Law, College of


Date of this Version



Published in Environmental Law and Contrasting Ideas of Nature: A Constructivist Approach, Keith H. Hirokawa, Editor. Cambridge University Press, 2014. ISBN: 9781107033474


Copyright (c) Cambridge University Press, 2014. Used by permission.


Wilderness is often considered the epitome of naturalness – what nature ought to be. Indeed, in many ways, society, through its environmental laws, has prioritized the protection of wilderness over other areas of nature and other aspects of naturalness. We give our wilderness areas iconic names, like Delirium, Desolation, Devil’s Backbone, River of No Return, and Superstition, and we idealize themand treat them as something utterly unique and apart from our technology-ridden daily lives.

The nation’s preeminent wilderness statute, the Wilderness Act of 1964, is credited with significant preservation achievements. Over the years, the Act has remained remarkably robust, with few legislative revisions. The Act is so well loved that, as Professor Rodgers notes, it is “virtually repeal-proof.” During almost every congressional session since 1964, new wilderness areas have been added to the system or existing areas have been expanded.

But are wilderness areas really natural? And if they are something other than natural, does that diminish their value to society and to environmental law? As we grapple with these questions, a related issue comes to mind. By prioritizing “fenced-off” remote wilderness areas through stringent legal restrictions, are we unintentionally diminishing the idea of nature and short-changing a more holistic relationship between humans and nature, wherever we might encounter it? Historian William Cronon argues that the “mythicmeanings attached to wilderness” – and the perception that humans are apart from nature – “prevent realization of [other] important environmental values.” If this is true, must the “wooly-headed, tree-hugging worldview . . . which has long idealized wilderness (as true nature) while simultaneously designating humanity as the scourge of the planet, ‘die so that something new can live,’” as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger posited in The Death of Environmentalism

This chapter addresses these questions by tracing the origins and purposes of the Wilderness Act and by examining the Act’s role within the constellation of federal environmental laws and its continuing impact on society and on individual well-being. It argues that, contrary to the views of Cronon, Nordhaus, and Shellenberger, idealizing wilderness does not diminish our relationship with nature; rather, it enriches it just as much if not more than it did in 1964.

Admittedly, much has changed since 1964. We now have a more sophisticated scientific understanding of complex, dynamic ecological processes, which arguably undercuts the Act’s overarching equilibrium-dominated theme. We also face unparalleled pressures wrought by climate change, which arguably calls for adaptive management interventions to maintain or restore disrupted ecological communities in hopes of keeping protected areas as natural as possible. But instead of preventing the realization of other important values related to nature, many of which are explored in this book, the wilderness construct provides a symbolic, spiritual, and ecological touchstone for some of our deepest feelings about natural areas – solitude, peace, quiet, and freedom from mechanized and motorized technologies that otherwise surround us and saturate our society and our environment.