The importance of wilderness

We asked a number of people to share their thoughts on why wilderness areas are important to them. Here is what they had to say.

“Wilderness is freedom from the clamor and clutter of everyday life, and an opportunity to get back in touch with our place in the world. It’s about seeing wildlife as partners on the landscape. It’s something our big national parks can offer for us and future generations, a gift ever more precious over time. Wilderness is where we came from and where we need to get back to from time to time to find our essential selves. If I can walk in unspoiled nature, things are still OK.”

Rob Smith, Northwest regional director, National Parks Conservation Association

“My memories of many decades hiking and scrambling Mount Rainier’s spectacular high ridges and reaches with my late husband Clay sustain me today. From our adventures in the wilderness we gained spiritual renewal, physical strength and heartfelt appreciation for the beauty and bounty possible when Mother Nature is allowed to hold sway. I’m a wee bit less spry today at age 90. However, my passion for wilderness remains strong as I work with the Russell Family Foundation’s Puyallup Watershed Initiative to preserve and sustainably utilize this priceless 10,000 square mile lifeline which flows from Mount Rainier’s Puyallup Glacier.”

Dixie Gatchel, Mount Rainier National Park volunteer

“The first thing that comes to mind is this: It is only when I am in the backcounty or true wilderness that I feel completely myself and humble about my ‘humanness’ in the world. Nature teaches us to appreciate the beauty in patterns, lines, scale, dimension, height, breadth and depth. When I am receptive to what she has to teach me, I am moved and learn much more about myself and the complexities that lie in the world. Access is important but even more important is having spaces that are completely off limits to us where the natural world is unmarred by human touch. I love just knowing it is there, unscathed.”

Deb Nickerson, Black Hills Audubon Society

“During our lobbying for the passage of the Wilderness Act, we were accused of wanting to lock up places and throw the keys way. Now it can be seen that the trails are open and droves of people are using them. People seek out places where nature is in charge; where humans, who have changed every environment they use, can manipulate nothing.

“It’s not just for people. A wide variety of wilderness places seems to be necessary. Wilderness protects wildlife in sustainable environments. To keep healthy populations of wild animals, we must guarantee their safety on enough acreage to support them without human interventions.

“How many acres does a herd of elk need for sustenance? How many miles of untrammeled shoreline do nesting plovers need to bring off their annual clutches? How much forest does a cougar use to survive? How many wild crags for raptor aeries? How many totally natural streams will it take to save our native fish species?”

Helen Engle, Tacoma conservationist

“At one point in my early years of hiking, I remember passing by the “Entering Wilderness” sign without giving it much of a thought. Now that I understand the full impact of wilderness designation on a landscape, I pause and am thankful for the advocates that made it possible. This summer I made a point of hiking wilderness areas new to me. Both Mount Baker and the Clear Fork wilderness areas are full of spectacular scenery, giant trees, and varied habitat and are easily explored thanks to well-maintained trails.

“We Washingtonians are amazingly fortunate to have some of the best wilderness lands in the country to explore. With 31 wilderness areas, most of us are blessed with great places to hike, kayak and horseback ride within an hour’s drive of our homes. Wilderness is our backyard, spiritual haven and a place to rejuvenate from the stress of everyday life. Being able to step foot in wilderness provides so much. The Wilderness Act was ahead of its time, and now, as more and more people are getting out and enjoying the outdoors, we need to continue to work to protect these special places while exploring new ideas to further safeguard and build upon the future of Washington's many natural experiences.”

Karen Daubert, executive director, Washington Trails Association

“Passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act was one of the boldest pieces of environmental legislation ever passed by our federal government — and it was passed with bi-partisan support (passing in the House by a 373-1 vote). Recognizing that parts of our natural heritage should be altered as little as possible, the Wilderness Act afforded some of our most precious wild landscapes a reprieve from exploitation, development and harmful activities such as motorized recreation. Wilderness does not lock people out — it invites them to visit, but by simpler means. By foot or horseback, anyone who ventures into these sanctuaries can experience nature on nature’s terms. Henry David Thoreau proclaimed, ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.’ And I would like to add, in wildness is also the salvation of our souls — the meaning of life — and the preservation of our humanness. I am thankful for our wilderness heritage and I hope that current and future generations will continue to honor, recreate in and expand our wilderness areas.”

Craig Romano, Guidebook author and outdoors writer

“I find that being in the wilderness is spiritual, refreshing, energizing while it is also calming. And, having been able to journey into wilderness areas, I find that the feelings of calm and well-being stay with me, endowing the vistas of wilderness areas with those same qualities even when I can’t actually get to those areas.

“It is hard to do better than John Muir: ‘Going out, I found, was really going in.’ ‘In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.’ ‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.’ ‘Everybody needs beauty … places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.’

“The Wilderness Act has made it possible for us all to experience some of the beauty, serenity and marvels of nature that John Muir was lucky enough to be able to amble through for days on end. The Wilderness Act was intended to protect natural areas for us from ‘an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization.’ The act accomplished that, to our great benefit.”

Amy Mann, Hike of the Week author