Wilderness at 50: a Place to Be Free, a Place to Hide

Why we should all celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act

Flickr/p medved

The Cascades in Oregon

"No Place To Hide" is the name of a new book by the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who worked for The Guardian newspaper in England. In his book, he writes about whistleblower Edward Snowden and the grim reality of surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency.

The book's title is drawn from a famous quote by Frank Church of Idaho, the U.S. senator whose hearings in the 1970s uncovered widespread domestic surveillance. During the hearings, Church warned that the NSA's vast surveillance capabilities "at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left … There would be no place to hide."

Many of Frank Church's fears have come to pass as we've learned about this country's wholesale spying on Americans, our secret and illegal wiretapping, and the proliferation of privacy-destroying technologies. By using the NSA's own documents as evidence, Greenwald and his fellow journalists have revealed that millions of United States citizens are under surveillance by their own government.

But Church was wrong about one thing. There is still a place to hide in America today, and it’s called wilderness. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act this Sept. 3, we should remember that many of our forebears in the wilderness movement were also civil libertarians who saw a clear link between the right to walk on untrammeled land and our personal freedom.

Church himself was the floor sponsor of the 1964 legislation that created the National Wilderness Preservation System on our public lands, and he pushed hard for the designation of vast wilderness areas in his home state, the largest of which, at 2.3 million acres, still bears his name. Church's fight for wild land and against domestic surveillance lasted until he lost his seat in the Senate in 1980.

Bob Marshall, another legendary wilderness proponent and a lifetime supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, believed that wilderness, freedom and privacy were bound up together.

"In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a psychic necessity," he wrote in his seminal article, "The Problem of the Wilderness."

Then there's Edward Abbey, author of "The Monkey Wrench Gang," who argued for wild land almost as an anarchist's hidey-hole: "The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism, but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, political oppression," he wrote in "Desert Solitaire," adding that "the value of wilderness … as a base for resistance to centralized domination is demonstrated by recent history."

Marshall. Church. Abbey. A forester. A U.S. senator. A rabble-rousing writer. These very different individuals shared a belief that wilderness is the place you go to for relief from societal pressure, from surveillance, from noise, from sheer stupidity. You go into the wild because security cameras and spying bureaucrats hold no sway there. Even surveillance drones have yet to invade the backcountry (with some exceptions along our nation's Northern and Southern borders). In the wild, privacy is still supreme; you can strip off your clothes and jump in the creek, you can praise America or utter seditious slander, you can be as weird as you please and rest easy in the knowledge that no one is watching.

As the abuses of state surveillance become better known, wilderness advocates have an opportunity to bring a new generation of privacy-minded young Americans into the fold. Encourage them to turn off their smartphones and walk into the woods. Tell them that wild land is where they can be free from the subtle and debilitating fear that someone else is watching them everywhere and always.

There are more than 109 million acres of federally designated wilderness in America, and every acre is a sanctuary worth defending. Civil libertarians and wilderness lovers have common cause here, and both groups need all the help they can get.


This story originally appeared on High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.

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