In recent months, the Bush administration’s undoing of roadless area protection—by devolving the authority for them to the states—has generated a renewed burst of concern over the fate of the last unprotected wilderness-quality lands in the US.

Wilderness protection is, at least arguably, no longer center stage for most environmental organizations. Nevertheless, land (and water) protection remains critically important for the continued existence of countless species and, I’d argue, for human sanity. It also has a strong intuitive appeal: you can see the results on a map (here’s one of my all-time favorites). Plus there’s something deeply satisfying about drawing boundaries around a chunk of the earth, however small, and saying, "there, that’s protected for good. Whatever else we do, we won’t screw up that piece."

I was reminded again today of the importance of wilderness conservation—and also of the power of good biography—by an excellent article in the Los Angeles Times (free registration req’d) profiling storied conservationist and architect of the federal wilderness act, Stewart Udall. I wish I encountered more good story-telling like this about conservation successes and the people involved with them.

Udall, now 95, is nothing if not a compelling writer. Here’s a sample:

We need to preserve places where nature can maintain her own balance, set her own pace. These natural places, completely untouched by the hands, the machines, the tools of man, are absolutely essential as laboratories of life – yardsticks against which to measure our efforts to improve the environment, as well as our dismal successes in destroying it.

It’s hard to read Udall and not suspect that something is completely different today.

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  • In fact, in today’s Idaho Statesman, a cri de coeur to protect Idaho’s roadless areas. Reading the column (it’s good) I was reminded that today’s arguments for conservation often rely heavily on economics—establishing the market value of ecosystem services and recreation, for instance. By contrast, in Udall’s era, the arguments were primarily spiritual and nature-centric.

    Has the conservation movement has lost its "soul" and perhaps thereby its gut-level appeal to people? Or were conservationists of Udall’s era simply not able to develop economic arguments, and so relied on whatever reasoning they could conjure?

    Post-script: By coincidence there’s a newly proposed wilderness area in Montana. As the Missoulian reports, the wilderness is the longtime dream of a Montana rancher and geologist, Winton Wedeymeyer. Another good chance for biography, I suspect.