Staying Wild: How the Wilderness Act Changed My Life

For one woman writer, wilderness provided sanctuary and solace in an unstable world. Preserving this source of the good life meant stepping into the political fray.


When I was a child, I experienced my first taste of the wild from our summer house in the dunes bordering Lake Michigan. Running on beaches, gathering wildflowers, nestled within the maternal curves of the dunes, or swimming in waters that flowed to the horizon, I discovered freedom and solitude.

The Wilderness Act designated more than 9 million acres to be protected in its first year.

Seeking wild places would become a lifelong quest. I went from Chicago to Seattle as a 20-year-old wife and mother and discovered backpacking in the wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula. A few years later, my husband, Dave, and I acquired our patch of back-country in Montana's Blackfoot River valley. We recycled an old hewn-log house and, with our four boys, moved into its rough shelter on Christmas Day in 1973. A year and a half later, while the six-year-old twins watched, I witnessed my husband die of heart failure on the maple floor of our kitchen. I stayed on our land, raised the boys, completed the unfinished house, found the true companion of my later years, and reinvented myself.

On balance, I think I am leading a good life, and it is tied to wilderness. My freezer is filled with salmon, steelhead, grouse, and elk fished and hunted by my son Steve; we grow organic vegetables in our raised-bed gardens; there is homemade wine in the cellar, and huckleberry jam for pancakes. My sons, though scattered, remain close to home in their hearts and minds. I share my household with two dogs and two cats, and the ghosts of my horses keep company with black bears, elk, whitetail deer, coyotes, bobcats—even porcupines. Our skies are vivid with American eagles, red-tailed hawks, and blue herons. Flitting among pines are migrating bluebirds, tanagers, chickadees, and hummingbirds. Down in Bear Creek, a few hundred yards from our cattle guard, we have seen endangered bull trout, and fished for native cutts, rainbows and brown trout. Tonight, singing winter's end, spring peepers are courting in the cattail pond.

But a life in nature is not all wild roses. I used to have lush forests around me.  Those forests had been logged, and in many places burned. Still, when my family settled here some 35 years ago, the foothills and mountains that circle our meadow were black-green with ponderosa pines, Douglas fir, and larch, and their density was broken only by chartreuse patches of seedlings growing back from clearcuts. For years, we have enjoyed the forest's gifts, but now I watch logging trucks roll by carrying its trees away. Recently, I walked with my dogs in the woods above Bear Creek and found great swaths cut down, treetops and limbs scattered on the torn soil, bleeding sap. Health and beauty had fled to become toilet paper, plywood, and essays I publish in books and magazines—products I use and enjoy. I am complicit in my forest's destruction.

The idea of wilderness is embodied in our nation's identity.

Yet not all logging is equal or necessary. I believe forests that harbor rare and bounteous wild life should enjoy protection, even if privately owned. I will do what I can to stop saws from cutting down every mature tree in my vicinity. But I doubt if I will succeed, because the forest is not mine. It is owned by Plum Creek, a corporation that calls its huge woodlands “industrial.” Plum Creek cares nothing for my environmentalist notions.  If the forest is industrial, they reason, then it has one purpose, and that is to produce a cash product as efficiently as possible. But wasn't it corporations themselves that thought to call forests industrial? As if calling something by a false name excuses the damage you do to it.

These days, looking west and south, I face logged off hills and peaks. And where the sun rises above my meadow's fringed horizon, are the doublewides, SUVs, and barking dogs of creeping suburbia. Even the Blackfoot River, a mile and a half down Bear Creek, is being threatened by investors wanting to mine gold with cyanide at its headwaters.

A few years ago, we, the local landholders, ranchers, fishermen, environmentalists, concerned mothers, and plain citizens, won a ban on all mining with cyanide in Montana through an initiative process. It was a victory. But the price of gold is up, and mining interests with deep pockets are trying to overturn the initiative.

Seeking wild places would become a lifelong quest.

Wilderness is another matter. As defined and set aside by the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness areas belong to everyone. We may go there or not, and yet be assured they will not be destroyed, for they are protected in perpetuity. When I feel trapped in society, I use the escape valve I discovered as a child. From the height of my meadow, to the north I see peaks of the Bob Marshall Wilderness; east lies the Scapegoat. I might drive south to the Selway-Bitterroot, or find myself a short way out of Missoula in the Rattlesnake. Whatever area I choose, I know I will step into a secure place where the intertwined systems of nature are unhindered by human greed or need or desire to control. There, I may rediscover joy.

What we call wilderness was every place before humans destroyed so much of the natural world it seemed almost gone. Then wilderness became an idea. The idea of wilderness is embodied in our nation's identity. Indian myths and cowboy myths and the myth of the frontier are all part of the wilderness idea. Europe and Asia might claim advanced civilization, but the United States boasts the Grand Canyon, giant sequoias, Yellowstone's geysers, the grizzlies and glaciers of Montana.

Congress enacted the Wilderness Act 40 years ago this fall. Its purpose was to recognize certain wild and undeveloped regions as vital resources for our society, and to define such areas in ways that could make their preservation actual and consistent. Section 2(a) explains the rationale:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

The Wilderness Act designated more than 9 million acres to be protected in its first year. Since then, citizens concerned with saving their special wild places have helped to increase the Wilderness System to a total of 105 million acres. This is less than 5 percent of the nation's land, but it includes such beautiful and remote areas as mountains in the Northern Rockies, swamplands of Florida's Everglades, deserts in the southwest, redrock canyons of the Colorado Plateau, as well as Idaho's Salmon River country, and Alaska's Denali Wilderness.

As for me, I have put a conservation easement on my 163 acres that will protect it from subdivision and development. Whether it stays in my family or passes to someone else, the meadow and its old-growth forest will stay wild. In the larger neighborhood, I will work to keep the watershed of the Big Blackfoot River free of cyanide, and beyond that I will join with those who are trying to protect the Rocky Mountain Front from energy exploitation. All this is preventive.

On the active side, over in eastern Montana, a group of us prairie lovers are collaborating on a project to preserve grasslands and reintroduce bison. In such collaborations, notions of how to lead a good life get married to the idea and practice of wilderness—a coupling that should last as long as wildness exists in the natural world.