Book Review

Review: Woodhouse on Turner’s *The Promise of Wilderness*

Review of James Morton Turner’s, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964 (University of Washington Press, 2012).
ISBN 9780295991757

Reviewed by Keith Woodhouse

Legislating the Wild

Environmental history is not always gathered into intellectual history’s wide embrace. The concreteness and immediacy of the natural world can seem distinct from the abstractions that make up the world of ideas; in some ways non-human nature is exactly what human thought and imagination defines itself against. And yet intellectual historians from Perry Miller to Arthur Lovejoy and Raymond Williams have for decades wrestled with the ways that people think about and treat nature. Williams suggested that “nature” is one of the most complicated ideas of all, and one that contains “an extraordinary amount of human history.” The reverse is true as well: human history frequently involves – and even rests on – complicated ideas of nature. This is particularly the case in American history, where words and phrases like “the new world,” “the frontier,” “public lands,” and “wilderness” have always connoted specific and contested conceptions of the natural world.

It makes sense, then, that although James Morton Turner’s The Promise Of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics Since 1964 is not explicitly an intellectual history, it is a book that takes into account the philosophies and principles that reformers and radicals idealized as much as the protected places that their policies realized. The Promise Of Wilderness takes politics to be a conflict between competing interests, but does not take for granted the values behind those interests. Turner offers a detailed account of the closed-door negotiations in Washington, D.C. that determined the fate of millions of acres of roadless lands, but focuses even more on how the different parties in those negotiations came to define their goals, their strategies, and their fundamental concerns.

Turner’s interest in ideas and ideals springs from his interest in wilderness, and his claim that it has remained one of the most vital issues in modern environmentalism. This is not a simple claim; most scholars who write about late-twentieth-century environmentalism tend to oppose it to the early and mid-twentieth-century conservation movement, the earlier movement concerned with the protection of public lands and natural resources and the later concerned with pollution, synthetic products, and – most recently – climate change. Turner argues that through it all wilderness has persisted as an essential part of environmental politics and a key concern for environmentalists. In fact, he suggests, at moments when the environmental movement as a whole scaled back its ambitions, wilderness advocates heightened theirs. At the same time, the idea of wilderness has remained a divisive one. Wilderness has always been as remote conceptually as it is geographically, and according to Turner this unfamiliar idea helps explain the cultural divide between small, local environmental groups and large, national ones, as well as the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to the environment.

Turner’s definition of wilderness is threefold. It is “not simply a place or an idea; it is also a political process.” (p. 5) Wilderness as political process is one of Turner’s contributions to the study of the topic and so the focus of his book, but he tracks all three definitions throughout The Promise Of Wilderness. He tells the stories of particular wilderness areas, from the modest Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia to the nearly one million acres of wilderness on Admiralty Island, Alaska, making clear the particular histories of each place and how those histories shaped the political battles over wilderness classification. Turner also explains the many competing conceptions of wilderness, from a symbol of national heritage and the public interest in the 1960s to a set of fragile ecosystems valuable in their own right by the 1980s. Particular groups and fields of study made key interventions in defining wilderness and making clear its value (or non-value), including outdoor recreationalists, Western ranchers, and conservation biologists. Finally – and primarily – Turner follows the evolving politics of wilderness and in particular the pendulum that swung between local, grassroots activists and national, mainstream environmental groups. One of the chief interests of The Promise of Wilderness is how the wilderness movement demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of each of these two approaches and was most effective when it harnessed both. And at the center of the story is the Wilderness Society, the group most responsible for the successful passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 and most committed to expanding the national wilderness system. The Wilderness Society used what Turner calls “a coordinated model of wilderness advocacy” to secure passage of the Wilderness Act, an approach that emphasized citizen activists across the country as much as it did the organization’s leadership in Washington, D.C. (p. 46) The Society’s trust in volunteers and local organizers to carry out its mission continued into the 1970s even as most major environmental organizations concentrated their efforts on lobbying and litigating in capitols and courthouses. Eventually, though, even the Wilderness Society would give itself over to professionalization and a top-down strategy that pushed the grassroots further to the margins.

The shift to a more centralized, professionalized approach to wilderness advocacy had several consequences. Chief among them, Turner explains, were strong reactions from both wilderness opponents and wilderness enthusiasts. Opponents – especially in the rural West – lined up against wilderness designations and regulations they considered clear cases of government overreach. Grassroots wilderness activists characterized the wilderness establishment as out-of-touch bureaucrats more interested in protecting their political relationships through compromise than protecting public lands through confrontation. Both sides of the spectrum grew frustrated with federal management of undeveloped areas. Key battles in the 1970s heightened the tension; wilderness opponents framed President Carter’s executive action to protect vast swaths of Alaska’s public lands as a trampling of states’ rights, while sweeping inventories of potential wilderness by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management led opponents to cry “too much!” and advocates to cry “not enough!” By the 1980s only mainstream environmentalists spoke fondly of federal land management, and even then in subdued tones.

