Introduction to the "Wilderness Letter"

Here is an introduction to Wallace Stegner's "Wilderness Letter" (1960) written by Stegner for The Living Wilderness magazine in December 1980.

The Geography of Hope Wallace Stegner
   When I wrote my "wilderness letter" to David Pesonen 20 years ago, I had probably been
   prompted to do so by David Brower. He was usually the cattleprod that woke me from other
   preoccupations and from my workaholism and directed my attention to something important. In this
   case what he woke me to was close to my heart. I had been lucky enough to grow up next to
   wilderness, or quasi-wilderness, of several kinds, and I was prepared to argue for the preservation
   of wilderness not simply as a scientific reserve, or a land-bank, or a playground, but as a spiritual
   resource, a leftover from our frontier origins that could reassure us of our identity as a nation and a
   people. The Wilderness Bill, already debated for years and the subject of hundreds of official
   pages, had not yet passed. The ORRRC report, with its inventory of what remained of our
   outdoors and its promise of reorganization of the bureaus managing it, seemed a good place to put
   in a word.
   By luck or accident or the mysterious focusing by which ideas whose time has come reach many
   minds at the same time, my letter struck a chord. Before it had time to appear in the ORRRC report,
   Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had picked it up and used it as the basis of a speech before a
   wilderness conference in San Francisco, and the Sierra Club had published it as a document of that
   conference. It was published in the Washington Post and the ORRRC report, and I included it in
   my collection of essays, The Sound of Mountain Water. Before long, some friend of mine saw it
   posted on the wall in a Kenya game park. From there, someone in South Africa or Rhodesia carried
   it home and had an artist named C. B. Cunningham surround it with drawings of African animals
   and birds, and turned it into a poster which the Natal Park Board, a Rhodesian kindness-to-animals
   organization and perhaps other groups have distributed all over south and east Africa. A quotation
   from it captions a Canadian poster, with a magnificent George Calef photograph of caribou
   crossing river ice; and I have heard of, but not seen, a similar Australian poster issued with the
   same intent. The Sierra Club borrowed its last four words, "the geography of hope," as the title for
   Eliot Porter's book of photographs of Baja California. Altogether, this letter, the labor of an
   afternoon, has gone farther around the world than other writings on which I have spent years.
   I take this as evidence not of special literary worth, but of an earnest, world-wide belief in the idea
   it expresses. There are millions of people on every continent who feel the need of what Sherwood
   Anderson called "a sense of bigness outside ourselves"; we all need something to take the shrillness
   out of us.
   Returning to the letter after 20 years, I find that my opinions have not changed. They have actually
   been sharpened by an increased urgency. We are 20 years closer to showdown. Though the
   Wilderness Bill in which we all placed our hopes was passed, and though many millions of acres
   have been permanently protected--the magnificent Salmon River wilderness only a few weeks
   ago--preservation has not moved as fast as it should have, and the Forest Service, in particular, has
   shown by its reluctance and foot-dragging that it often puts resource use above preservation. Its
   proposed wilderness areas have consistently been minimal, and RARE II was a travesty.
   Nevertheless, something saved. And something still to fight for. And also, since the BLM Organic
   Act, another plus-minus development. It is now possible that out of the deserts and dry grasslands
   managed by the BLM there may be primitive areas set aside as wilderness, as I suggested in my
   letter to Pesonen and as some of us proposed to Secretary Udall as early as 1961. Unhappily, the
   Organic Act was contemporary with the energy crisis and the growing awareness that the
   undeveloped country in the Rocky Mountains states is one of the greatest energy mines on earth.
   That discovery, at a time of national anxiety about energy sources, has brought forward
   individuals, corporations, and conglomerates all eager to serve their country by strip mining the
   BLM wasteland, or drilling it for oil and gas. Economic temptation begets politicians willing to
   serve special economic interests, and they in turn bring on a new wave of states'-rights agitation,
   this time nicknamed the Sagebrush Rebellion. Its purpose, as in the 1940s when Bernard DeVoto
   headed the resistance to it, (it was then called Landgrab) is to force the transfer of public lands from
   federal control the control of the states, which will know how to make their resources available to
   those who will know what to do with them. After that they can be returned to the public for
   expensive rehabilitation.
   The Sagebrush Rebellion is the worst enemy not only of long-range management of the public
   lands, but of wilderness. If its counterpart in the 1940s had won, we would have no wilderness
   areas at all, and deteriorated national forests. If it wins in the 1980s we will have only such
   wilderness as is already formally set aside. Federal bureaus are imperfect human institutions, and
   have sins to answer for, and are not above being influenced by powerful interests. Nevertheless
   they represent the public interest, by and large, and not corporate interests anxious to exploit public
   resources at the public's expense.
   In my letter to David Pesonen 20 years ago I spoke with some feeling about the deserts of southern
   Utah--Capitol Reef, the San Rafael Swell, the Escalante Desert, the Aquarius Plateau. That whole
   area has been under threat for nearly a decade, and though the Kaiparowits Complex was defeated
   and the Intermountain Power Project forced to relocate northward into the Sevier Desert near
   Lynndyl, the Union Pacific and 13 other companies are still pushing to mine the coal in the
   Kaiparowits Plateau, surrounded by national parks; and a group of utilities wants to open a big
   strip mine at Alton, four miles from Bryce, and a 500-megawatt power plant in Warner Valley, 17
   miles from Zion, and a 2,000-megawatt plant north of Las Vegas, and two slurry pipeline to serve
   them. The old forest road over the Aquarius is being paved in from both ends, the equally beautiful
   trail over the Hightop from Salina to Fish Lake is being widened and improved. Our numbers and
   our energy demands inexorably press upon this country as beautiful as any on earth, country of an
   Old Testament harshness and serenity.
   It is in danger of being made--of helping to make itself--into a sacrifice area. Its air is already less
   clear, its distances less sharp. its water table, if these mines and plants and pipelines are created,
   will sink out of sight, its springs will dry up, its streams will shrink and go intermittent. But there
   will be more blazing illumination along the Las Vegas Strip, and the little Mormon towns of Wayne
   and Garfield and Kane Counties will acquire some interesting modern problems.
   What impresses me after 20 years is how far the spoiling of that superb country has already gone,
   and how few are the local supporters of the federal agencies which are the only protection against
   it. They would do well to consider how long the best thing in their lives has been preserved for
   them by federal management, and how much they will locally lose if the if the Sagebrush Rebellion
   wins. Furthermore, the land that the Sagebrush Rebellion wants transferred, the chickenhouse that
   it wants to put under the guard of the foxes, belongs as much to me, or to a grocer in Des Moines,
   or a taxi driver in Newark, as to anyone else. And I am not willing to see it wrecked just to increase
   corporate profits and light Las Vegas.
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