Why Conservatism Needs Wilderness

Fifty years ago this week the Wilderness Act was signed into law. Some may be surprised to learn that one of its most ardent and crucial champions was a conservative Congressman from Pennsylvania coal country named John Saylor.

Congressman Saylor -- who grew up hunting and fishing -- loved the outdoors, but his passion for protecting wilderness was driven by faith, love of country, and deeply held conservative values.

Saylor, unlike many on the political right today, understood the connection between preserving our remaining wild lands and preserving traditional conservatism.

In many ways, American conservatism owes its existence and its longevity as much to the vast wilderness landscape that greeted our forefathers as it does to European thinkers like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. That wilderness experience forged the ethic of responsibility, hard work and faith that not only informs our conservatism, but also underpins our resilience as a people and as a nation.

Self-reliance and personal responsibility are central elements of conservative thought. For those who explore it, wilderness demands being self-sufficient and taking responsibility for one's own actions to an extent rarely found in modern day-to-day life.

Those of us who venture into the wilderness quickly discover that making excuses and deflecting blame serve no useful purpose. The unforgiving nature of wilderness demands competence and prudence. Accepting the challenge of wilderness travel also means accepting the consequences of failure and shouldering that responsibility.

But for those who have lost their connection to the wilderness, the values of self-reliance and personal responsibility often give way. The government is increasingly relied upon and expected to meet peoples' every need. Making excuses for one's shortcomings is commonplace and blaming others for one's own mistakes is often rewarded.

The ethic of hard work, another core value essential to conservatism, was forged in the American wilderness as our founders struggled to survive. That work ethic is the heart of capitalism and the driving force behind our productivity as a nation.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who valued wilderness and understood its positive impact on the American people, probably best captured the link between effort and character when he said: "I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life; I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well."

Most modern Americans have little conception of the effort our predecessors expended in settling the land. Wilderness offers Americans their only remaining taste of what it takes to travel by foot for many miles over wild and rugged terrain, forgo modern comforts, and meet the elements with only what can be carried on one's back. Roughing it in wilderness is a great learning experience that builds character and helps present day Americans appreciate the internal strength that made our forefathers the great people they were.

Arguing for the Wilderness Act on the House floor, Saylor underscored this point, saying, "Shall we, exploiting all our resources, reduce also every last bit of our wilderness to roadsides of easy convenience, and ourselves soften into an easy-going people deteriorating in luxury and ripening for the hardy conquerors of another century?"

Religious faith and the moral values that stem from it have had -- and continue to have -- a profound influence on conservative thought.

If one subscribes to Divine authority and believes that God created the earth, wilderness is the most pristine example of His handiwork. Its intricate design and magnificent beauty provide testament to God's existence and His glory. In the book of Matthew, Jesus said: "Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these."

Wilderness, by revealing the wonders of nature in their untrammeled state, is uniquely able to reinforce mankind's faith in God. Therefore, people of faith should be the most ardent defenders of America's remaining wilderness. It is an evangelical tool that mankind can never replicate.

As more wilderness is lost and replaced with the works of man, God is made less visible, faith has less of an anchor, conservatism suffers, and secular humanism gains a firmer hold in our society.

Truly wild places inspire self-reliance, personal responsibility, faith, spiritual renewal, and humility in a world where those conservative values are constantly under assault. It is in wilderness that freedom is found in its most fundamental form -- and from wilderness springs the headwaters that sustain mankind's thirst for freedom.

By contrast, in our nation's most urbanized areas, where natural wildness has been displaced, we see erosion of conservative values. When people lose touch with the self-reliance, freedom and grandeur embodied in wilderness, the most basic foundations of conservatism are more easily undermined.

This connection is lost on too many who claim to be conservative yet only see wilderness as an impediment to materialistic gain or convenience. They might be surprised to learn that Ronald Reagan signed more wilderness bills into law than any other president.

Throughout history wilderness and its challenges have been a source of instruction, inspiration and strength for mankind. Wilderness keeps this nation connected to its heritage, and to the conservative values that have made it great.

If we are to preserve conservatism, we need to preserve what remains of the American wilderness.

And on this anniversary of the Wilderness Act, conservatives should celebrate the law that makes wilderness preservation possible and be grateful for the vision and persistence of John Saylor.