The Purple Mountains’ Fading Majesty


Whatever the cause of the crowding—ignorance, exploitation, or inherent nastiness—its results were both disturbing and challenging to wilderness lovers. “We are entering a new era in land management,” said an angry conservationist at a statewide Recreation Planning Conference at Missoula in 1966. “Our burgeoning population is descending on every available acre to recreate. … An army of family campers … crowds our public campgrounds every summer and makes Times Square look like a Buddhist retreat. … When the last wilderness trail has been cemented over; when the outdoor toilets are in milelong rows, as close as houses on a Philadelphia street; and when parking lots cover ninety-nine per cent of every park, what then?”

One answer has been the closing of certain remote areas to roads and to all forms of commercial activity except some grazing. This is not a new movement. In 1924, Aldo Leopold of the Forest Service, an eloquent crusader for the concept of “quality” in outdoor recreation, prevailed on the government to set aside as the GiIa Wilderness Area half a million acres of mountain land in southwestern New Mexico. Dozens of comparable reservations followed during the next decade —“wilderness areas” that were more than 100,000 acres in size; “wild areas” that were smaller; “primitive areas” in which limited amounts of lumbering, foraging, and water extraction might be allowed at some future date—a total of some 15,000,000 acres.

Like other Forest Service activities prior to 1960, the preservation of these wilderness regions was a matter of administrative policy and hence subject to arbitrary change. As pressures on the forests increased, wilderness-lovers began to fear that such changes would occur, and they attacked along a broad front, insisting that the entire wilderness system be given the protection of law.

An intense emotionalism accompanied the campaign. The wilderness, its proponents argued, was a priceless heritage—the land as our pioneers had known it—and it filled a spiritual need even for people who never saw it but derived abiding satisfaction just from knowing that it was there. Those who did seek it out found the country’s last true solitude, with its powers to restore and sustain. There, somehow, was the embodiment of what Thoreau had meant with his paradoxical statement that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

To many mountain dwellers that kind of thinking was incomprehensible. Grazing and timber lands, they said, ought to be utilized under the sustained-yield program. Though lumbering caused temporary scars, eventually the land could be made more beautiful than before through scientific reforestation. Emotionalism appeared in these arguments, too. One Colorado congressman scornfully labelled the preservationists “the deep breathers.” Local businessmen trotted out a cliché as hoary as Thoreau’s: “The economic strength of any nation lies in the exploitation of its natural resources.” Wilderness bills were decried as class legislation—“the domination,” said one Colorado lumberman, “of Public Land Use by … a minority group of the participants,” and hence un-American.

The preservationists won. In September of 1964 President Johnson signed a bill that officially described the 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.” More than 9,000,000 acres of former wild, wilderness, and “canoe” areas were placed within a National Wilderness Preservation System, to be managed in such a way as to keep them untrammelled by man—a paradox in itself, since the very word “management” is a denial of wilderness. Another five and a half million acres of erstwhile primitive areas were to be re-examined within ten years to determine whether they merited inclusion within the preservation system. Finally, methods were outlined whereby additional areas could be added to the total.

Within less than three years some three dozen proposals for additions had been offered to Congress. Men who looked on the forests as utilitarian objects wrung their hands. “Some of our esteemed citizens,” wrote “Uncle Dudley” in Nation’s Agriculture (JulyAugust 1967), “are going a little nuts about wilderness. Why, we just got done changing a wilderness into a fairly desirable United States of America.” Anyway, most vacationists preferred the outdoors without primitiveness: “There is no waiting list,” Uncle Dudley snorted, “for the unimproved camp sites!” Enough was enough.

So. The rush of recreationists to the Rockies looks like a new stampede, but in many ways it is a disturbingly familiar continuation of the old story of brutal exploitation. For example: