Leopold defines wilderness as the diverse “raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.” He attributes the diversity in cultures that have developed across the world to the great diversity of wildernesses. Wilderness was the enemy of the pioneer, something to be conquered, but for someone looking for leisure, wilderness is “something to be loved and cherished,” something that can give “definition and meaning” to a life.
Leopold argues for a cultural reframing of wilderness and its value. Although many people, like the pioneer, see it as a raw resource which can and should be exploited and tamed, Leopold applies his land ethic to it—that is, he sees the wilderness as inherently valuable in itself, and believes it should remain untamed.
Leopold explains that this chapter is a plea to preserve the last bits of wilderness left in the wake of industrialization and globalization—to protect them for the sake of the land and for the sake of humans who appreciate it.
As Leopold has explained in bits and pieces throughout the text, the march of progress and mechanization has converted much of the world’s precious wilderness into farmland or cities. Although he sees the value in civilization, he believes that wilderness, especially as it gets more precious, is valuable in itself.
Much of the American wilderness has already been destroyed. Leopold gives a list of wilderness areas that have been lost, but compares them to similar areas that could still be preserved. For example, the long-grass prairie is gone, but the short-grass prairie remains and could be saved. The “virgin pineries of the Lake States,” the “flatwoods of the coastal plain,” and the “giant hardwoods” are mostly gone, but similar hardwoods and swamps exist in other parts of America. Natural coastlines, unfortunately, have almost entirely disappeared, taken over by real estate, and Leopold admits there is little to be done to save them.
An ignorance of the price of progress, as well as a disregard for natural spaces, has led to the accidental destruction of many unique wildernesses. This is not unlike the way hunters unwittingly killed the last buffalo or the last passenger pigeon. Although no one set out to destroy a certain kind of wilderness, Leopold argues that setting out without intending to protect them has the same result as actively trying to steamroll them. He hopes to teach everyone to be conscious of the natural world, to prevent this kind of ignorant destruction of a precious and irreplaceable resource.
In the Rocky Mountains, many areas have been designated National Forests and National Parks. Leopold is especially interested in National Forests, because they are closed to roads, hotels, and other modern developments. He bemoans predator control, which clears apex predators out of a wilderness. This leads to too many deer or elk, which destroy the vegetation. Although human hunters could cull the herds, Leopold points out that more roads would then have to be built to give them access.
Ironically, many people who want to preserve the wilderness also want to be able to experience it. However, by experiencing the wilderness, they destroy it, as wilderness is an area without humans, and humans must build roads into it to feel as though they are receiving proper value from it.
Leopold suggests that conflict between humans and animals is an essential part of human culture, and public wildernesses are a way for people to access this “virile and primitive” skill through hunting and fishing. Leopold thinks it is essential to keep these “primitive arts” alive. In his mind, these allow a kind of recreation, and Leopold believes recreation to be valuable because it is intense and different from workday life.
Once again, Leopold returns to his theory of recreation as a practical and ethical way to interact with the wilderness. His “primitive arts” allow a person to spend reflective time in a wild space, but do not require leaving an enormous permanent footprint upon it.
Organisms are able to heal themselves. Humans have intervened in the health of their own species, and in the health of the land. Leopold judges human intervention on the land to be unsuccessful, as most human interventions have only made the land less healthy and less fertile than before.
Leopold encourages his readers to think of the land as a living thing. Although he does not mention the land pyramid here, this concept would be helpful in imagining the way the land, as an entity, could become sick or healthy. Throughout the text Leopold argues that human intervention in the landscape is often based on ignorance, and as a result humans often cause more harm than good.
Leopold complains that people are happy to treat only symptoms of larger environmental diseases—for instance, poisoning squirrels or mice without wondering why there are suddenly so many more of them and tracking the population explosion to the source. Leopold argues that conservation could help restore the health of the land, but admits that much of contemporary conservation is “local alleviations of biotic pain.” To remember what healthy land looks like, Leopold recommends looking to parts of northeastern Europe where the land was managed carefully, or else to the wilderness, which has managed to maintain itself for hundreds of thousands of years.
As Leopold noted earlier when describing invasive cheat-grass or bluegrass, humans often change the landscape accidentally, and then deal with the fallout of the change without considering how they could change the landscape back, or act differently in the future. This pattern of behavior would be helped by the application of Leopold’s land ethic.
Healthy wilderness is valuable for its ability to be used as a comparison to sick wilderness, and as a tool to learn how to help landscapes destroyed by humans.
This is an additional way natural land can be valuable that Leopold has not previously explored. It is not an economic value, but a comparative and educational one.
Leopold is upset that National Parks, and even the surrounding National Forests, are often too small to support apex predators. Leopold remembers in 1909 when the West was full of grizzlies, but now, in the 1940s, five of every six grizzly bears is in Alaska. Leopold sees this as a great loss: “relegating grizzles to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”
Although Leopold does find value in natural spaces even if he will not necessarily be able to ever access or visit them, he still feels that it is a loss to preserve certain kinds of wilderness so far out of sight. While this wilderness can still remain valuable for its own sake, it cannot be used as a teaching tool, and it cannot be expanded to help restore other local wilderness areas.
To save the grizzly, land must be set aside, free of livestock and roads. To save grizzlies, or to save the wilderness, requires both “a long view of conservation, and a historical perspective.” Leopold hopes that with improved education, more citizens will understand the ways in which “relics” of the wild West can enhance its present and future.
Leopold truly believes that the application of his land ethic can “enhance the present and future.” In this passage he draws together all the themes of the text, arguing that an education that included his land ethic would give people a historical perspective of the land, which would allow them to find greater, more nuanced value in it.
Leopold points out that “wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.” Although there are various organizations dedicated to its protection—including The Wilderness Society and The Sierra Club—he believes they cannot do enough. Instead, individuals need to become scholars of the wilderness, and deeply consider its cultural value.
As Leopold has often pointed out, true wilderness is nonrenewable, which is why it must be protected, and not merely restored. This is why he thinks individual citizens, not simply the government or specific organizations (even those like the Wilderness Society, which he personally founded), must open their minds and do their part.