Wilderness as a state of mind
Elkhorn conference draws Idaho politicians and wilderness philosophers
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
"Because of the evil that is in the land, we will go to the
forest and destroy the evil; for in the forest lives Humbaba whose name is
Hugeness, a ferocious giant
his breath is like fire, and his jaws are
death itself."Excerpt from Gilgamesh, the earliest known Western epic (circa
Wilderness past, wilderness present, wilderness
in the future and wilderness as an intangible state of mindthats what the
first Frank Church Lectures, called Wilderness and the American Mind, addressed.
On Saturday, a group of wilderness philosophers, defenders and policy
makers converged on Elkhorn Resort to discuss wilderness as a state of mind and the
political reality of designating and maintaining wilderness as a physical place.
Among them were ex-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus; Sen. Frank Churchs
widow and Sawtooth Society president Bethine Church; Nez Perce tribal leader Jaime
Pinkham; author of Wilderness and the American Mind, Dr. Roderick Nash; U.S. Sen.
Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Idaho Conservation League executive director Rick Johnson; and Pat
Shea, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior for land and
The event was organized and sponsored by the Environmental Resource
Center (ERC) in Ketchum under direction from Dr. Lee Brown, past ERC director, and Molly
Goodyear, current ERC director.
The philosophical approach
In keeping with the theme of the day, Wilderness and the American
Mind, Nash, the keynote speaker, who is a professor of environmental studies at the
University of California at Santa Barbara, jumped right into the topic. "I believe
wilderness is a state of mind. It doesnt really exist. It was created by
civilization," he said.
And that state of mind has its beginnings thousands of years before
Jesus Christ walked the earth, he said.
Historically, wilderness was depicted as in Gilgamesh,
Homers The Odyssey and the Old Testament. It is an unknown, scary
place, he said.
"Wilderness is the dark place under my bed," Nash said a
child once told him.
As a Western society, that is the notion thats held true until
very recently, Nash said.
"Wilderness is our dark, reptilian root, the dark place of our
civilization," he said. "Historically, wilderness is everything wild and
And that sentiment has led Western civilization to conquer the wild,
untamed land, he said. In the U.S., as part of a quest to conquer the barbarous
wilderness, rivers were dammed, plains irrigated and land was (and is) bought and sold.
"Imagine the lack of humility here: We bought and sold the earth
today," Nash said. "But thats how its gone in this country."
Pinkham, offering his Native American viewpoint, agreed.
"The only one who can own the land is the one who created
it," he said. "We (the Nez Perce people) took from nature only what we needed to
Pinkham pointed out that Native American history is far removed from
Western history in perception of wilderness. The Nez Perce lived in and from the wild
country. There was no wilderness, he said.
Nash said that for America as a Western culture, "considering our
past, the modern day environmental and wilderness movement is a miracle."
Today, Nash said, public perception of wilderness is changing. In
(Interior Department official) Pat Sheas words, its a "point of
predictable recharge" for the planets nine-to-five soldiers. Or, in Nashs
words, its a "moral resource."
But the problems facing wilderness in the modern day, most of the
speakers said, are the number of people, and their conflicting uses, on planet Earth.
"There are more and more people going to less and less
wilderness," Nash said, comparing humans to a cancer.
Or, as Bethine Church said when she paraphrased the cartoon character
Pogo: "We see the enemy, and he is us."
Policy is not Nashs forte, and, as such, he presented different
views from the politicians on what needs to be done to achieve a balance between
wilderness and humans.
The politicians, former Gov. Andrus and Sen. Crapo, pointed to
compromise as a necessity in officially designating wilderness.
Nash, however, said theres been too much compromise already. He
asked about the compromise of the buffalo.
"Where are the buffalo, Bill?" he asked.
"You talk about breaching the dams," he said, "hell,
Im going to breach everything. The wolves will be in Idaho. Antelope will be in
Antelope Valley and salmon will be in the Salmon River."
Nash said he envisions three scenarios for the earth in the coming
millennium: a trashed-planet-wasteland scenario, a controlled-widespread-gardened planet
scenario or, his utopia, an island civilization where the planets population would
somehow be limited to 1.5 billion people who lived in well thought out
He concluded by saying there is no environmental problem. "The
problem is human."
The political approach
Politically, wilderness is a hot topic that began in 1964 when Sen.
Frank Church, D-Idaho, helped convince Congress to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act.
According to the act, an area must be bereft of roads to qualify as
wilderness. In official wilderness areas, which Congress must designate, use is restricted
to horse, mule or foot travel, and the areas are managed to promote natural, human-free
For those reasons, the issue is controversial among extractive
industries such as timber and mining.
The River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho was created by
Congress with the passage of the Central Idaho Wilderness Act on July 23, 1980. Sen.
Church's name was added to the Wilderness in 1983, one month before his death. The 2.3
million-acre area, the largest designated wilderness in the contiguous United States, is
now the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
Sen. Churchs wilderness preservation and conservation efforts are
the reasons the ERCs lecture series is named after him, explained past ERC director
Bethine Church kicked off the first Frank Church Lectures by praising
the efforts of past politicians who have worked to preserve wild places.
"The history of this country is full of efforts to preserve wild
places," she said, "but since 1980, no more wilderness has been designated in
"All of you here today know we are challenged on too many fronts
by those who think weve already protected too much land. This is no time to sit on
our laurels but to look to the challenges ahead.
"The damage we as humans have done on earth in our short time is
truly catastrophic. I am truly convinced that we have made many mistakes. In the words of
Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep."
In short, Church advocated designating more wilderness, protecting the
land and its resources for generations to come.
But the obstacles"those who think weve already
protected too much land"abound, Crapo said.
Several of the speakers fingers pointed to Sen. Larry Craig,
R-Idaho, as a formidable obstacle.
"When you exclude the public from the process, it doesnt
work," Andrus said, talking about the procedure of designating wilderness. "You
give the Larry Craigs in the world, who dont give a damn, a chance."
The Idaho Conservation Leagues Rick Johnson and Nash also
criticized Craig, who environmental advocates see as an opponent of wilderness expansion.
Johnson, who said he is anxious to try to get the Boulder/White Cloud
Mountains, north of Ketchum in the Sawtooth National Forest, designated as wilderness, is
looking to Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to get those efforts off the ground.
U.S. Rep. Helen Chenowith, R-Idaho, and Craig just "delay, deflect
and duck" the issue as much as they can, Johnson said.
"The wilderness is doable," Johnson said. "Its
time to do it, and the two Mikes can make it happen."
Crapo said making it happen wont be easy, however, due to a
predominantly Republican Congress.
"It takes 218 votes to pass a bill with the presidents
support," he said. "That is a tall order."
There are 435 members in the House of Representatives.
Crapo said compromise is of the utmost importance in passing wilderness
"Environmentalists and extractive users have the same
objectives," he saida desire for a strong economy and the need to preserve
A middle ground is absolutely achievable, he and Andrus said.