Aldo Leopold’s “The Last Stand of the Wilderness”
A Plea for Preserving a Few Primitive Forests, Untouched by Motor Cards and Tourist Camps, Where Those Who Enjoy Canoe of Pack Trips in Wild Country May Fulfill Their Dreams
By Aldo Leopold
First published in American Forests and Forest Life, Vol. 31, No. 382, October 1925
In 1925, conservation legend Aldo Leopold published this appeal for wilderness preservation in American Forests, then already in its 30th year. Though many things have changed and our knowledge of forest ecosystems has improved, many of his words remain relevant today. See for yourself: Take a trip back in time with The Last Stand of the Wilderness. And stay tuned for our new feature, The Leopold Legacy, examining how Leopold’s lessons to his son, Starker, author of 1963’s “The Leopold Report,” continue to influence wildlife management to this day.
How many of those whole-hearted conservationists who berate the past generation for its short-sightedness in the use of natural resources have stopped to ask themselves for what new evils the next generation will berate us?
Has it ever occurred to us that we may unknowingly be just as short-sighted as our forefathers in assuming certain things to be inexhaustible, and becoming conscious of our error only after they have practically disappeared?
Today it is hard for us to understand why our prodigious waste of standing timber was allowed to go on — why the exhaustion of the supply was not earlier foreseen. Some even impute to the wasters a certain moral turpitude. We forget that for many generations the standing timber of America was in fact an encumbrance or even an enemy, and that the nation was simply unconscious of the possibility of its becoming exhausted. In fact, our tendency is not to call things resources until the supply runs short. When the end of the supply is in sight we “discover” that the thing is valuable.
This has been true of the latest natural resource to be “discovered,” namely the group of things collectively called Outdoor Recreation. We had to develop tenements and tired businessmen before Outdoor Recreation was recognized as a category of human needs, though the use of the outdoors for recreational purposes is as old as the race itself. This “discovery” that we need a national policy on Outdoor Recreation is in fact so new that the ink has barely dried on its birth certificate. And, as usual, we are becoming conscious of thousands of wasteful errors in the past handling of recreational resources which an earlier discovery might have avoided.
I submit that this endless series of more or less post-mortem discoveries is getting rather tedious. I for one am piqued in my sense of national pride. Can not we for once foresee and provide? Must it always be hindsight, followed by hurried educational work, laborious legislative campaigns, and then only partially effective action at huge expense? Can not we for once use foresight, and provide for our needs in an orderly, ample, correlated, economical fashion?
The next resource, the exhaustion of which is due for “discovery,” is the wilderness. The purpose of this article is to show why the wilderness is valuable, how close it is to exhaustion and why, and what can be done about it.
Wild places are the rock-bottom foundation of a good many different kinds of outdoor play, including pack and canoe trips in which hunting, fishing, or just exploring may furnish the flavoring matter. By “wild places” I mean wild regions big enough to absorb the average man’s two weeks’ vacation without getting him tangled up in his own back track. I also mean big areas wild enough to be free from motor roads, summer cottages, launches, or other manifestations of gasoline. Driving a pack train across or along a graded highway is distinctly not a pack trip — it is merely exercise, with about the same flavor as lifting dumb-bells. Neither is canoeing in the wake of a motor launch or down a lane of summer cottages a canoe trip. That is paddling — and the supply is unlimited.
Is the opportunity for wilderness trips valuable? Let us apply the test of the market price. Any number of well-to-do sportsmen are paying from $3,000 to $10,000 for a single big-game trip to the wilderness regions of British Columbia, Alaska, Mexico, Africa and Siberia. It is worth that to them. Now how about the fellow who has the same tastes for wilderness travel but a lesser pocketbook, and who probably has more real need of recreation? He simply has to do without, subsisting as best he can on polite trips to summer resorts and dude ranches. Why? Because the old wilderness hunting grounds, formerly within his reach, no longer exist, having been opened up by motor roads.
Right here I had better explain that motor roads, cottages, and launches do not necessarily destroy hunting and fishing, but they destroy the wilderness, which to certain tastes is quite as important.
Neither do I imply that motors, cottages, summer resorts, and dude ranches are not in themselves highly valuable recreational assets. Obviously they are. Only they are a different kind of recreation. We need to preserve as many different kinds as we possibly can. The civilized kinds tend to preserve themselves through the automatic operation of economic laws. But wilderness travel is a kind that tends to disappear under the automatic operation of economic laws, just as the site for a city park tends to disappear with the growth of a city. Unlike the city park, however, the wilderness can not be recreated when the need for it is determined by hind-sight. The need for it must be determined by foresight, and the necessary areas segregated and preserved. Wilderness is the one kind of playground which mankind can not build to order.
