The Meaning of Wilderness


Remarks to National Park Service Master Plan Team Members

Sigurd Olson developed a close relationship with National Park Service leaders after World War II, first as director of the National Parks Association, and later as a member of the Park Service’s advisory board and as a paid consultant to two different Park Service directors. He served on several teams that prepared master plans for managing national parks, and traveled the United States scouting out potential additions to the national park system. He played a role in the establishment of a number of national parks, monuments, and other protected areas, from Cape Cod in the East, to Voyageurs National Park in the Midwest, to Padre Island in the South, to Point Reyes in the West. Over the years he traveled to Alaska many times and was a member of the Park Service’s Alaska Task Force, which in 1965 recommended withdrawing roughly seventy-six million acres of outstanding wildlands in thirty-nine locations spread across the state. Fifteen years later, these recommendations formed the core of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which was signed by President Jimmy Carter and protected one hundred and four million acres, more than a quarter of the state.

Sigurd became a beloved figure among rank-and-file Park Service employees, too, in part because of his tremendous effectiveness as a conservation leader, but most of all because of their exposure to him at Park Service conferences. He frequently spoke at these events, and, while his messages often challenged Park Service employees to rise to meet some threat or opportunity, he also inspired them and gave them a sense of hope that they could meet his challenge.

The talk below, given to National Park Master Plan team members sometime in the mid-1960s, shows not only his belief in the importance of wilderness to the national parks, but his talent for encouraging people to hold fast to their ideals in the face of sometimes strong opposition. The four-page transcript from which this comes appears to have been taken from a conference proceedings document put out by the Park Service, but only the portion containing Olson’s comments is in his collected papers, so the original source is unknown.


CHAIRMAN DAN BEARD: Our next speaker, who really needs no introduction, is a writer, an educator, philosopher, explorer, outdoorsman, canoeist, voyager, conservationist, and special consultant to the Secretary of the Interior—our dear friend, Sig Olson.

SIGURD OLSON: Thank you, Dan, for that rapid-fire resume of impossible accomplishments. I won’t even try to live up to them.

Sometime after the new Director [George Hartzog] came in, he and I had an early morning talk. We talked about the wilderness. I must have been rather inspired, because George said, “Can you put this into a caption, a brief statement that I can use, possibly with some of the Master Plans?”

I said, “I will try, George.” But I never did. It is still on my desk marked “Urgent.” Someday I am going to try to put down some of the ideas I discussed with George that morning. A couple of the ideas stand out and those I will try to give you now.

We have heard a great deal about wilderness. The previous speakers on this program talked about it, and other program people have talked about it. The last few years, there has been so much talk about wilderness that we have become sort of drifting or swimming in a flow of words, and I wonder sometimes if we aren’t forgetting the real essence of what we are talking about. We become so engrossed in our language, our definitions, and our objectives that it is hard to say what you really want to do or what you really want to understand in the application of management plans or their development.

When a speaker gets up, he must have a few convictions, otherwise pronouncements are not particularly valuable. I have convictions; one is that the preservation of wilderness in the National Park System is probably the most important management activity of the men in whose care these values are entrusted. I know you have all been concerned with the preservation of wilderness. In the Master Plans that are coming up, you know what you have got to do. In every individual plan, the same, broad regional considerations Ted and Howard were talking about yesterday give it even more impact. The preservation of wilderness is vital and important because without wilderness, park areas, historic areas, recreational areas, any type of area you happen to think about or will be entrusted with, will lose its essence, its atmosphere, its feeling. Without the preservation of wilderness, particularly in our National Parks, beautiful scenes, beautiful areas lose their significance.

I sometimes think that if the wilderness atmosphere were wiped out, any scene, though still beautiful, would be merely a façade of what it could be—sort of a window dressing. But with wilderness, all scenes, no matter what their categories, assume much deeper and far-reaching spiritual significance.

The National Parks, I feel, have an overriding purpose, and that can be encompassed in one word—spiritual. Spiritual values are values that affect your emotions, that affect your happiness, that affect your culture. They are hard to define, hard to pinpoint, but they are there. The National Parks may look like pleasuring grounds, places for picnics, overnight camps, places for taking pictures, entertainments of various kinds, but no matter how you look at it, it is the spiritual value of the National Park that the visitor carries with him. Atmosphere and feeling apply to areas of prime importance.

