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Born to Be Wild?

The "wilderness" is burning, and environmentalists are to blame.
BY THOMAS J. BRAY / Wall Street Journal
June 25, 2002


"It looks as if all of Colorado is burning," said Gov. Bill Owens last week after surveying the forest fires in his state. An even bigger conflagration is tearing through northern Arizona, sending thousands of residents fleeing for shelter as firemen struggled to contain a blaze that could consume a million acres before it burns itself out.

As somebody who saw the great Yellowstone fires of 1988 up close, I can understand the sense of shock. The scale of such conflagrations is simply terrifying. Smoke billows tens of thousands of feet into the air across the whole horizon; sheets of flame race across the landscape like a speeding train; weird colors boil and flicker within the clouds; nothing can stop it except Mother Nature herself.

What may be going up in smoke this year, however, is not just trees, houses and whole towns. It may be the concept of "wilderness." It's a distinctly American idea that hardened into an ideology of sorts in the 19th century, just as the frontier was closing, and it presupposes a separation between man and nature that is both scientifically and philosophically untenable. Wilderness was formally defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Radical environmentalists believe wilderness is necessary as a biological reserve. But most of what has been preserved as wilderness is in areas that aren't terribly rich biologically, and most species seem to get along just fine, indeed thrive, in the presence of Homo sapiens.

Moreover, to appreciate nature as a spiritual, physical or aesthetic matter, one has to be in it--one has to trammel it, so to speak. One might be only a visitor, but visitors in the millions make for a permanent presence in our most popular "wild" areas. Indeed, the Wilderness Act itself shows the confusion. The wilderness areas, the act instructs, "shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness."

Thus the question is not whether man will be present in and around wilderness areas, but how best to manage his presence. Recent scholarship has concluded that with the exception of a few inaccessible and inhospitable areas, the American landscape was very much trammeled even before the arrival of Columbus. American Indians had already spent millennia managing the landscape--through agriculture, fire and settlements of their own--well before the Europeans began appropriating property for themselves and clearing their fields in earnest.

Following the disastrous fires of 1910 in Montana and Idaho, in which 85 people died and three million acres were reduced to cinders, enlightened management called for fire suppression. Smokey the Bear became a symbol to successive generations of Americans with his signature line, "Only you can prevent forest fires." And all the while deadwood built up in the forests, waiting to ignite. Then modern environmentalism called for letting fires burn themselves out, because fire was "natural." The result was disaster. The buildup of tinder made for such catastrophic fires as those that burned Yellowstone in 1988. And it is what is fueling the conflagrations today.

After the Yellowstone fires of '88, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies promised to revisit their policy yet again. "Controlled burns" were used, with varying success, to thin out the forests and their undergrowth. But a controlled burn raced out of control in New Mexico last year and nearly gutted Los Alamos. The only policy that has any chance of substantially reducing fire hazard in our overtimbered forests would thus seem to be selective logging--something that environmentalists bitterly oppose as a thinly disguised effort by loggers to regain access to federal lands.

In the environmentalists' view, man has no business encroaching on the forest primeval in any case. The real villains, they say, are overpopulation and sprawl. At a minimum, some sort of federal zoning may be needed to discourage settlement near wilderness areas. Never mind that the ideology of wilderness helps create demand for environmental amenities.

At bottom, then, what the fires may be telling us is that something is wrong with the very concept of wilderness itself. This concept hearkens back to a sort of natural utopia that never really existed--a state of nature that most of our forebears spent their lives struggling to overcome. (Having to clear a forest in order to grow food tends to give one a different perspective on the blessings of wilderness.) It also discourages clear thinking about how to manage areas that are justly prized for their beauty, wildlife and recreational promise. Why turn over yet more land to a federal government that can't seem to manage the land it already possesses?

You don't read about fires on forestland owned by private timber companies, which have long used controlled burns and selective logging to protect their assets. Farmers have an intense interest in maintaining the health of their land. Property owners willingly spend gazillions planting trees, flowers and shrubbery--and then protecting it from the elements. Is public ownership of vast tracts of land the only way to arrange for the environmental amenities that we seek? Europe seems to get along without "wilderness" areas, though nobody would deny it has a great deal of environmental charm.

Yes, wildfire is (for the most part) natural. Yes, the national forests of Colorado and Arizona will still be there after the fires. Trees are sprouting everywhere in Yellowstone. But it may take a century to fully regenerate the forests that were lost. And in any case most of today's "wilderness" areas don't look anything like the way they looked even a century ago. In preserving "wilderness" for future generations, we have a right to insist that it not be ruined for ourselves.

Mr. Bray is a staff columnist at the Detroit News. His OpinionJournal.com column appears Tuesdays.


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