly influenced how these lands looked and operated for millennia.
Approaching a big milestone
As we celebrate the end of the official Wilderness Month and approach the 60th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we should ask ourselves about the continuing role of Wilderness moving forward. We must ask these questions to stay relevant in the political conversation and ensure the wild places that Wilderness designations protect, not only persist, but continue to grow.
CalWild’s reality is that Wilderness, as defined in the Wilderness Act, provides the greatest and most durable legal protection for lands that are in desperate need of it. That means we will continue to prioritize this protection tool wherever appropriate and politically feasible.
Unfortunately, in the last decade, we have experienced challenges in our work to pass new Wilderness bills through Congress. As the conservation movement moves forward in trying to engage new generations in the conservation of California’s remaining wild places, we must continue to use all the tools available to us. Our recent name change from the California Wilderness Coalition to CalWild should indicate our openness to all conceptions of wildness in California. This approach will allow us to find every avenue we can to continue to protect, and hopefully in the future grow, the wild places we all get to experience and make California so special.
Your support is critically important for this work to move forward. We are at a juncture in history when fighting to protect biodiversity and minimize climate change is necessary, not optional. Your generous contributions ensure that every day, CalWild is on the ground organizing and in the halls of power advocating for thriving wild places throughout our magnificent state however they may be defined.