National Parks are an American idea—our best, in fact—and places like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite are as American as apple pie, baseball, and the Constitution. They’re intertwined with our national identity and are badges of honor we proudly cherish. So when stories emerged that visitors were defecating on the road in John Muir’s cathedral, the stink traveled from Yosemite Valley straight to wherever we were. Several parks shut down entirely for maintenance or vandalism reasons, and the fact remains that the damage done is very, very real.
The effects of the shutdown will last for years and could last for decades, if not beyond. Unmanaged food waste threatens a whole generation of bears that could get accustomed eating human food, as bears that won’t stay away from campgrounds are shot and killed simply because they could pose a threat to humans. Precious Joshua Trees were chopped down for a fleeting thrill. Visitors tromping off established trails and illegally off-roading crushed delicate, living cryptobiotic soils and put our deserts at risk. In some places, those soils, which help hold moisture for the big cactuses we put on our Instagrams, had been growing for centuries.
These examples show just how vulnerable our wild refuges have become, and just how little we have left.
A paltry 4.5% of our land is dedicated to the wild symbols of this great nation. Without Alaska, that area is reduced to just 2.7%. In an area of 3,119,884 square miles, there are currently only 16 remaining places where you can be more than 10 miles from the nearest road. A world in which “sea to shining sea” is nothing but concrete, traffic congestion, pit mines, and denuded forests is a genuine possibility. Legally speaking, only a parcel of land about the size of Minnesota must be left as it once was. If all the remaining wildernesses were combined and put into a square, you could drive around its entirety in less than a day—you could cross it in just four hours. What of our purple mountains’ majesty really remains if all that is left could be crisscrossed in an afternoon?
In the last five years, 101 million individual Americans used our public lands for some level of wildlife-specific recreation. As our country continues to grow, the strain placed on our current sanctuaries and wild populations will grow as well. Development and logging will continue to crowd our great forests. Agriculture and ranching will consume the rest of our grasslands. Deserts and wetlands will continue to be “reclaimed” in the name of more-usable land. If we don’t expand what we’re protecting now, there will be nothing left to save. For this reason, we must demand something new and bold of our leaders: Double the amount of protected wilderness in the United States.
Future generations will need more places to go to escape daily life, but all things considered that is merely the final cherry on top. There are far more substantial reasons that we must demand greater protections.
No single policy has the ability to benefit as many Americans as expanding our wildernesses. It is the ultimate utilitarian action. From storing urban drinking water, to crop survival and boosting rural economies, to fostering mental health and battling climate change, the perpetual benefits of wild and pristine places are as broad as they are immense. The only argument ever really made against greater protections is an ambiguous “it’s bad for the economy” trope that is demonstrably false. A 2017 study found that the average impact of having a nearby National Monument translated to higher a per capita income of over $4,000/year than similar areas without.
If we are to continue to exist as a part of this natural world, we must give current wildernesses more breathing room. We must set a clear, ambitious goal of what “greater protections” looks like in the face of climate change and population growth: Double our wildernesses. Where surrounded by public lands, wild borders should be stretched as far as the limits will let them. Lands currently leased or contracted to private entities for rent-free ranching, logging, and mining, once expired, should revert back to the wild (and to all Americans) forever. Where private lands exist, the federal government should buy back the land and restrict further development that runs right up to a park or wilderness’ borders.
History has taught us that benefits of conservation and preservation are both tangible and unending. No one grows tired of seeing the Grand Canyon. Yosemite never goes out of style. Yellowstone will never be obsolete. This shutdown has put into perspective just how limited and fragile our wild places really are. Let us be the generation that has the humility and the foresight to expand the great work that has been done in the past. We must aim to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and set aside twice as much land as we have thus far—America’s future depends on it.