Since the pilgrims landed, the supply of wilderness has always been unlimited. Now, of a sudden, the end is in sight. The really wild places within reach of the centers of population are going or gone. As a nation, however, we are so accustomed to a plentiful supply that we are unconscious of what the disappearance of wild places would mean, just as we are unconscious of what the disappearance of winds or sunsets would mean. The opportunity to disappear into the tall uncut has existed so long that we unconsciously assume it, like the wind and sunset, to be one of the fixed facts of Nature. And who can measure the influence of these “fixed facts of Nature” on the national character? In all the category of outdoor vocations and outdoor sports there is not one, save only the tilling of the soil, that bends and molds the human character like wilderness travel. Shall this fundamental instrument for building citizens be allowed to disappear from America, simply because we lack the vision to see its value? Would we rather have the few paltry dollars that could be extracted from our remaining wild places than the human values they can render in their wild condition?
A national policy for the establishment of wilderness recreation grounds would in some instances be easy to put into operation if we act at once. The National Forests and Parks still contain a few splendid areas of relatively low value for other purposes, which could be readily segregated as roadless playgrounds. Wilderness areas in the National Forests would serve especially the wilderness hunter, since hunting is not and should not be allowed in the Parks. On the other hand, wilderness areas in the National Parks would serve all kinds of wilderness lovers except the hunter. In general, I believe that both the Forest Service and the Park Service would be receptive to the wilderness idea, but neither can be expected to execute it with the vigor and despatch necessary to save the situation, unless they can point to a definite crystallized public demand for such action. The public being still largely unconscious that the end of the wild places is in sight, there is as yet no articulate public expression for or against the wilderness plan. Meanwhile the remaining wild areas in both the Forests and Parks are being pushed back by road construction at a very rapid rate, so rapid that unless something is done, the large areas of wilderness will mostly disappear within the next decade.
This paper is a plea for a definite expression of public opinion on the question of whether a system of wilderness areas should be established in our public Forests and Parks.
Let me illustrate what I mean by saying that administrative officers can not effectively execute a wilderness policy without the help of a definite public demand. District Forester Frank C. W. Pooler has already tentatively designated the headwaters of the Gila River, in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico, as a wilderness area. It is the last roadless area of any size in the Southwest containing all the best types of mountain wild life and scenery, and by reason of its exceedingly broken topography is the logical location for a wilderness playground. It is Mr. Pooler’s belief that the Forest Service should withhold extending its road system into the Gila Wilderness, and should withhold granting permits for summer homes in it, until the whole wilderness idea has had an opportunity to crystallize into a definite policy, under which a final plan for handling the Gila Wilderness can be laid down.
Now suppose that a timber operator were to apply to build a railroad into this area thus tentatively reserved for wilderness purposes. Suppose the District Forester were to reply: ”No. This area is being held for public recreation as a wilderness hunting ground.” The lumber operator answers: “I haven’t heard of the public wanting wilderness hunting grounds. Where is this public, and just what does it want?” Obviously, unless there existed some clear expression of public need, and a definite official policy for meeting it, the District Forester’s position would be untenable, no matter how certain he felt that it was right. The point is that governmental policies can not be actually applied without many decisions by administrative officers involving the adjustment of conflicting interests. In such conflicts individual or economic interests may always be counted upon to be articulate. Group or public interests must likewise be made articulate, else they place the government executive in the thankless and often untenable position of being at once judge of the conflict and counsel for an absentee. The public interest must “speak up or lose out.” The dangers of delay in formulating a national policy for the establishment of wilderness recreation grounds are strongly emphasized in the present situation of the Lake States. In the last few years many people have begun to realize that wilderness canoe trips are about to become a thing of the past in the Lake States, because of the extension of tourist roads and summer resorts into the remnants of wild country.
The proximity of the Lake States to the centres of population in the Middle West, and the fact that canoe travel is a distinctive type of wilderness life not to be found elsewhere south of the Canadian border except in Maine, adds to the vital need for such a project.
But what to do about it is a difficult problem. The national land holdings consist of three little National Forests, The Superior, Minnesota, and Michigan. Their combined area is woefully inadequate. Moreover, they are more or less riddled with private holdings which, until eliminated by land exchanges, constitute serious obstacles to any and all future plans for developing the full public value of these Forests. The Izaac Walton League and the Superior National Forest Recreation Association, with a foresight for which they deserve much credit, have insisted that at least one wilderness area be established in the Lake States on these national lands. But this is easier said than done. An incredible number of complications and obstacles, too intricate to be here discussed, arise from the fact that the wilderness idea was born after, rather than before, the normal course of commercial development had begun. The existence of these complications is nobody’s fault. But it will be everybody’s fault if they do not serve as a warning against delaying the immediate inauguration of a comprehensive system of wilderness areas in the West, where there is still a relatively unimpeded field for action.
