I am not a kneejerk advocate of giving official wilderness designation and protection to every scrap of land which could possibly qualify. But look again at the reality: we’re never going to be able to make any more of it.
There are ecological arguments in favor of wilderness. There are also economic arguments, some of which Franklin Mayor Bob Scott has advanced. And there are counterarguments, but I’m not going to get into all that here. The only argument I wish to present — apart from the very personal argument that I enjoy rambling about in wild places — is one based on the very conservative concept of prudence. When there’s not a lot left of something, you shouldn’t destroy the remnant, even if you don’t always have a clear idea what you might need it for. To cite the early wilderness advocate Aldo Leopold, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces.”
That’s a practical argument. There is also an argument from respect — for the Creation, for the process of evolution, or whatever concept appeals to you. The different religions of the world have different viewpoints and interpretations of what should be expected of us by way of stewardship. But I am not aware of any religion — except maybe contemporary economic “religion,” which doesn’t recognize any God — which says “Act as if you were God; take the world and do any damn thing that suits you.”
The argument will be made — correctly — that the people who came before us on this land, the Cherokee and their predecessors, also modified the landscape. But they had neither the technology nor the population numbers to so thoroughly alter the earth as we do. They didn’t need to designate wilderness areas because wild lands were all around them; it was part of their heritage and it is part of ours, albeit in greatly reduced quantity.
One of the things that pleases me about being an American is that we still have this heritage — something which scarcely exists in Europe, where most of our ancestors came from. One of the things which makes me proud to be an American is that this country has had the wisdom to officially set aside some of our wild lands — a notion which for the most part reached Europe too late. But, like I said, they aren’t making any more.
To put this in a Western North Carolina framework, to say that there is a shortage of early successional habitat (which from the point of view of a small game hunter using public lands, there is) and to attempt to remedy that shortage by eliminating something which is also in scarce supply, and irreplaceable to boot, is not logically defensible unless you are willing to devalue our wild heritage.
Finally, I’d like to frame the wilderness argument in terms of an even larger and more important issue — climate change. Some climate change deniers attack wilderness proposals and other efforts to moderate greenhouse gas emissions by painting scientists’ warnings as a blasphemous absurdity. How could we, as humans, be so vain as to imagine that we could affect the very workings of the planet and its atmosphere? This addressed to you and me — the very humans who, starting long before the concept of human-induced climate change became popular, caused the extinction of numerous species, dramatically increased the expanse of the world’s deserts, rendered sizable areas of the planet uninhabitable due to radiation, and depleted our aquifers to the extent that in some parts of the world there is not enough water to go around?
Of course we are capable of contaminating the atmosphere and altering the climate. We are also capable of choosing not to do so.
Scientists in general have come to accept that we are entering a new era of geologic time — the Anthropocene, so named because the main factor affecting our planetary environment is not glaciers or volcanic activity or meteors which might strike earth. Rather it is a single species — us.
Humility does not lie in an “aw shucks” sort of denial that we have the power to shape the future. Rather it requires that we accept that our power to affect physical and biological change outstrips our ability to understand all the consequences. If this be so, then setting aside some small fraction of our land in such a way that it will be minimally influenced by human activity is more than a conservation measure, it is a gesture of humility. As surely as the study of history, it reminds of where we came from and helps us understand the mistakes we may have made along the way. It acknowledges our imperfection, embodies our hope for a livable future and honors the Creation better than any human invention.
The planning process for the Nantahala/Pisgah national forests provides a timely opportunity to consider these ideas.