Wilderness Letter

Below is Wallace Stegner's "Wilderness Letter," written to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, and subsequently in his "Wilderness Idea," in The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). Click here for an introduction to this letter, written by Stegner in 1980.

   Los Altos, Calif.
   December 3, 1960
   David E. Pesonen
   Wildland Research Center
   Agricultural Experiment Station
   243 Mulford Hall
   University of California
   Berkeley 4, Calif.
   Dear Mr. Pesonen:
   I believe that you are working on the wilderness portion of the Outdoor Recreation Resources
   Review Commission's report. If I may, I should like to urge some arguments for wilderness
   preservation that involve recreation, as it is ordinarily conceived, hardly at all. Hunting, fishing,
   hiking, mountain-climbing, camping, photography, and the enjoyment of natural scenery will all,
   surely, figure in your report. So will the wilderness as a genetic reserve, a scientific yardstick by
   which we may measure the world in its natural balance against the world in its man-made
   imbalance. What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but
   the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will
   seem mystical to the practical minded--but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is
   likely to seem mystical to them.
   I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has
   certainly shaped our history as a people. It has no more to do with recreation than churches have to
   do with recreation, or than the strenuousness and optimism and expansiveness of what the
   historians call the "American Dream" have to do with recreation. Nevertheless, since it is only in
   this recreation survey that the values of wilderness are being compiled, I hope you will permit me
   to insert this idea between the leaves, as it were, of the recreation report.
   Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be
   destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette
   cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we
   pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of
   the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the
   exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the
   chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the
   environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and
   competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without
   chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological
   termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need
   wilderness preserved--as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds--because it was the challenge
   against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still
   there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for
   us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and
   rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is
   there--important, that is, simply as an idea.
   We are a wild species, as Darwin pointed out. Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically
   bred us. But for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to
   modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to
   domesticating ourselves. Not many people are likely, any more, to look upon what we call
   "progress" as an unmixed blessing. Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more
   material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein
   that will destroy us. One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar
   as we can, good animals. Americans still have that chance, more than many peoples; for while we
   were demonstrating ourselves the most efficient and ruthless environment-busters in history, and
   slashing and burning and cutting our way through a wilderness continent, the wilderness was
   working on us. It remains in us as surely as Indian names remain on the land. If the abstract dream
   of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream,
   mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we
   The Connecticut Yankee, sending likely candidates from King Arthur's unjust kingdom to his Man
   Factory for rehabilitation, was over-optimistic, as he later admitted. These things cannot be forced,
   they have to grow. To make such a man, such a democrat, such a believer in human individual
   dignity, as Mark Twain himself, the frontier was necessary, Hannibal and the Mississippi and
   Virginia City, and reaching out from those the wilderness; the wilderness as opportunity and idea,
   the thing that has helped to make an American different from and, until we forget it in the roar of
   our industrial cities, more fortunate than other men. For an American, insofar as he is new and
   different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild. The American experience
   has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just risen from
   the sea. That gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and excitement can be passed on
   to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But only so long as we
   keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise--a sort of wilderness bank.
   As a novelist, I may perhaps be forgiven for taking literature as a reflection, indirect but profoundly
   true, of our national consciousness. And our literature, as perhaps you are aware, is sick,
   embittered, losing its mind, losing its faith. Our novelists are the declared enemies of their society.
   There has hardly been a serious or important novel in this century that did not repudiate in part or in
   whole American technological culture for its commercialism, its vulgarity, and the way in which it
   has dirtied a clean continent and a clean dream. I do not expect that the preservation of our
   remaining wilderness is going to cure this condition. But the mere example that we can as a nation
   apply some other criteria than commercial and exploitative considerations would be heartening to
   many Americans, novelists or otherwise. We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural
   world, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce. And
   one of the best places for us to get that is in the wilderness where the fun houses, the bulldozers,
   and the pavement of our civilization are shut out.
   Sherwood Anderson, in a letter to Waldo Frank in the 1920s, said it better than I can. "Is it not
   likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got
   a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost.... Mystery whispered
   in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the
   American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.... I am old enough to remember tales that
   strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our
   people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain.... I can remember old fellows in
   my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the
   shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet...."
