The Politics of the Last Great Wilderness
by Grant A. Mincy
The Obama administration is turning heads by proposing new protections for large portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR is often referred to as the “Last Great Wilderness” because it boasts 19,286,722 pristine acres of truly wild Alaskan land.The U.S. Department of Interior says this may be one of the largest conservation measures “since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago.”
The term “wilderness” brings much imagery to mind, depending on the reader what is to be visioned. Be it twisted crags, meandering streams, bountiful flora and fauna, immeasurable mountains, purple horizons, deep canyons, a liberating, if not eerie, openness or any of nature’s endless bounty. The wild truly inspires the imagination and for good reason — we are, after all, wild beasts ourselves. I don’t know how wilderness is envisioned as anything but natural splendor. However, the maniacal bureaucrats of states and corporations always find a way to perplex me.
To administrators “wilderness” is political terminology — the highest level of protection available for “public” lands. Wilderness, in this context, loses its luster. The wild becomes envisioned as mounds of paperwork, number crunching, political calculation and resources for capital. And that term “public” is equally perplexing. Last time I looked this administration, as all before it, leased natural lands out to oil, gas and coal companies while “merrily fiddling the taxpayer,” as recently reported by Newsweek. Yes, be sure to enjoy your public lands, just don’t trespass on industry property.
Regarding the ANWR proposal, sit back and watch the depraved political theater unravel before your eyes. This move for conservation depends on congressional Republicans. There is no chance the GOP will approve the wilderness title. Bloomberg notes Alaska Republicans are going ballistic and oil industry officials are up in arms because the move would keep billions of barrels of their black gold buried. Always the political chess player, Obama knows he can pander to his base and simultaneously boast his support of U.S. natural gas production which is curbing the nation’s demand for oil. At the very least he can prevent drilling for two years. Depending on his successor, the measure can either be swept aside or carried forward — we shall see what 2016 holds.
But, even if Obama gets the “wilderness” designation, a future executive could reverse the title if national lust for oil deemed such action worthy. NPR reports Fadel Gheit, oil expert at Oppenheimer & Co., predicts the president’s action will not change the outlook for developing the ANWR reserves significantly, stating: “It will make life more difficult for the industry; it will put another hurdle — but technology will always bring the hurdle down.”
So, there you have it. ANWR is, eventually, doomed.
Or is it? Need the future of wild lands be tied to the state’s definition of wilderness?
The forests, the coasts, the rivers, lakes, across the prairies, down in the canyons and up in the mountains there exists a grandeur that’s irresistible to those who experience it. Civilization needs wilderness. Wilderness displays true liberty, freedom beyond the wildest dreams of human kind. For we cannot know our wildness, until we live it. In doing so we will long to preserve it ever more.
Wilderness need not be tied to the bureaucrat. Authoritarian nature has no choice but to despise and fear the wild. The permissive society, however, open, libertarian and good could never reduce the great poplar, spruce or caribou to data or decades of legislation. We imagine wilderness as it should be: Absent of executives, legislators, generals and commissioners. It’s time we imagined ourselves this way.