From an eagle's vantage, it looks like a great, crumpled piece of paper that someone tried halfheartedly to flatten. In the brushed glow of early morning, the wrinkled topography of central Idaho creases the horizon. There's no end in sight. It is big country filled with big mountains and big, wild places.
Like much of the West, Idaho is a land of staggering beauty, but it's also a place of biological and philosophical integrity: intact forest and high-desert ecosystems threaded by clean, cold, free-flowing rivers. It's a land of wilderness and wildness, where man has set at least some of the wild aside so all living creatures might benefit. "Wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape," states the Wilderness Act of 1964, "is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
What that means is wilderness set aside by Congress is a place where man cannot tread with anything heavier than his boots. He may enter, but his machines may not. Wilderness, then, with its intact wildlife habitats, is a vital ecological reservoir, a spiritual well for those seeking solace and silence and a significant part of the fabric of who we are.
But as the discussion about wilderness continues to mature in the 21st century, particularly in political circles, it is clear that aspects of the Wilderness Act are often overlooked. In setting aside wilderness, humans recognize something of value that's bigger than they are. More than any access issue, this is the foundation upon which the modern-day idea of wilderness is built.
"This ecocentric argument for wilderness centers on the proposition that human interests are not the paramount concern," wrote historian Roderick Frazier Nash in his seminal book Wilderness and the American Mind. "Wilderness is not for us at all. We should allow it to exist out of respect for the intrinsic values of the rest of nature and particularly for the life forms dependent on wild habitats."
One of the last continental states to be settled by Europeans, Idaho is synonymous with wilderness. With 4.9 million acres in 12 congressionally designated wilderness areas, some of the finest and wildest wilderness areas in America are located here. The state's center is a giant doughnut hole of wild land, and only a handful of roads invade its wild heart.
The late Sen. Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, was a key sponsor of both the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, Idaho's 2.4-million-acre centerpiece, was renamed in the senator's honor.
Wilderness, Church told a northern Idaho newspaper in 1961 while campaigning for the Wilderness Act's passage, "has nothing to do with economics. It has to do with philosophy … . It is our moral responsibility that some of the heritage we have had as Westerners is protected for future generations."
This is in line with the stated positions of many wilderness proponents, and is in step with statements issued by Congressman Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican who has been working for the past decade to designate as wilderness more than 300,000 acres in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains north of Sun Valley.
"I don't believe there's anybody who's seen this who doesn't think we should protect it," Simpson said during an August afternoon near Big Boulder Creek in the White Cloud Mountains in 2006. "The solitude here is just—you almost need to come out from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world to find yourself … I think the value of wilderness is going to increase over the years. I think future generations will look back and say, ‘Thank God somebody protected these areas so that we could enjoy them.'"
These are the modern manifestations of the long and tangled history that has molded the idea of wilderness, a concept invented by civilization and still rolling across the American psyche in an evolving intellectual wave. It was at the end of the American frontier in the late 1800s that the scarcity of wild country began to increase its value. The intellectual topography was ready for the vanguard of philosophers and activists who began to consider that nature might merit rights to existence completely independent of its use to people.
"The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wilderness is the preservation of the World," wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1862 essay Walking. "Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind."
Wilderness isn't about us or them or whether it's fair that people wearing shoes can access it while those on bicycles cannot. Wilderness is a refined way of thinking about humankind's relationship with nature and offers an alternative to our historic domination and conquest.
"At the heart of the new, ecocentric rationale for wilderness is respect for this larger community of life and process," Nash wrote. "So wilderness preservation has become, finally, a gesture of planetary humility."