One of the reasons that they are of such prime importance is that man of today needs escape. He lives in the jet age, the industrial age, the space age, an age of automation, growing technology, urbanization. The time is coming when the bulk of us will be living in cities, not little towns and farms, but cities. All these factors set up a hunger in people to escape for a little while and return to the natural, the primitive scene. They can do this in National Park areas. They can do this wherever they go to feast their souls on scenery and to catch this elusive something called “primitive.”

This morning at breakfast, we were talking about wilderness and someone mentioned that it is difficult, or will be increasingly difficult to hold wilderness, in view of the fact that only a small percentage of the people actually go into it and use it. Two percent, three percent, or five percent will probably cover them all. That the vast majority of the people coming in don’t pack, don’t hike, don’t sleep on the ground, but get their enjoyment or feeling of wilderness from the seat of an automobile or from an overlook looking across a primitive valley.

I think one of the most important things we can remember regarding wilderness is that everybody comes to a National Park to sense this wilderness we are trying to preserve, and the man looking at it from the seat of his automobile or from an overlook is getting, in a sense, the same kind of experience that he would get if he hiked in with a pack on his back. I belong to the packers. I like to do things that way, but we are in a minority group, and we have got to admit that we probably always will be. The automobile is wedded to the American way of life, and Americans are not going to walk, if they can ride. So, when we talk about wilderness preservation, just remember that we are not talking about a minority; we are talking about a hundred percent of the American people who come into these areas. It is for the vast majority, as well as the minority, that we are preserving wilderness. It is to keep the essence of the wild so that others can enjoy it.

One of the problems of the National Park Service is to preserve the integrity of these areas. We are all familiar with the old mandate. We are also familiar with the anachronism of trying to preserve wilderness in the face of increasing use, increasing population. It is a difficult situation. The National Park Service can be proud of what it has done, because it has had a conviction, too, running back a long, long time. How otherwise could the National Parks still claim that from 90 to 95 percent of their areas are still wild, still unchanged, unless there had been a definite depth of feeling guiding all of the pioneers? Of course, mistakes have been made, and attempts have been made to right them. Mistakes will always be made; sometimes they can’t be righted. Sometimes they become irrevocable, and that is why management problems must be so carefully thought out with respect to wilderness.

Oftentimes there is no turning back. Oftentimes there is no second chance. But the Park Service has a sacred trust. In a sense, the Service is the guardian of part of the American culture—a culture deep in our frontiers, a culture of freedom, conquering the wilderness—which has become part of our minds and spirit.

Any attempt to preserve the primitive, to give people a chance to get their feet on the ground again and understand what reality really means, as opposed to the artificial and the changeable, is a good mission. Giving people the chance to get the feeling that they have taken hold of ancient verities is what we are trying to do.

What this Service is faced with now, more than any other time in its history, is a sense of urgency. Population is pyramiding to the point of saturation. Industry is speeding over the land. Super highways, power lines, oil lines enmesh the whole continent. And we hear the voice of change so loud and so clear that we cannot ignore it. Ribbon cities spreading out from the metropolitan centers connect with the other metropolitan centers. Never before has the Service faced such a challenge. It makes it all the more paramount that we entrench and try out best to hold the line and protect these areas that we have set aside.

America needs wisdom more than cleverness. We are clever people. Our inventive genius knows no bounds. We are changing the face of the earth, changing it entirely. Two great threats today are population and what we can do and are doing to cure it. There is one hazard that park people must be aware of and that is the danger of “tolerance.” You can look at your area and say to yourself, “Something has got to give.” So you give with a new road or a new facility or a new development. Something has got to give, and you follow through. You develop a dangerous tolerance.

I would like to leave this final thought with you. No matter what you are called, no matter what political pressures are brought to bear on you every time a new development is proposed, look at it carefully and don’t be too tolerant. Give in, if you have to, but only as a last resort. What you have is a sacred trust, a trust that future generations will hold you accountable for. Let’s not look ahead just the next ten years with a definite use graph. Let’s give it the broad long vision. Let’s think of a hundred years, five hundred years, a thousand years, and with all of the planning that you do, do not be shortsighted. Do not lean toward immediacy. Look ahead and plan for the future. Look ahead to a time when our people will be clamoring for these areas as they have never clamored before. Look ahead to the time when, due to the Service itself and its ideals, these places will remain intact.

I am going to close with a brief quote. A Greek philosopher once said, and you have read it before perhaps but it is worth repeating: “Life is a gift of nature, but a beautiful life is a gift of wisdom.” Thank you.