Rocky Barker: This is the year for wild conversations

Idaho StatesmanJanuary 6, 2014 

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness near Stanley in 2005.

IDAHO STATESMAN FILE

It is fitting that we begin 2014 in Idaho with a debate over how wolves will be allowed to wander in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

This new year is the 50th anniversary of passage of the Wilderness Act, a law that Idaho Sen. Frank Church helped pass by managing the floor debate in the U.S. Senate. Church’s wife and political partner, Bethine, died last month at age 90, fighting to protect Idaho’s wild places right up to the end.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game hired a hunter-trapper to eliminate two of the six packs of wolves that live in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which runs through the heart of the area Idahoans’ simply call “the Frank.” The reaction said more about Idaho wildlife politics than about wilderness.

But this year I expect a robust discussion about the relevance of wilderness in the modern world. Writer Emma Marris, author of the 2011 book “Rambunctious Garden,” argues against our very notion of wilderness.

“There is one thing that nature is not: pristine,” she writes. “There is no pristine wilderness on Planet Earth.”

Marris tells us we already control the earth and it’s time we admit it: “We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.”

She doesn’t want less wilderness; she wants more. But she wants society to be honest with ourselves about what we are doing. Not taking an action can change a landscape just as much as taking action.

The Frank is under invasion by spotted knapweed and other non-native plants that could dramatically change its ecosystem. Should we let nature take its course or control the weeds?

I hope during this debate we can look at the difference between wilderness and wildness. A place, a predator, a plant does not lose its wildness just because it is touched by human hands.

Bill Cronon is a University of Wisconsin environmental historian who argues that wilderness is built in human minds as a counter to our industrial and technological reshaping of the environment. What was an idea became enshrined in legislation in 1964. It helped us redefine how we understand wilderness’ role in human culture.

But wilderness is not the same as wildness. Wildness existed before humans.

It was the place from which we came. Nature writer Sigurd Olson says wildness carved the grooves of ancient truth into our souls.

Protecting wildness is far more complicated than protecting and managing wilderness. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Henry David Thoreau said. But really it’s about preserving our humanity.

Today, movies can offer a viable love affair between a man and his computer. Many of us carry computers in our pockets that can answer nearly any question we have. Will we place nanochips in our brains to assist us in the future? Alter our DNA, along with every other living thing, for our advancement?

The lines we draw on wildness may someday define our existence.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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