Dissatisfaction with federal policy coalesced, among wilderness opponents, into anti-environmental movements like the “Sagebrush Rebellion” in the late 1970s and the “Wise Use Movement” in the late 1980s and 1990s. Among wilderness activists, it produced radical environmental groups like Earth First! that tried to revive a citizen-based conservation movement operating outside the centers of political power. The environmental justice movement of the 1990s, meanwhile, tried to shift environmentalists’ attention toward the disproportionate share of pollution and environmental harm borne by communities of color and impoverished neighborhoods. All of these disparate movements forced mainstream environmental organizations to re-connect with local communities and grassroots activists and to recognize the limits of an overly centralized strategy.

The pendulum had swung back to the middle. Established environmental organizations like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club admitted the shortcomings of their top-down approach and worked to build partnerships with a new generation of small, local environmental groups. This, Turner believes, has always been the best overall strategy for wilderness activists. “When the partnerships between local and national organizations were weakest,” he writes, “wilderness advocates paid the political price” (p. 400). The Promise Of Wilderness is easily the most thorough defense of establishment environmentalism’s continued relevance. Mainstream groups have weathered several decades of criticism for their allegedly accomodationist stances; Douglas Bevington, one of the few scholars other than Turner to write about environmentalism in the 1990s and 2000s, is much more critical of mainstream organizations and insistent that grassroots groups always provide more bang for each buck. The debate about outsiders versus insiders is relevant to many social movements other than environmentalism, and Turner offers a clear and detailed argument in favor of a two-pronged approach pairing local activists with professional lobbyists.

The Promise Of Wilderness is a rich and highly textured work in large part because questions of political strategy are never isolated from questions of abstract ideas. As the wilderness movement pivoted from the grassroots to the political establishment and back again, the justifications for wilderness protection shifted as well. Activists in the 1960s tried to appeal to broad-based notions of national interest and collective benefit and wilderness as a source of scientific knowledge, a place for quiet recreation, and a symbol of national character. In the 1970s professionalization and closer relationships with legislators led to greater emphasis on technical arguments and scientific expertise in land management. By late in the decade wilderness advocates increasingly emphasized the fragility of ecosystems and the inherent value of wild places, especially in the debate over an Alaska public lands bill. In the 1980s, the various critics of mainstream environmentalism used what Turner calls “rights-based political arguments” to challenge wilderness doctrine. Wilderness opponents appealed to property rights; environmental justice activists talked of basic human rights; and radical environmentalists argued that the natural world itself had rights.

In all this Turner coordinates many moving parts, zooming in to specific people and places and how they shaped larger arguments and then zooming out to debates over national policy; discussing the implications of particular pieces of legislation while couching them in the context of overarching ideas and theories; and accounting for the interests and influences of grassroots activists, national organizations, federal agencies, wilderness opponents, and more-or-less disinterested scientists. Because Turner makes a convincing case for the centrality of wilderness to environmental politics more generally, The Promise Of Wilderness is not just a history of the wilderness movement in the late-twentieth century; it is one of the best histories of the environmental movement as a whole during the same period. The book’s focus precludes lengthy discussion of some major milestones in non-wilderness environmentalism – Love Canal, Three Mile Island, the energy crisis, ozone depletion, the battle for the Headwaters Forest – and still The Promise Of Wilderness documents the rising and falling fortunes of the environmental movement at the end of the twentieth century as well as any other work.

Turner has even greater ambitions, however. He also wants to explain the environmental movement’s place in the much larger story of partisan politics since the 1960s. The debates over public lands, he says, as well as broader environmental debates, “played a supporting role in a central transition in postwar American politics: the decline of liberalism and the rise of modern conservatism.” (p. 11) This is where The Promise Of Wilderness is on shakier ground. Turner explains the initial success of the wilderness movement in the 1960s as part of an overall acceptance of “reform liberalism” and a sense of common national purpose and interest. That justification for wilderness receded in the 1970s and 1980s, when the language of “rights” entered into environmental debates and one group in particular – the “Wise Use Movement” – wielded it to great effect. Wise Users opposed wilderness as a violation of their rights to use public lands in well-established ways. “That strategy” Turner writes, “helped align Wise Use with the consolidation of the New Right nationally.” (p. 254) The earlier anti-wilderness effort called the “Sagebrush Rebellion” had failed because it fought mainly for the narrow interests of Western industries. The Wise Use Movement championed individual rights and cultivated a more populist appeal, at the same time as conservatives fought against a supposed liberal elite on a host of issues across the culture wars and stoked public frustration with taxes and federal spending.

