Monday, July 16, 2012

Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of the Michigan Wilderness Act

By Dave Dempsey, former staffer for Congressman Bob Carr, who introduced the legislation, and former environmental advisor to Gov. Blanchard.

Wilderness is about memories as much as it is about hopes for the future of humanity and the natural world.  So when I reflect on the 25th anniversary of Michigan’s federal wilderness law, I go back and forward in time all at once.

Wilderness moved from concept to reality for me when I joined a Michigan wilderness tour with Jane Elder, Bill Davis and other Sierrans in August 1981.  Not having backpacked before, I leaned heavily and sheepishly on my companions, who pitched my tent and led me almost by hand through the woods.  I’m glad they did.  

 Mingling with the majesty of the north woods and waters, I fell in love with wilderness and decided it, and environmental protection, would be my vocation as well as my avocation.  I remember, among other things, twilight over Horseshoe Bay, a moment fixed in my mind forever.  Mirroring the fading orange of the sky, the waters of the bay were fringed by gorgeous dark green conifers.  

At the time I hadn’t visited Nordhouse Dunes, the only Lower Peninsula wilderness area in the 1987 act.  I have many times since, and have always been awed – the real awe, not the one that is the root word of today’s overused “awesome” – by the miles of undeveloped dunes.  A few hundred years ago, hundreds of miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline might have looked like that.

 Advocates carry those images and powerful emotions along when they enter a legislative or Congressional committee room to do battle for wilderness.  Of course, it shouldn’t be battle; it should be consensus, for what makes more sense than conserving a small piece of the natural world for the enjoyment and scientific understanding of future generations?

But sense doesn’t always prevail in policymaking.  And so, when my boss, Governor Jim Blanchard, announced his support for Michigan wilderness in 1985, several political forces erupted.  Loudest was the late Senator Joe Mack of Ironwood, who called wilderness “a creeping cancer.”  (Joe also was quoted as saying that a wetland is “wherever a DNR employee takes a piss.”)  Senator Mack fought wilderness legislation every step of the way, and arrested its progress for a time, but ultimately lost the struggle.

But in the meantime, he and allies vilified Sierrans and other wilderness supporters as out-of-touch elitists sticking their nose in the business of northern Michigan.  I know it was tough on many advocates.  When a cause is so personal as well as so public, political epithets can break hearts.  Fortunately, the hearts of the Sierra Club were, and are, strong.

Thinking of the future, I worry about Michigan wilderness. The concept of climate change, let alone the term, is not one of which I knew in 1981.  How it will affect these islands of wilderness hope, I don’t know, but we are still better off with than without them.

There will always be the menace, too, of politicians and special interests who want to roll back wilderness, allow its exploitation, or even sell it off for short-term gain.  I rest easy knowing that the ranks of the Sierra Club will step forward each time the threat arises.

 Like most advocates, I am well aware of the criticism that “wilderness” protection is a futile effort to capture permanently a distorted picture of untouched land that in fact has been altered by humans since the last glaciation. 

To ascribe that notion to modern-day wilderness protection is to stereotype – and distort.  We are not trying to stuff time in a bottle.  We are trying to let the processes of nature work their way largely unimpeded on reserves of land that will also be reserves of our strength.  Inevitably, humankind will influence these lands and related ecosystems indirectly through carbon emissions and resulting consequences and through other means.  That doesn’t diminish the importance of the 1987 Michigan Wilderness Act; it affirms it.  We need these places to help us measure our hearts as well as to measure our science.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

It took many years, and many (often unnamed) people, working together with spirit and resolve, to make the 1987 law happen.  Let’s celebrate them as well as wilderness.  They have protected something truly grand and beautiful for us all to savor.  In the end, we and wilderness are all intertwined.  That mental picture of Horseshoe Bay I cherish?  It includes my friends on that wilderness tour, walking the beach in quiet happiness.

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