   We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we
   save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses as this, all the wild
   that still remains to us.
   It seems to me significant that the distinct downturn in our literature from hope to bitterness took
   place almost at the precise time when the frontier officially came to an end, in 1890, and when the
   American way of life had begun to turn strongly urban and industrial. The more urban it has
   become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our
   literature, and I believe our people, have become. For myself, I grew up on the empty plains of
   Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah, and I put a very high valuation on what
   those places gave me. And if I had not been able to periodically to renew myself in the mountains
   and deserts of western America I would be very nearly bughouse. Even when I can't get to the
   back country, the thought of the colored deserts of southern Utah, or the reassurance that there are
   still stretches of prairies where the world can be instantaneously perceived as disk and bowl, and
   where the little but intensely important human being is exposed to the five directions of the
   thirty-six winds, is a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me. But as the wilderness
   areas are progressively exploited or "improve", as the jeeps and bulldozers of uranium prospectors
   scar up the deserts and the roads are cut into the alpine timberlands, and as the remnants of the
   unspoiled and natural world are progressively eroded, every such loss is a little death in me. In us.
   I am not moved by the argument that those wilderness areas which have already been exposed to
   grazing or mining are already deflowered, and so might as well be "harvested". For mining I
   cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is
   taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West
   the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren't
   absolutely mortal. Better a wounded wilderness than none at all. And as for grazing, if it is strictly
   controlled so that it does not destroy the ground cover, damage the ecology, or compete with the
   wildlife it is in itself nothing that need conflict with the wilderness feeling or the validity of the
   wilderness experience. I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and
   the people who herd them have, in the wilderness context, the dignity of rareness; they belong on
   the frontier, moreover, and have a look of rightness. The invasion they make on the virgin country
   is a sort of invasion that is as old as Neolithic man, and they can, in moderation, even emphasize a
   man's feeling of belonging to the natural world. Under surveillance, they can belong; under
   control, they need not deface or mar. I do not believe that in wilderness areas where grazing has
   never been permitted, it should be permitted; but I do not believe either that an otherwise untouched
   wilderness should be eliminated from the preservation plan because of limited existing uses such as
   grazing which are in consonance with the frontier condition and image.
   Let me say something on the subject of the kinds of wilderness worth preserving. Most of those
   areas contemplated are in the national forests and in high mountain country. For all the usual
   recreational purposes, the alpine and the forest wildernesses are obviously the most important, both
   as genetic banks and as beauty spots. But for the spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the
   birth of awe, other kinds will serve every bit as well. Perhaps, because they are less friendly to life,
   more abstractly nonhuman, they will serve even better. On our Saskatchewan prairie, the nearest
   neighbor was four miles away, and at night we saw only two lights on all the dark rounding earth.
   The earth was full of animals--field mice, ground squirrels, weasels, ferrets, badgers, coyotes,
   burrowing owls, snakes. I knew them as my little brothers, as fellow creatures, and I have never
   been able to look upon animals in any other way since. The sky in that country came clear down to
   the ground on every side, and it was full of great weathers, and clouds, and winds, and hawks. I
   hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone. A
   prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as
   lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea. It is as good a place as any for the wilderness
   experience to happen; the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the
   alpine forest.
   So are great reaches of our western deserts, scarred somewhat by prospectors but otherwise open,
   beautiful, waiting, close to whatever God you want to see in them. Just as a sample, let me suggest
   the Robbers' Roost country in Wayne County, Utah, near the Capitol Reef National Monument. In
   that desert climate the dozer and jeep tracks will not soon melt back into the earth, but the country
   has a way of making the scars insignificant. It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such as
   wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and
   worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in
   hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country
   like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into
   it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who
   haven't the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two
   hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael
   Swell and the Robbers' Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know.
   And if they can't even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry
   them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and
   uncontrolled part of earth is still there.
   These are some of the things wilderness can do for us. That is the reason we need to put into effect,
   for its preservation, some other principle that the principles of exploitation or "usefulness" or even
   recreation. We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive
   to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a
   part of the geography of hope.
   Very sincerely yours,
   Wallace Stegner