OPINION: Sharing a moment with Bruce Babbitt, and Wallace Stegner’s ‘Wilderness Idea’

Bruce Babbitt and the idea of Wilderness

Written by Greta Hyland

I shared a moment with Bruce Babbitt, the former Secretary of the Interior under President Clinton; or at least, I like to think I did. I attended the Winter OR show in Salt Lake City a few months ago to listen to Babbitt speak. After his speech he took questions from reporters and talked with people. I really didn’t have anything to ask him, but badly wanted to meet him and shake his hand.

So, I approached him and thanked him for his work to get Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument designated. I told him how I interned with the BLM and Park Service at the Monument and that it is one of my favorite places, if not the most favorite. His countenance lit up, a big smile spread across his face, and he explained to me that it was his favorite place too; that he loved going out there and expressed how it was one place a person could visit and be left alone for hundreds of miles. But even if he had not spoken a word, I would have known how he felt and what he was thinking. His facial expression said it all. If someone had captured that moment in a photograph, they would have caught the effects a landscape can have on human beings.

Wallace Stegner, prize winning American author, said in his Wilderness Letter that the idea of wilderness is a resource worth protecting and then explained why.

He said, “We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural world, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce. And one of the best places for us to get that is in the wilderness where the fun houses, the bulldozers, and the pavement of our civilization are shut out… We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Countless studies have been done on the psychological benefits of spending time outside, away from the hustle-and-bustle of life, but one need only visit one of these places as a living experiment to know that getting outside does wonders for the soul. The idea of wilderness exists in everyone. It goes beyond politics, ideology, and debate over land use. We all instinctively know this and know the worth of such places because we carry it inside of us.

In the moment I shared with Bruce Babbitt, we were both swept away by the idea of wilderness. We were Stegner’s words incarnate. In a split second of mentioning the name of a place, we were both there. Images, landscapes, and feelings blew through us and we were transported back there; all of our experiences rushing back in the time it takes to shakes hands. We went from standing in a hotel banquet room to being out there, looking out across the vast expanse of land with nothing around us but the land and the desert wind whipping up dust devils, filling our noses with the scent of the earth, and we breathed it in.

I’ve not done a study, but I am certain that when we remember and think about such places, like a shot of adrenaline, endorphins are released in our brains and the same soothing balm that those places produce while we are there flood through us at the mere thought of them. In other words, we don’t have to be there to experience the healing and spiritual effects that the natural world gives us. But if we lose them, that is the only place they will exist, and over time our collective conscience will lose even that. We carry those places around with us because we have entered them and brought them back with us. So caring about our public lands is more than caring about far away, unknown places; caring about our lands is caring about places that have become a part of us and deepen and fulfill our inherent need to feel connected, grounded, and alive.  

Greta Hyland has a Masters degree in Environmental Policy & Management and has worked for the BLM and the NPS as well as for non-profit organizations. She is a regular contributor to the Utah Adventure Journal and is the Copy Editor at the Independent. She writes regularly on her blog about environmental policy issues affecting the southwest, as well as personal narratives about outdoor recreation and simple living. Her blog can be found at www.thesouthwestjournal.wordpress.com  A Utah native, Greta is a consummate desert rat and loves exploring the southwest. She can be reached at [email protected]