Living & Playing in Wyoming’s Wild Country
A Primer on Appreciating and Protecting
the Wild Country of Wyoming
Wild Land is a Fundamental Right of all Citizens
The wild lands of Wyoming exist for all of us to enjoy. They exist for the benefit of future generations. Protection and care for wild lands is a core value of America and for the state of Wyoming. 47% of Wyoming lands are under the management of federal agencies and belong to all Americans.
Very early in America’s history, many of its new citizens proclaimed the wonders of nature as the primary distinguishing character of the new American nation. Although America could not challenge the great human achievements of Europe, the vast, untamed beauty of the American landscape was something Europe could not rival.
Wild lands were quickly equated with the soul of the American experience. Our protected natural landscapes are one of the primary things Americans can boast of with great pride and this generates the widespread concern for public land protection.
Wyoming is one of the prime states of the lower 48 where nature’s glory is pre-eminent in every corner—from the high plains of the Thunder Basin National Grasslands to the magnificence of the Tetons. In the northwestern corner of the state lies much of the vast Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – one of the last great wild areas in the lower 48 states. It encompasses the Bridger-Teton and Shoshone national forests as well as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. In the eastern part of the state lies the island mountain range of the Bighorns, including 13,175-foot Cloud Peak, within the Bighorn National Forest. The Snowy Range is an exquisite part of the southeastern corner of the state in the Medicine Bow National Forest. In southwest Wyoming the Great Divide Basin exemplified the wild semi-desert landscape for which Wyoming is known, much of it under federal ownership through the Bureau of Land Management.
A Brief History of Wild Land Conservation
For most of human history the greater part of the Earth's terrain was wilderness, and human attention was concentrated in settled areas. The first known laws to protect parts of nature date back to the Babylonian Empire and Chinese Empire. Since those early efforts, humans have understood that protecting nature is of multiple benefits to human habitation.
Ashoka, the Great Mauryan King, defined the first laws in the world to protect flora and fauna in Edicts of Ashoka around 3rd Century B.C. In the Middle Ages, the kings of England initiated one of the world’s first conscious efforts to protect natural areas. They were motivated by a desire to be able to hunt wild animals in private hunting preserves rather than a desire to merely protect wilderness (that intention would come much later in our history). Similar measures were introduced in other European countries.
Early in the 19th century Wordsworth and other poets of the romantic movement in the United Kingdom, concerned about "the excesses of industrialization and urbanization," called for a return to natural environments. This movement achieved some gains in protecting sensitive ecosystems, but a more successful form of environmentalism emerged in Germany by the mid-19th century. “Scientific Conservation,” as it was called, advocated "the efficient utilization of natural resources through the application of science and technology."
Concepts of forest management based on the German approach were applied in other parts of the world, but with varying degrees of success. By the latter 19th century it had become clear that in many countries wild areas had either disappeared or were in danger of disappearing. This realization gave rise to the conservation movement in the USA, partly through the efforts of writers and activists such as John Burroughs and John Muir, and politicians such as U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt.
The efforts in the 20th century to protect wild lands and environmental quality were vast. It was as a result of work such as that done by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that people understood the consequences of human action on nature. Carson unveiled the dramatic effect of pesticides on agricultural and human health. Important legislation included the Wilderness Act (1964), the Federal Clean Air Act (1970), and the Federal Pollution Control Act (1972). The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970.
The 21st century has seen another shift in wilderness thought and theory. It is now understood that simply drawing lines around a piece of land and declaring it a wilderness does not necessarily make it wild. All landscapes are intricately connected and what happens outside a wilderness certainly affects what happens inside it. For example, pollution from Los Angeles and the California Central Valley create smog in Kern Canyon and Sequoia National Park. The national park has miles of "wilderness" but the air is filled with pollution from the valley.
This means that to protect wild places is to care for urban landscapes as well. Human impact has grown to such an extent that the growing impacts of global climate change triggered by human fossil fuel use and the production of carbon dioxide is impacting the character of all landscapes.
To continue this tradition of protecting our national treasures will take vigilance by all.