Original Document
Original Document
Howard Zahniser, “The Need for Wilderness Areas,” 1956.

In addition to our needs for urban and suburban parks and open spaces, in addition to our need for a countryside of rural loveliness, a landscape of beauty for our living and in addition to the needs for parkways and parks and well developed areas for all kinds of outdoor recreation, there is in our planning a need also to secure the preservation of some areas that are so managed as to be left unmanaged—areas that are undeveloped by man’s mechanical tools and in every way unmodified by his civilization.
These are the areas of wilderness that still live on in our national parks, national forests, state parks and forests, and indeed various other categories of land likewise.
These are areas with values that are in jeopardy not only from exploitation for commodity purposes and from appropriation for engineering uses. Their peculiar values are also in danger from development for recreation, even from efforts to protect and manage them as wilderness.
There is a great need that resides in the desires of so many people for wilderness experiences, a need that should certainly be met. There is likewise a practical need for realizing our ideal of preserving for everyone the privilege of choosing to enjoy the wilderness if he or she so wishes.
There is another practical or immediate need in our compulsion to save from destruction whatever is best. Some of our strongest determination to preserve wilderness arises from this motive….
I believe that at least in the present phase of our civilization we have a profound, a fundamental need for areas of wilderness—a need that is not only recreational and spiritual but also educational and scientific, and withal essential to a true understanding of ourselves, our culture, our own natures, and our place in all nature.
This need is for areas of the earth within which we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment—areas of wild nature in which we sense ourselves to be, what in fact I believe we are, dependant members of an interdependent community of living creatures that together derive their existence from the sun….
As the so-called conquest of nature has progressed, men and women—separated by civilization from the life community of their origin—have become less and less aware of their dependence on other forms of life and more and more misled into a sense of self sufficiency and into a disregard of their interdependence with the other forms of life with which they—together—derive their existence from the solar center of the universe.
In the areas of wilderness that are still relatively unmodified by man it is, however, possible for a human being, adult or child, to sense and see his own humble, dependant relationship to all of life.
In these areas, thus, are the opportunities for so important, so neglected a part of our education—the gaining of the true understanding of our past, ourselves and our world which will enable us to enjoy the conveniences and liberties of our urbanized, industrialized, mechanized civilization and yet not sacrifice an awareness of our human existence as spiritual creatures nurtured and sustained by and from the great community of life that comprises the wildness of the universe, of which we ourselves are a part.
Paradoxically, the wilderness which thus teaches modern man his dependence on the whole community of life can also teach him a needed personal independence—an ability to care for himself, to carry his own burdens, to provide his own fuel, prepare his own food, furnish his own shelter, make his own bed, and—perhaps most remarkable of all—transport himself by walking.
In these lessons are further the lessons of history—a stimulus to patriotism of the noblest order—for in the wilderness the land still lives as it was before the pioneers fashioned in and from it the civilization we know and enjoy.
With these lessons come also the understanding that physical, psychic, and spiritual human needs are such that wilderness recreation should always be available and, in fact, should be enjoyed to a much greater extent than it now is….
We are a part of the wildness of the universe. That is our nature. Our noblest, happiest character develops with the influence of wildness. Away from it we degenerate into the squalor of slums or the frustration of clinical couches. With the wilderness we are at home.
Some of us think we see this so clearly that for ourselves, for our children, our continuing posterity, and our fellow men we covet with a consuming intensity the fulness of the human development that keeps its contact with wildness. Out of the wilderness, we realize, has come the substance of our culture, and with a living wilderness—it is our faith—we shall have also a vibrant vital culture—an enduring civilization of healthful, happy people who, like Antaeus, perpetually renew themselves in contact with the earth.
This is not a disparagement of our civilization—no disparagement at all—but rather an admiration of it to the point of perpetuating it. We like the beef from the cattle grazed on the public domain. We relish the vegetables from the lands irrigated by virtue of the Bureau of Reclamation. We carry in our packs aluminum manufactured with the help of hydroelectric power from great reservoirs. We motor happily on paved highways to the approaches of our wilderness. We journey in streamlined trains and in transcontinental airplanes to conferences on wilderness preservation. We nourish and refresh our minds from books manufactured out of the pulp of our forests. We enjoy the convenience and comfort of our way of living—urban, village, and rural. And we want this civilization to endure and to be enjoyed on and on by healthy, happy citizens.
It is this civilization, this culture, this way of living that will be sacrificed if our wilderness is lost. What sacrifice!
Our only hope to avert this loss is in our deliberate effort to preserve the wilderness we have. The ramifications of our developing mechanical enterprises are such that only those areas which are set aside for preservation will persist as wilderness.
It behooves us then to do two things: First we must see that an adequate system of wilderness areas is designed for preservation, and then we must allow nothing to alter the wilderness character of the preserves….
In our marvelous National Park System; in the wilderness, wild, primitive, and roadless areas of our national forests; on extensive tracts of Indian reservations; in certain units of the national wildlife refuge system, and in state parks, and some others too, we have areas that have either been set aside as wilderness or are protected in a way that safeguards wilderness….
For these areas of wilderness we should obtain the maximum possible degree of security. We need Congressional action, to provide for their preservation as wilderness, we should move forward as steadily as we can toward this action….
It is good and sound to realize that in preserving areas of wilderness we are recognizing our own true human interest. It seems good, ethical, to consider ourselves as members of a community of life that embraces the earth – and to see our own welfare as arising from the prosperity of the community.
Yet there may be a danger in too conscious, too deliberate, too intent an effort to see all in terms of our own welfare. Jesus suggested that self-seeking is not the way to self-realization; not deliberately but through indirection human beings realize their best welfare, by losing sight of themselves.
It is a great satisfaction to be able to demonstrate to another that an unspoiled wilderness is important because it serves a man’s need for “escape,” but going to the wilderness to escape from something is no certain way of actually being in wilderness at all. The only way to escape from one’s self in wilderness is to lose one’s self there. More realistically, the true wilderness experience is one, not of escaping, but of finding one’s self by seeking the wilderness.
The sum of this moralizing may be in forsaking human arrogance and courting humility in a respect for the community and with regard for the environment.
The central human importance of such experience, I believe, constitutes profound evidence of need for wilderness areas.
An understanding of these fundamental needs, as well as the so-called more practical needs to meet recreational demands of people for wilderness experience – this understanding should inspire us anew to work for the perfection of a national program for wilderness preservation – a program to serve not only our own human needs but also those of the generations to follow.

Credit: Howard Zahniser, “The Need for Wilderness Areas,” The Living Wilderness, No. 59, (Winter-Spring, 1956-57); 58-43.
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