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Wild About Utah: John Muir and wilderness

Glacier Bay. Snowy mountains overlook water.

I’ve known of John Muir much of my life. A recent kayaking trip to Glacier Bay in Alaska added to my appreciation for this remarkable early American naturalist, author and wilderness advocate. Muir first visited Glacier Bay in 1879, where he witnessed firsthand how glaciers transform the landscape, bolstering his prescient theory of glaciology. Upon returning home, I did a bit of research on his 1877 visit to Utah. Muir was taken by the wild beauty of the Wasatch Mountains as he so eloquently expressed.

“The glacial developments of these superb ranges are sharply sculptured peaks and rests, with ample wombs between them, where the ancient snows of the glacial period were collected and transformed into ice and ranks of profound shadowy canyons, while moraines commensurate with the lofty fountains extend into the valleys forming far the grandest series of glacial monuments I have yet seen this side of the Sierra.”

In addition to Muir’s contributions to understanding how glaciers sculpt landscapes, he used his political acumen to initiate the wilderness movement, culminating with the 1964 Wilderness Act approved by the U.S. Congress. "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." This was written by Howard Zahniser, the principle author of the Act.

The U.S. Congress has preserved 110 million acres of the fifty states since the Wilderness Act, 1.16 million of which are found in Utah. About half are on National Forest lands, the remaining residing with the Bureau of Land Management agency. Another 3.2 million acres are managed as Roadless lands titled Wilderness Study Areas.

Other Muir quotes which champion wilderness: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity,” and, “Wilderness is a necessity. ... There must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls.”

I’ve spent many years as a seasonal Wilderness ranger and Wilderness advocate here in N. Utah in the Naomi and Wellsville Wilderness. Managing these precious spaces to retain its wilderness character has become ever more challenging with a warmer, dryer climate enhancing wildfire, flooding and loss to massive insect outbreaks. As Glacier Bay and Glacier National park glaciers retreat ever deeper into bays and meadows, their names may become a misnomer.

Although John Muir’s famous “Muir Glacier” had receded several miles away from where it once met the ocean, I feel blessed the few tidewater glaciers we encountered yet remain. And I feel further blessed that the U.S. Congress has seen fit to protect Utah’s wildlands by deploying the Wilderness Act- “… where the Earth and its Community of Life will remain untrammeled by man…”

Jack Greene for Utah Public Radio, and I’m wild about Utah!

Sound Credit: J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin.