Maybe you’re like me, and you think the world is a big damn mess, and you have no idea what to do about it. Maybe you’ve given up hope for saving the planet, but still haven’t given up the will to fight for it. Where to begin?
The planet’s vital signs are crashing. Wars over water, oil, and other dwindling resources are on the rise. Half of all species on the planet today will be gone in a few decades.
Sure, there are a few key solutions to rally around: renewable energy is near the top of the list, and we should probably change the way we grow and consume food. But the most important action of all, I believe, is this: do nothing.
Let Ma Nature do the work. She knows how the pieces of this planet fit together better than we ever will. We Homo sapiens think we’re so damn smart, but we tend to screw everything up with our tinkering. Managing wildlife inevitably fails. Manipulating ecosystems invariably backfires.
Ultimately, none of our little feel-good actions will save us unless we can share the planet with other species. Our only hope is working with Mother Nature rather than crowding her out.
So let’s give her some space. Wilderness is exactly that—survival space, for animals as well as for us. Wilderness is where nature functions freely, without human management. We can visit and hike in wilderness but not live there. In wilderness, nature is given priority.
The United States was the first country ever to set aside lands as wilderness. Fifty years ago, The Wilderness Act protected the last scraps of American wildlands from logging, mining, roads, buildings, and vehicles. Today, America’s wilderness is the largest and most biologically diverse system of protected lands in the world.
That’s the good news. But here’s the bad: here in the East, there are more acres of pavement than wilderness. Less than 1 percent of lands east of the Mississippi are protected as wilderness.
It’s not just endangered species that won’t make it. We can’t survive without wilderness. Wilderness cleans our water, filters our air, provides most of our medicines, and has sustained our species since we first stood up and walked.
We need more wilderness—on land and in the water, at home and abroad. Wilderness is our best chance at saving the planet—and ourselves. Thoreau got it right: In wildness is the preservation of the world.
It’s the easiest solution out there: protect wilderness and leave it alone. Best of all, it costs next to nothing. We don’t need to geoengineer the atmosphere; instead, let’s set aside more wilderness so that nature can restore the ecosystems for us.
Of course, it means setting aside lands that might otherwise be exploited for energy or timber. I’m okay with that. I’d rather have more wilderness and fewer fracked, clear-cut forests. I’ll take locked up lands over poisoned drinking water and flattened mountains.
And as for jobs? Wilderness ultimately generates more of them, especially in recreation, law enforcement, and tourism. And these jobs won’t go away when the coal and oil does. Protecting wilderness far outweighs the short-term gains from drilling, mining, or logging those lands.
Of course, maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you think technology can save us. Or maybe you think endless economic growth will create a planetary paradise.
Maybe you’re right. All I know is this: I trust Mother Nature a helluva lot more than corporate CEOs—and she works a lot cheaper. She’s a tough old broad who’s been around at least four billion years. We need her a lot more than she needs us. But we’ve got to give her room to work.
Several Southern Appalachian wilderness bills are currently being considered by Congress—expansions of existing wilderness areas in Kilmer-Slickrock (N.C.), Big Frog/Little Frog (Tenn./Ga.), Sampson Mountain (Tenn.), and Big Laurel Branch (Tenn.). Lest you think wilderness is too granola for your tastes, a Republican senator from Tennessee is one of the South’s greatest wilderness champions. Lamar Alexander has proposed a new wilderness area: the Upper Bald River Wilderness, along with expansions to other Tennessee wilderness areas, which would include portions of the Appalachian Trail and Benton MacKaye Trail and Ocoee River.
The best way to celebrate wilderness on its 50th anniversary would be to approve these and the 30 other proposed wilderness areas before Congress. It would also be the best way to ensure the survival of many species—including our own.