By Tom Woodman
Some years ago a friend in an argumentative mood was questioning the need for new lands in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Wasn’t it already so big that no one could conceivably experience it all? “Take a map and point your finger in the middle of the biggest wilderness,” he said. “Will you ever set foot there?”
He was expressing a version of the commonly held position that the state should not acquire more land for the Preserve. But, reflecting on his approach, I sense a point of view that even many preservationists voice. That is, the value of wilderness is measured in how it’s used by people.
Currently the acquisition argument is being played out in a debate over whether the state should stop buying land, including magnificent portions of former Finch Pruyn & Co. land and Follensby Park, with its pristine three-mile-long lake. Adversaries grapple over familiar questions: job projections; state finances; taxes and benefits to local communities; the future of hunting club leases; and broader public enjoyment of land. That’s no surprise. Public policy will be decided on the basis of concrete gains and practical benefits.
Here preservationists have the stronger argument. The Adirondack economy benefits from a wild and natural Park that draws millions of visitors every year. In the coming years the gains from enhanced tourism and recreational opportunities will outweigh the losses of already dwindling forestry employment. The state pays local taxes without demanding services, and the amount the state would invest in the purchase price pales in comparison to decades of benefits.
But there’s more to wilderness than being a tourist attraction, and too often, in policy debates over preservation, we lose sight of the fact that wilderness has intrinsic value of its own.
While far fewer voices speak for protecting wilderness for its own sake, this philosophy of preservation is woven into American heritage, embodied by writers like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. In the Adirondacks, the great advocates for wilderness have included Bob Marshall, Paul Schaefer, and Howard Zahniser.
As humans we are a single species among the numberless plants and animals that share the planet and constitute a global community. Too often, our apparent dominance has led us to see ourselves not as members of this larger community but as masters somehow imbued with the right to consume, tear down, remake, and re-imagine everything else on the face of the earth.
Luckily, our species’ intelligence and learning has given us, along with a fair measure of hubris, awareness spanning geography and time. We have ability to look into the future to see the likely consequences of our behavior—though we don’t always use it. We can take in the big picture in a way that our neighboring species can’t, and we can see the value of a natural place where we are just one part of the world—not always its center.
Howard Zahniser, who wrote the federal Wilderness Act (much of it in an Adirondack cabin), saw this human experience of the wild as “our deep need for the humility to know ourselves as the dependent members of a great community of life.”
He understood the nationwide threats to wilderness, the development pressures that gobbled up so much natural landscape. Even today, long after the landmark federal protections began, only 2 percent of the continental United States and 1 percent of lands east of the Mississippi are protected wilderness.
The 1964 Wilderness Act opens with a definition of wilderness that embodies a spirit of humble stewardship. It calls on the nation to discipline itself and refrain from destroying all that remains of this larger natural community, not because it’s profitable to do so but because it’s right. The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, in effect since 1972, borrows Zahniser’s definition of wilderness, including these words:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the
landscape, is hereby recognized 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.
Though Zahniser eloquently extolled wilderness for its own values, he also understood practical politics. In the eight years he worked for a federal Wilderness Act he practiced the art of statecraft, including compromise. But all the while he insisted on his definition of wilderness, even to critics among his own allies who thought it too poetic for government bill-drafting.
He saw the definition as a high standard for preservation but also a flexible one—one that would permit a restored wilderness, which, like much of the Adirondacks, grows from lands previously disturbed. And he saw the definition as promoting a living, evolving environment, not one in which people try to freeze nature at a moment to fit a particular human ideal. It allowed for dynamic change. “Wilderness preservation is not to maintain the status quo,” Zahniser wrote, “but to remove the human trammels that keep the natural changes from taking place.”
Like the advocates who press for preservation today, Zahniser and his allies understood the importance of making a pragmatic case for wilderness. But he was capable of seeing beyond these mundane considerations to a more transcendent vision that we should all keep in sight:
“We who concern ourselves with wilderness preservation [seek] to project into the eternity of the future some of that precious ecological inheritance that has come to us out of the eternity of the past.”