There are two types of wilderness. One is in our minds. This inner wilderness-a place of testing-is as old as Moses and we have all been there, for a variety of reasons.
Lately, however, we are driven to this wilderness by images of beheadings, bombings, men in hazmat suits searching for the dreaded Ebola, inexplicable murders, culture clashes, and political ugliness. The cacophony worsens daily, brought to us nonstop via the latest electronic gadget.
Fortunately, there is another kind of wilderness.
In a prescient moment 30 years ago, the Arkansas Conservation Coalition encouraged those of us in Congress to designate 117,500 acres of pristine forestland in the Ouachita and Ozark National Forests as “wilderness.” The coalition (The Ozark Society, Wildlife Federation, and seven similar groups) carefully selected 11 areas for protection. The beautiful forests, streams, hills and valleys were to be left alone in perpetuity, just as God designed them.
Their proposal struck me as a good idea because man’s incessant urge to develop-generally a good thing-often goes too far. George Fisher, the prodigious cartoonist, used to chide the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service for caring too much about “keeping busy,” and too little about preserving nature. He ridiculed their overzealous projects with his famous line, “God would have done it if he’d had the money.”
Good wilderness is entirely different from our troublesome inner wilderness, but the two are related in an important way: As the racket of the world gets louder and uglier, driving us to despair and distraction, humankind has a high need for the beauty and constancy of nature. We need it to clear our heads, and we need it to know how things were supposed to be.
Here is how the coalition’s good idea became law. On May 5, 1983, I introduced a bill in the United States House of Representatives to create 117,500 acres of wilderness in Arkansas. A hearing was scheduled and many responsible business and civic organizations registered their strong support.
We were off and running, but opposition quickly developed. The usual suspects, the U.S. Forest Service and powerful forest-industry groups, tried to gut my bill. It might have died on the vine, but on Nov. 14, 1983, Sen. Dale Bumpers introduced an identical bill in the Senate, and Sen. David Pryor signed on as co-sponsor. Nothing could stop us after that.
We gathered support with every passing day. Senator Bumpers set up an official Senate hearing in Little Rock and on Feb. 15, 1984, we spent a full day listening to testimony and receiving statements from over 100 people; a few were against our bills, but most were very supportive.
On Oct. 4, 1984, the Arkansas Wilderness Act of 1984 cleared both houses of Congress, and President Ronald Reagan signed it on Oct. 19, 1984. The bipartisan success story deserves a celebration, but there are more important reasons to remember what happened 30 years ago.
We love our nickname, The Natural State, and when challenged to say what we mean by it we proudly point to the Buffalo River, our caves, our rivers and streams, our parks, and our magnificent wilderness areas.
But what would we say to outsiders if we had no proof that we are a “natural?” What if there were no wilderness areas, or what if we fail to protect them? What will we say if the Buffalo River is polluted by runoff from the ill-placed commercial hog farm near Mount Judea?
On this 30th anniversary of the Arkansas Wilderness Act, let us resolve to keep our guard up, forever. Arkansas is a natural-if we can keep it.
This article first appeared on the Voices pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on October 18, 2014.