WILDERNESS: GOD’S GARDEN AND THE THREATS TO NATURE
“Wilderness” refers to those places in creation where humans have had very little presence or minimal impact upon the natural processes of the created order. These natural spaces, untrammeled by humans and remaining as God created them, have intrinsic value of their own (Genesis 1:6-25). They also have value as the essential ingredients for the sustenance of human life (Genesis 1:26-31).
The latter value is often identified as ecosystem services provided to humans, even, and especially, when humans are not present. In fact, these services are available precisely because humans are not present to degrade the ecosystems. Scientists list two dozen such services, including food, water, climate, fuel, waste treatment, and nutrient cycling, among others.
Scientists now tell us that 60% of wilderness ecosystems are being degraded as a result of human activity or are being used unsustainably by humans.1 Because human life exists only as an integral, embedded component of God’s whole creation, the health of the non-human dimensions of creation is critical to the health and existence of the human component of Creation. And the health of creation as a whole, including humans, requires wilderness spaces for natural systems to exist apart from humans. Unfortunately, the spaces for such natural areas to survive and thrive are shrinking rapidly.
Most of our current environmental dilemmas—global warming, the collapse of fisheries, the shrinkage of fresh water supplies, the loss of forests, and so on—can be traced to the human overuse of creation’s bounty, to our failure to respect the resources and limits of the natural world. Are there no spaces we can just leave alone for a while? Nature needs room to thrive.
The need for a place for nature to be left alone lies within the heart of the Bible’s creation stories where God tells Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree that is at the center of the Garden of Eden. It is humankind’s mishandling of this tree—the “tree of life”—that leads to “the fall” of the human species. Our “original sin” is our failure to allow a place for the “tree” in the garden to be left alone by humans (Genesis 3:3-6; 17-19). It is a sin to which humans have long been prone and a sin that we are committing today to an alarming extent. Given our present global failure as humans to respect the limits of creation, one could make an argument that we are the most sinful generation of humans in the entire history of creation.
To pick a year for comparison, we might note that in 1776 most of the world was wilderness. As of 1995, “only 17% of the world’s land area had escaped direct influence by humans.”2 Most of this damage has occurred within the lifetime of many of those reading this report, for “over the past fifty years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history.”3 The destruction of life on Earth is so extensive that some identify this degradation of creation as one of “six mass extinctions” of plant and animal life that have taken place over the millions of years since living things emerged on Earth.4 The unique and disturbing thing about this “sixth” mass extinction happening today is that it is caused by human activity.
If we are to stop consuming the “tree of life,” how much of Earth’s land area must be wilderness in order for creation to be sustainable? The precise amount will vary from region to region according to the circumstances existing in the ecosystems located there. However, conservation biologists estimate that “roughly 50% of the land in a region needs to be protected… if the goal of preventing further anthropogenic extinctions is to be achieved.”5 Given the fact that 50% is ideal and we have only 17% left, one can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that a crisis is at hand. Preserving the integrity of the 17% is the obvious place to begin, even as we look for further solutions. Unfortunately, even the 17% is not secure, given the fact that only 6% of the land area of Earth has been set aside with some form of relatively strict legal protection.6
Within the United States, there are several regions where strict legal protection for publicly-owned, wilderness-quality, roadless lands is being considered. Alaska is the most prominent example. However, within the lower forty-eight states, one of the largest and most unique regions is the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is a semi-desert area lying primarily in southern and eastern Utah but also covering substantial portions of southwestern Colorado, northern Arizona, and northwestern New Mexico. We need to protect this area from human intrusion, both for its intrinsic value and also for its value for human life.
The current threats to the Colorado Plateau are many. Recently, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) completed a study of this area that named the various forms of human activity that will exacerbate the already threatening impact of global warming. The report is entitled, “Impacts of Climate Change on Water and Ecosystems in the Upper Colorado River Basin”.7 According to this USGS report:
“. . . [global warming will cause] higher temperatures and reduced precipitation for this region resulting in a decrease in the quantity and quality of Colorado River water… land use in the low-elevation areas of the Colorado Plateau will further exacerbate this problem… A synergistic effect is created when surface disturbance occurs on invaded landscapes during drought years, and large amounts of soil can be lost… Most of the dust… is deposited on the snowpack of mountains that feed the Colorado River… absorbs heat, which melts the underlying snowpack… Water storage in the snowpack is reduced and thus the amount and quality of the later-season water is reduced… This will impact humans, wildlife, and plants dependent on this water.”