Alongside the story of the decline of reform liberalism and the rise of the New Right, Turner describes a long-standing partisanship in environmental debates. Despite the apparent bipartisanship of the early 1970s, he says, when vast majorities in Congress passed major environmental legislation, Republicans always kept their distance from environmentalists and their causes. On many environmental questions, and on public lands reform in particular, the support of the Democratic Party and the opposition of the Republican Party has been long-standing. There are many exceptions, Turner grants, but generally “Democrats’ willingness to entrust responsibility for the public good in the federal government has made the party a crucial ally to public lands advocates.” (p. 405)

These two stories – of a shift in public sympathy from 1960s-style liberalism to 1980s-style conservatism on the one hand and of persistent partisanship on the other – are not inherently at odds. It is easy to understand how one could be taking place on the ground and the other in the nation’s capital. But the relationship between these two stories is never entirely clear, and so neither is the relationship between environmentalism and modern conservatism. Conservatives had a complicated view of environmentalism in the 1970s and 1980s. In early 1970, the editors of National Review declared that conservation was “intrinsically a conservative concern” and Young Americans for Freedom (the conservative answer to Students for a Democratic Society) called pollution “just as much an enemy of freedom as Communist expansionism, statist legislation, and the violent left.” Just a few months later conservative publications and organizations took an increasingly critical stance toward environmentalism, suggesting that there is more to learn about why the Right came to oppose the environmental movement even as Richard Nixon was celebrating Earth Day and many years before the Sagebrush Rebellion and the Wise Use Movement. Even then – in the 1980s – there was no uniformity of opinion among conservatives. Sagebrush rebels wanted state control of public lands for the benefit of Western industries; libertarians – calling themselves “free market environmentalists” – wanted to achieve protection of wild lands through private ownership; Wise Users mounted the most important response, based on individual rights and the belief that environmentalists wanted to attack Westerners’ basic lifestyle and values.

Turner hints at one possible avenue into making out the place of environmentalism in partisan politics. Although wilderness has remained a central environmental issue in the late-twentieth century, as The Promise Of Wilderness shows convincingly, there is one sense in which wilderness is exceptional. Most environmental issues – pollution, natural resources conservation, sustainable energy, climate change – can at least be presented as matters of self-interest. If we don’t do X then Y will occur and it will be bad news for all of us. It’s much more difficult to make that case with wilderness; opponents can write off the spotted owl or a fragile coastal ecosystem as not especially relevant to modern Americans and their concerns. The wilderness movement made it much easier for opponents to frame environmentalism as a culture war issue, a contestation of basic values rather than a negotiation of what might be the best way to achieve a clearly desirable goal. Republicans may have long opposed environmentalism for pragmatic political reasons, but the groundswell of anti-environmental sentiment that arose in the 1980s took longer to emerge. The appeal to national interest that worked for the wilderness movement in the 1960s would not work years and decades later partly because that argument was much easier to make in a time of relative prosperity, but also because by the 1980s “environmentalist” had become an identifiable ethos, one that could be criticized, caricatured, and made to seem antithetical to many specific segments of American society. Wilderness politics offered a good blueprint for the rabid anti-environmentalism of much of today’s Republican Party (and some of today’s Democratic Party). There are several varieties of anti-environmentalism, and wilderness gave rise to some of the most effective.

The Promise Of Wilderness begins to assemble the story of environmentalism, conservatism, liberalism, and the two political parties in the late-twentieth century. That story will come together in full only after many more works of scholarship. The Promise Of Wilderness gives a fascinating account of the environmental movement in the second half of the century, one that should find a prominent place not only in the field of environmental history but also in political history and the history of the twentieth century. And The Promise Of Wilderness offers an interpretation of the late-twentieth-century wilderness movement that should remain definitive for a long time. Intellectual historians should read Turner’s book to better understand the immediate role that ideas played in environmental politics. They should also read it for the simple pleasure of following a historian as he bushwacks his way into largely unexplored territory and, along the way, makes clear why that unfamiliar place is worthy of our appreciation.

Keith Woodhouse is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern California/Huntington Library Institute on California and the West.  Besides intellectual history, his research interests include 20th century environmental and political history. His current project is a manuscript about the history of radical environmentalism.