HOW TO PROTECT GOD’S WILD LANDS
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP MAKE IT HAPPEN
By Clayton Daughenbaugh
The aphorism “Think globally, act locally” is the crux of wilderness protection. You can be effective locally on behalf of land in your vicinity and globally on behalf of land far from where you reside.
Because every local thing occurs as part of a global system, the act of maintaining the ecosystem resources that creation provides for humans—such as food, water, climate, fuel, waste treatment, and nutrient cycling, among others—requires thinking on a massive scale. In order to protect the 17% remaining wild lands1 and in order to begin restoring what will move us toward the 50% range that conservation biologists say we need to stop the current human induced mass extinction,2 we need to think in terms of continent-wide landscapes. If you haven't already, read the article relating to wilderness problems, Wilderness: God's Garden and the Threats to Nature.
Citizens of the United States are blessed to have numerous opportunities to protect wild lands. Chief among these is the opportunity to protect America’s public lands—29% of the country’s land area. These public lands are owned equally by all the citizens, and they are managed on our behalf by several government agencies—the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. As part of the mandate related to citizen ownership of these lands, there are federal laws requiring that land management agencies provide for citizen participation in their planning processes. There are also laws, such as the Wilderness Act and the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, that enable citizens to conserve land through our elected representatives.
Because the Wilderness Act is specific to the topic at hand, we will start there. Passed in 1964, the Wilderness Act provides a framework whereby Congress can protect wilderness. This act also allows for public lands that are managed for wilderness characteristics to be designated legally as wilderness land. The law defines wilderness as:
“. . . an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
The law elaborates as follows:
“… subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and, except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”
This definition expresses the highest form of land conservation in the United States and, most probably, in the world. The act enables American citizens to provide legal protection for land that yet remains in a natural state of creation.
There are 702 designated wilderness areas ranging in size from six acres ( Pelican Island in Florida) to nine million acres (Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska).3 These wilderness areas comprise 17% of U.S. public lands and 2.5% of the nation’s total land area4 —an impressive amount, but far short of what many scientists feel is necessary to sustain the quality of life for human beings and other life forms. There are currently before congress two dozen citizen-initiated proposals for designating additional public lands as “wilderness.” These proposals seek to designate land areas as wilderness so that they will come under the protection of the law for wilderness areas. For example, the “ Virginia Ridge and Valley Act” seeks to protect six areas totaling 55,000 acres. Utah’s “ America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act” seeks to protect a network of 65 areas totaling 9.4 million acres.
In addition to advocating that public lands be designated as wilderness, there are other opportunities to retain and restore the wild character of federal lands. National Parks and Monuments are often comparable to wilderness, and sometimes they contain actual wilderness areas. The same can be said, but less broadly, for National Wildlife Refuges. Designations by a land management agency—such as the U.S. Forest Service’s Roadless Rule—offer significant, though less permanent and generally less thorough, assistance in preserving the wildness of public land areas. We can advocate in support of these efforts.
Though the greatest opportunities for wilderness protection are on national public lands, these are not the only opportunities. Many states and counties have various forms of conservation areas that can expand the extent of land protection. In many cases, local non-profit organizations work in association with government land-management agencies to help restore degraded land to a higher quality—so that it may serve as a flourishing wildlife habitat.
It is important to remember that just because open lands are held in public ownership does not mean that those lands are being managed to maintain their natural or wild character. Parks and picnic areas generally prioritize human activities. Areas dedicated to motorized recreation or with extensive networks of paved or graveled trails will be unable to sustain the full range of natural processes or the full range of wildlife indigenous to the habitat.
Private land owners can also make important contributions to wilderness preservation. This is especially true if the tracts of private land are very large or if they adjoin other lands with wild character. It is even possible for privately-held land to be turned into private land trusts or conservation easements.
WHAT YOU AND YOUR FAITH COMMUNITY CAN DO
Most efforts to protect wilderness involve legislation. Therefore, any individual or church can support any of the congressional wilderness proposals, whether the wilderness itself is in your area or not. Always helpful are letters from individual constituents or groups written to elected representatives asking for their co-sponsorship and/or support of wilderness proposals.
If there is a particular proposal—originating from anywhere in the country—that you or a group at your church is especially interested in, you might want to consider scheduling a meeting with your senator or representative, or a member of his or her staff, to ask for their support. Letters, email messages, and phone calls are effective; but there is no substitute for face-to-face conversation.
A short list of conservation organizations can point you in the right direction.
Host an event supporting wilderness areas
Host an event for your community or municipality. Leaders of conservation organizations supporting particular wilderness proposals are generally eager to talk about their commitments. You can use the contact list below to identify an organization that may have a chapter in your area.
Small group discussion or adult forum
A discussion of how wilderness relates to our faith and how our faith relates to the protection of specific areas can be both thought-provoking and action-provoking. This can be a good topic for small groups of all sorts in your congregation.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance offers a very helpful and inspiring fifteen minute, multi-media slide show on Utah’s red rock canyonlands wilderness and a manual to guide a discussion of faith and wilderness. These resources are available on the Web of Creation at . . . [link]
Pass a formal resolution—“The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” Psalm 24
It is particularly important that people of faith speak out as people of faith on behalf of God’s creation. An official resolution from your congregation, denominational board or agency, your regional judicatory, or the denomination itself would be extremely helpful in this regard. A draft of such a resolution for your use or adaptation is available HERE.
Use special holidays and religious occasions to celebrate creation and express care for Earth in worship—Earth Day, Thanksgiving, or the Season of Creation (see their wilderness materials at www.seasonofcreation.com. However, every worship occasion throughout the year can be an opportunity to incorporate care for creation. Worship resources regarding wilderness can be found at www.webofcreation.org. There are also educational and liturgical resources provided by the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Working Group at www.nccusa.org.
Given the spiritual connection with God that many people experience in natural settings, prayer is an especially appropriate activity in relation to wilderness. Consider prayers of thanksgiving for God’s good gift of wild land, prayers of intercession on behalf of wild lands in need of protection, prayers of confession for the harm that humans have done to God’s wild lands, and simple personal prayers offered while you are in the wilderness as a means of deepening your relationship with God.
Visit a wild area
Every August a small group of men from First United Methodist of LaGrange, Illinois spend a week camping in Quetico Provincial Park (in Canada near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness). It is a simple opportunity to share the blessings of wilderness and church fellowship together. Whether it is camping or simply spending a day walking in a wild place, visiting a wilderness area can be a way to establish and maintain a relationship with our animal and plant neighbors within God’s creation. Few experiences bring a greater reward.
The author, Clayton Daughenbaugh, resides in Illinois where he is a member of the LaGrange First United Methodist Church’s Environmental Justice Committee http://www.fumclg.org/templates/System/details.asp?id=35855&PID=505613&Style=. He works as Midwest Field Organizer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliancehttp://www.suwa.org/site/PageServer . He is also a volunteer member and current chairperson, of the Sierra Club’s National Wildlands Committeehttp://www.sierraclub.org/wildlands/ . (Organizations listed for identification purposes only.) He is available for speaking engagements at secular and religious venues, primarily in Midwestern states, and can be contacted at
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LINKS FOR WILDERNESS-RELATED ORGANIZATIONS AND SOURCES OF INFORMATION
Campaign for America’s Wilderness - http://leaveitwild.org/
National Council of Churches - http://nccecojustice.org/landhome.htm
Nature Conservancy - http://www.nature.org/
Sierra Club - http://www.sierraclub.org/
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance - http://www.suwa.org/
The Wilderness Society - http://www.wilderness.org/
1. Kareiva, Peter; Watts, Sean; McDonald, Robert; Boucher, Tim. “Domesticated Nature: Shaping Landscapes and Ecosystems for Human Welfare” Science, 316 (June 29, 2007) 1866-1869.
2. Michael Soule and John Terborgh, “The Policy and Science of Regional Conservation”, Continental Conservation: Scientific Foundations of Regional Reserve Networks, ed. Michael Soule and John Terborgh (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999) 3.
4. Doug Scott, The Enduring Wilderness, (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004) 2; 10.