According to the report, the chief activities that are disturbing the land are “grazing, energy exploration/development, and recreation.” The disturbances are “increasing dramatically.”8 Motorized recreation—primarily utilizing off-highway routes—is commonly observed to be the fastest growing of these disturbances. Such vehicles destroy ground cover and create conditions that lead to erosion; and the cumulative impact of the vehicles scatters increasingly vast amounts of dust into the air.
All of this is taking place on a landscape that is predominantly United States public land, owned by U.S. citizens and managed on our behalf by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Many of the Colorado Plateau lands, approximately 9 million acres of it in Utah, have been identified by conservation organizations as having wilderness character9 —an assessment largely confirmed by the BLM. Legally protecting this public land as wilderness would break the cycle outlined in the USGS report by prohibiting further damage from motorized recreation and energy development. While supporting such a proposal might seem obvious, it is nevertheless being hotly debated.
The USGS report makes it clear that global warming presents many stresses on wilderness areas. As temperatures rise and many aspects of climates change, plant and animal life will need to adjust and adapt. In many cases, plants and animals will need to migrate, generally to a higher altitude or further north. When natural landscapes of sufficient size and continuity are not available nearby, many plants and animals will not be able to migrate—and they will become extinct at an even greater rate than the already alarmingly high rate of extinction existing today. Global warming is thus a threat to the fabric of life that exists in current wild places. It is also a call for greater protection and for more extensive restoration efforts. Wilderness areas can actually help to counter global warming. Thus, preserving healthy natural processes serves as a counterbalance to the human actions that lead to higher temperatures and the consequent damage to God’s good earth.
Spirituality and Wilderness
Creation is a spiritual as well as a physical reality. Humans are body and spirit. There is abundant testimony in scripture claiming the wilderness as a place that nurtures the human spirit, where one can interact with God—a place of prayer. This was often the case for Jesus (Mark 1:9, 12, 35; 3:13; 6:32; 9:2); and it was true of Moses (the burning bush and many walks up Mt. Sinai) and John the Baptist. The prophets and the Psalms speak frequently in a similar vein. The personal experiences of many Christians and people of other religious traditions also attest to the inspirational power of wilderness.
The United Nation’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment lists “spiritual and religious values” as one of the ecosystem services in decline across the planet.10 Just the fact that these values are lifted up in such a science-based document attests to the pervasiveness of the relationship between spirituality and nature. As the ecological places where these experiences occur become lost to us, our ability to connect with God in this manner is significantly diminished.
Native American traditions offer excellent examples of the range of religious traditions regarding wilderness. Many Native American cultures highlight the relatedness and unity of creation and the value of all its elements in the eyes of the Creator. Though their accomplishments often go unheralded, Native Americans were among the first to grant legal status for wild areas in North America. In 1934, the Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, working with the U.S. Congress, set aside roadless areas for protection on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.11 This action predates the United States Wilderness Act by thirty years.
Many years ago, the American author Wallace Stegner spoke eloquently of the spiritual power of wilderness in general and of the Colorado Plateau in particular. He wrote:
“What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical … It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such a wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value.”12
And that is why we need to act urgently and to advocate forcefully for the preservation of our precious wilderness spaces.
The author, Clayton Daughenbaugh, resides in Illinois where he is a member of the LaGrange First United Methodist Church’s Environmental Justice Committee http://www.fumclg.org/templates/System/details.asp?id=35855&PID=505613&Style= . He works as Midwest Field Organizer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliancehttp://www.suwa.org/site/PageServer . He is also a volunteer member, and current chairperson, of the Sierra Club’s National Wildlands Committeehttp://www.sierraclub.org/wildlands/ . (Organizations listed for identification purposes only.) He is available for speaking engagements at secular and religious venues, primarily in Midwestern states, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
1. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis, ( Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005), 1.
5. Michael Soule and John Terborgh, “The Policy and Science of Regional Conservation”, Continental Conservation: Scientific Foundations of Regional Reserve Networks, ed. Michael Soule and John Terborgh (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999), 3.