To get at wild nature of wilderness, sometimes you have to enter the tame and trammeled halls of civilization.

The 2014 Mansfield Conference at the University of Montana will poke into all 109 million acres of current wilderness and the potential for future additions this Thursday and Friday in the University Center Ballroom. Conference organizer and UM philosophy professor Dane Scott said the days were divided between celebrating the wilderness we have and contemplating the future of wilderness. All lectures and panel discussions are free and open to the public.

“It’s very much a part of what it means to be an American, or a Montanan,” Scott said of the decision to probe wilderness issues. “But we see a lot of trouble for wilderness coming. We wanted to ask why keep it as a value for Americans? There’s the challenge of climate change and the political question of why we’ve had no new wilderness in Montana for decades. Our goal is for people to think deeply about their values, and come away from this thinking of wilderness as a value. Then they can ask themselves what challenges those values might face in the future.”

Those thoughts will be shaped by some of the most notable figures in the current wilderness conversation.

Environmental historian Donald Worster was nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize, and will kick off Thursday’s presentations by asking if the United States’ idea of wilderness has any currency in other parts of the world.

He’ll be followed by Holmes Rolston, a philosopher who helped define the field of environmental ethics. Rolston and UM’s own Christopher Preston will talk about the value of nature beyond its commercial or scientific properties.

Beyond those topics, other panels will discuss wilderness’s economic importance, how it has affected American art and literature, and what young people expect or need to know about the great outdoors.

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Co-organizer and director of UM’s Project on American Democracy and Citizenship Rob Saldin said Friday’s slate takes a more pointed look at the future of wilderness.

“Wilderness resonates around here in Montana in ways it doesn’t elsewhere in the country,” Saldin said. “A lot of people choose to live in Montana because of its public lands. Some make their living on public lands. So it remains a very contentious issue.”

So the day will start with a consideration of the idea that a human-driven “Anthropocene” era of global change now governs the planet’s climate and conditions. UM forestry researcher Martin Nie and colleagues will discuss the political forces arrayed around coming wilderness designation debates. Washington political activist Doug Scott will build on that with his own recollections of passing the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1975 and 1980, respectively.

The Future of Wilderness Advocacy will get debated among the Montana Wilderness Association’s John Gatchell, Swan View Coalition’s Keith Hammer, U.S. Forest Service wilderness program manager Steve Kimball and Scott. And the conference closes

with final thoughts from many speakers moderated by longtime Montana Public Radio journalist Sally Mauk.

“We wanted to look back at the 50 years,” Saldin said. “It’s about chronicling where we came from to get to this point, and to think about where we are now and looking toward the future.”

That future includes the fate of legislative projects like U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (1 million acres of new wilderness and recreation areas combined with 100,000 acres of mandated logging and thinning over 15 years), former Sen. Max Baucus’ Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act that protects about 400,000 acres of the mountains along the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which would designate 23 million acres of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming as permanent wilderness.

“We’ve still got a lot of land in this limbo status,” Saldin said. “That makes it an intense issue around here in a way it’s not in other states. Montana still has millions of acres up in the air. It’s still a real hot-button, top-tier issue.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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