Should We Save Wilderness?

This week’s PBS series  The National Parks: America’s Best Idea raises questions  about the value of saving not only our most unique national natural treasures, but also large portions of our nation’s remaining wilderness areas.

The colonizers of America saw the wilderness primarily as a storehouse of “natural resources” out of which to make products, a living, and perhaps even a fortune.  Lumber barons in great number accomplished the latter.  Our town of Grand Rapids and many other Midwestern cities are still graced with their opulent and elegant homes—some of which demonstrate masterful woodworking skills that are now mostly lost or considered too costly to “bother with.”

There was little understanding then about the other values of wilderness—and certainly no grasp of the fact that such seemingly inexhaustible resources could be depleted.  Our forebears lived as though there were no limits.  Consider the redwoods, those long-lived and awe-inspiring giants of the forest that were seen as resources for the benefit of mankind alone until they were diminished to only four percent of the former range.  Those left are finally treasured by most of us, but many stands are still threatened by those who still see in them only an opportunity for their own financial gain.

Certainly our wild areas have provided us with wonderful resources for our use and benefit. But we seem slow to learn that wilderness is so much more than a place of economic opportunity. When we look at an Appalachian mountain as mostly a mound of coal or a hill of timber for us to use for our own purposes, we may be failing to see it comprehensively. A second look can help us to see the same mountain as a watershed, a climate regulator, a source of clean air, a shield against flooding, a habitat for wild creatures, a thing of beauty, a place of peace and solitude, a location for recreation, and the home places of thousands of our fellow Americans.  And we are not seeing it as God sees it—in all its glory with all its purposes.

It’s part of our God-given trust of the earth to have a comprehensive and biblical vision when looking at the wilderness. Followers of Christ have so many reasons to value the wilderness. Because we see the natural world as entrusted to us by an infinitely wise Creator, it’s not difficult to see the wilderness as a treasure of inestimable worth. It allows the wild creatures to fulfill their God-given responsibility to multiply and fill their portion of the earth. Caring for the wilderness is an aspect of the dominion and stewardship mandated to us by our Creator. Further, it helps to preserve our own health and to assure our continued survival. Further still, it no doubt holds many future benefits we are currently not even aware of.

Nancy Newhall reminded us over fifty years ago, in a book featuring the masterful black-and-white wilderness photos of Ansel Adams, that “the wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.”

Finally, we come to an observation by John Muir:  “Like most other things not apparently useful to man, [poison oak] has few friends, and the blind question, ‘Why was it made?’ goes on and on with never a guess that first of all it was made for itself.”

Muir was hinting at a purpose for the natural world that the patriarch Job learned when God paraded before his mental vision the entire cosmos He created. In the longest direct address of God in the Scriptures (the 129 verses of Job 38-41), the Creator Himself uses numerous parts of the natural world that were at that time in history beyond human control, human understanding, and human utility to humble Job with the reality that we cannot know all the purposes of God for wild creatures and wild places.

The apostle John, however, does reveal to us one of God’s purposes: He created all things for His pleasure (Rev. 4:11 KJV). So if the natural world was in part created to give God pleasure, are we not being irreverent when we forget that while people can preserve, conserve, or destroy the wilderness, only God can create it?

In the course of our enjoying and properly valuing the wilderness, we can be motivated by the words of Isaac Watts:

I sing the mighty power of God that made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad and built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained the sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at His command and all the stars obey.

I sing the goodness of the Lord that filled the earth with food;
He formed the creatures with His word and then pronounced
them good.
Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed where’er I turn my eye:
If I survey the ground I tread or gaze upon the sky!

There’s not a plant or flower below but makes Thy glories known;
And clouds arise and tempests blow by order from Thy throne;
While all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care,
And everywhere that man can be, Thou, God, art present there.

[Hear the Ball Brothers singing this wonderful hymn.]

See you outdoors!

Dean