A start toward such a system has already been made at the initiative of the Forest Service. The hinterland around Jackson Hole, including the Grand Tetons and Two-Ocean Pass, are entered as “roadless” in the recreations plans for the future. Likewise, that part of the Absoraka Forest between Boulder Creek and Yellowstone Park, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho, and parts of the Clearwater country in Montana are so classified. The Gila area in New Mexico has been already mentioned. What now seems to me important is for the government to undertake and the public to support the establishment of similar areas in every state that still contains National Forest or Park lands suitable for wilderness purposes.
The big thing that stands in the way of such a program is the well-nigh universal assumption that advance action is unnecessary. “Why, this area never will be opened up!” That was said ten years ago about many an area that has since been broken up. I know of five in the Southwest alone. It is being said today, and unless we clearly realize the danger, it will continue to be said until the chances for adequate action are gone.
Let us now consider some of the practical details of how the proposed system of wilderness areas should be administered. It is, for instance, a moot question whether regulated timber cutting should be allowed in them. If the conditions are such that the cuttings would leave motor roads in their wake, I would say “no.” But in the Lake States much logging can be done over the lakes, without any trunk roads, so that it seems to me possible, by skillful planning, permanently to use much of the remaining wild country for both wilderness recreation and timber production without large sacrifice of either use.
Another question is that of fire. Obviously the construction of trails, phone lines, and towers necessary for fire control must be not only allowed but encouraged. But how about roads? Wherever the opponents of the idea can argue that unless the country is opened up it will burn up, there is no chance for the wilderness. Let us take the Gila as an example. I think it can be confidently asserted that on the Gila, extension of roads is not necessary for good fire protection. The Forest Service, with its system of lookouts, telephone lines, and trails, is successfully handling the fires, even during the bad years. The percentage of lightning as compared with man-caused fires on the Gila is very high (65 per cent lightning; 35 per cent man-caused). As a rule the greater the percentage of lightning fires, the more serious is the handicap of inaccessibility. The reason for this is that man-caused fires are usually increased by building roads and letting in more transients, whereas lightning fires remain the same. Therefore a heavy lightning region like the Gila ought to be a severe test of the practicability of controlling fires in roadless areas. As already stated, that test has been thus far successful.
I do not imply, however, that this one case disposes of the argument. The game of fire-control is too complicated to be comprehended in “rules of thumb.” There may be regions here and there where fire control is impossible without roads. If so, we must have roads in such regions, wilderness or no wilderness. But there may with equal likelihood be other regions where the reverse is true. The whole fire question in its relation to the wilderness plan is one of skill in selecting and administering each particular area. Such skill is already available among the forest officers who have devoted years of study to fire control as well as a dozen other related forest problems.
The acceptance of the idea of wilderness areas entails, I admit, a growth in the original conception of National Forests. The original purposes were timber production and watershed protection, and these are and must always remain the primary purposes. But the whole subsequent history of these Forests has been a history of the appearance and growth of new uses, which, when skillfully adjusted to the primary uses and to each other, were one by one provided for and the net public benefit correspondingly increased. Public recreation was one of these. When the forests were first established, recreation did not exist in the minds of either the foresters or the public as an important use of the public Forests. Today it has been added to timber production and watershed protection as an important additional public service. It has been proven that skillful administration can provide for both in the same system of Forests without material sacrifice of either.
One wilderness area could, I firmly believe, be fitted into the National Forests of each State without material sacrifice of other kinds of playgrounds or other kinds of uses. Additional wilderness areas could, it seems to me, be fitted into the various National Parks. As far as I can see there would usually be necessary neither new costs nor new laws nor new work — simply a well-pondered administrative decision delimiting the areas, and in such area establishing a permanent “closed season” on roads, cottages, or other developments inimical to the wilderness use.
To urge that wilderness playgrounds are unnecessary because ample forest playgrounds of other kinds are already being established is just as idle as to urge that there is no need for public tennis courts because there are already public golf links. The two things represent differing needs of different people, each entitled to recognition in due proportion to their numbers and importance. The people in need of wilderness areas are numerous, and the preservation of their particular kind of contact with Mother Earth is a national problem of the first magnitude.
Now what do the lovers of wilderness trips have to say about it? The last National Conference on Outdoor Recreation said nothing. This Conference is the official agency for extending recognition to new needs of this kind, dovetailing them with other and possibly conflicting needs, and thus determining for each its place in the sun. If any individual or group believe in the wilderness idea, or have any one place where they believe it should be applied, now is the time to make known their belief.