The Idea of Wilderness

Kevin Proescholdt - St. Paul, Minnesota
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, September 1, 2014
Kevin Proescholdt
Kevin Proescholdt

In our hurried and harried lives, not many people find time to explore the wilderness. For Kevin Proescholdt, though, it’s been his passion and his life's work. Mr. Proescholdt believes in preserving wilderness areas, both as a sanctuary for the human spirit and to protect places that are "untrammeled by man."

Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: nature

I believe that one of the best ideas our country ever had was the idea of wilderness conservation.

It was not always so, for when our country was first settled by European colonists, the wilderness was a feared place, the home of wild beasts and Native Americans. Wilderness then had to be conquered, rolled back, developed. As western expansion swept across the country, wilderness was destroyed, broken up, or shrunk by settlers, railroads, barbed wire, and towns. Only fragments of the continental wilderness remained, and these, too, continued to face attacks and threats.

Luckily, though, a movement began in the early 20th century that recognized the values of wilderness, and began advocating for the preservation of the remaining remnants. Then, fifty years ago, Congress passed the 1964 Wilderness Act, providing statutory protection to an initial National Wilderness Preservation System of 9.1 million acres, spread out over 54 separate areas. The new law lyrically defined wilderness 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.” In the process, our country set an example for the world.

Wilderness designation is the highest protection our nation can give to federal land. Wilderness designation is an overlay of protection for areas in our existing National Forests, National Parks, or other public lands. The idea of wilderness is so popular that Congress has expanded the wilderness system since 1964 to almost 110 million acres today, in over 750 areas. One could claim that the idea of Wilderness has itself become wildly popular.

Wilderness areas provide a haven for wildlife like the grizzly my wife and I saw a few years ago in Wyoming, or the wolves I’ve seen and heard howling here in northern Minnesota. Wilderness areas allow ecological forces like forest succession and natural disturbances like fire to continue without being manipulated by humankind. Wilderness allows even the stuff of evolution itself to continue undisturbed.

Wilderness areas also provide special experiences for human visitors, too. Recreation in these beautiful scenic areas is important, of course, with activities like camping, backpacking, or fishing. But wilderness also provides a special sanctuary for the human spirit, where we can re-discover the wonder and humility and restraint so often lacking in our frenzied “civilized” lives.

I’ve had the good fortune of spending much of my life connected to wilderness. For my summer college job, I guided canoe trips in my beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, and I’ve visited other wilderness areas from Alaska to Idaho, from Montana to California. For many years I’ve also worked professionally with non-profit conservation organizations like Wilderness Watch to provide wilderness designation to deserving areas, and to fight to have those areas protected and managed to the best degree possible after they’ve been designated. The work is well worth the effort, to try to pass on a legacy of untrammeled wilderness to future generations of Americans. May the idea of wilderness continue to shine brightly as one of the best ideas our country ever imagined.

Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis works as the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization based in Missoula, Montana (www.wildernesswatch.org). He visits and writes extensively about wilderness, including co-authoring the book Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.