Mike Matz: On the Shoulders of Giants

Isaac Newton, one of the fathers of modern science, wrote in 1675, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Whereas Newton built on the thinking and philosophy of Aristotle, Petrarch, and Erasmus, we who care about public lands have benefited from luminaries such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and Howard Zahniser. They helped to define the concept of wilderness, put it into law, and protect it in perpetuity.

Our history as a community working together to save some of our nation's natural spaces is important to know, and a new interactive timeline helps remind us of our story. This look into the past stretches back to 1891, when a pioneer of the conservation movement, John Muir, laid the foundation with his expeditions into the wild and his inspirational writings about raw and remote landscapes. The timeline covers seminal accomplishments through the 20th century, beginning with the original administrative protections of national forests made at the urging of Aldo Leopold, whose posthumously published “A Sand County Almanac” is an inspirational treatise. It also includes the enactment of the Wilderness Act, originally drafted by Howard Zahniser, whose expert lobbying campaign supporting its passage is still studied for its effectiveness in building relationships and developing support.

In addition, the timeline chronicles major accomplishments in the latter part of the past century, each of which helped make the National Wilderness Preservation System what it is today: a 109 million acre gift to our children. A large part of that gift comes from the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which became law when the political stars aligned, Congress passed, and President Jimmy Carter signed legislation adding 56 million acres of wilderness to the system, doubling its size with the stroke of a pen.

Today we live in a different era from the days when John Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt camping in the Sierras. There are fewer opportunities for achievements as revolutionary as Roosevelt's or Carter's, but the need for wilderness preservation remains. We lose 6,000 acres of open space every day in the United States. Although protection of 109 million acres seems like a lot, that's less than 5 percent of the country's landmass. Wilderness is finite, and nobody is making any more of it.

We need to learn from the past and adjust our tactics accordingly, and we are. We have stood on the shoulders of Leopold and Muir and seen further. Today, through relationships forged with the timber industry, the solar industry, and the military, we are developing win-win solutions. We are cognizant of the concerns of ranchers, mountain bikers, and users of off-road vehicles, and we often adjust wilderness boundaries accordingly. We work respectfully with hunters, anglers, and Native Americans toward shared goals. We find common ground with communities that wish to protect their water supplies or maintain their air quality while promoting jobs and economic growth.

Today's giants – many of you – are from these communities. You are the heroes of the wilderness movement. You are the ones who talk with your neighbors, meet with local business owners, and speak with ranchers and loggers out on the land. Together, you are convincing city council members and county commissioners of the merits of protecting wilderness, and they are getting behind these efforts. Collectively, you are the citizens offering members of Congress the chance to fulfill their duties as public servants and to address the interests of their constituents. We continue to build our storehouse of wilderness—place by place, law by law—just as we did in 2009, when 2.1 million acres in nine states were set aside.

If history repeats itself, and the National Wilderness Preservation System continues to grow, future generations will appreciate our accomplishments. And they will stand on your shoulders to further the vision.