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MISSOULA -- You’ve talked your friend/spouse/child into shouldering a heavy pack, enduring a painful blister, incurring dozens of mosquito bites, foregoing a soft bed and questioning his/her self respect and your good/evil intentions.

All for a turn in the trail that explains everything. An "aha" moment of revelation. An encounter with God, some would say.

Can a wilderness waterfall or wandering grizzly bear really deliver all that meaning? Or is it just a fantasy humans impose on dirt that might hide gold and trees that might become houses in a place that Great-Grandma can't reach anymore?

What do we mean when we say wilderness has value?

Some Montanans just celebrated the designation of 67,000 acres of new federal wilderness last week when Congress passed the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

Others scorned the bill’s trade-away of 29,000 acres of wilderness study areas in eastern Montana that might have energy resources to develop. Still others feel the oil and natural gas deposits along the Front should be drilled to support the standard of living Americans rely upon.

“I don’t want to counter philosophical or spiritual arguments with economic values,” said Reed Watson, director of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman. “That wouldn’t be a persuasive argument for the crowd that finds spiritual value in wilderness.

“But I do ask: What opportunities are you giving up by restricting it in this way? Are we willing to give up those resource extractions to set aside these lands in perpetuity? Wilderness is in perpetuity. It’s off the books. And the difficulty there is we don’t necessarily know what those opportunities are in the future. How much is enough of anything?”

We're wrapping up the 50th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The 67,000 acres appended to the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex were the first new additions in Montana in 31 years. 

Montana now has about 3.5 million acres of federally designated wilderness. That’s 3.7 percent of the state's total land base. It doesn’t count national monuments, national parks, inventoried roadless areas, wildlife refuges or other categories of public land. 

When she leads groups of college students into those mountains, University of Montana Wilderness Institute Director Natalie Dawson prepares for all kinds of weather and all kinds of reactions.

Participants come to the 40-year-old program from all over the world. They leave trying to explain the effect a place like the “Bob” has on them.

“I’m Catholic, and when I read through the Book of Psalms, there are these beautiful poems about natural landscapes,” Dawson said. “But other books of the Bible are mostly about subduing the land, or how wilderness is a wild, terrible place people are banished to -- where they test their belief in God. Then there’s this very humanistic view of the value of wilderness, where you show how many people came to Seeley Lake to go into the Mission Mountains Wilderness and what’s the economic impact there.

“The first thing that students ask is: 'What value does this have to us?' We need to have a tangible value if we’re to support this thing. The intrinsic value is kind of lost. It can be tied back to religion. As humans, we tend to think: 'What does this do for me?'”


Early advocates of wilderness like John Muir used deeply religious ideas to justify leaving wild landscapes alone.

In an 1887 edition of The Atlantic Magazine, he wrote, “The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison environmental historian William Cronon said Muir built on ancient Christian arguments that saw the Bible and the creation as equal signs of God’s work in the world.

“When Muir writes of nature, it’s as if he’s directly in the presence of God,” Cronon said. “But if you’re a secular atheist in the 21st century, you might be uncomfortable with that language. Or to worship God’s creation like a golden calf, you might also be uncomfortable with that language.”

But Cronon also lamented the human tendency to let word games divide people who otherwise wanted the same practical goals. Neither religion nor spirituality address the worth of a thousand grizzly bears in the Bob Marshall. Economics can't quantify the sweat expended to reach a mountain peak.

UM environmental studies professor Daniel Spencer finds many of his students grope for a grab-bag of traditions to talk about wilderness.

“The fastest-growing sector of religion in the younger generation is spiritual but not religious,” said Spencer, who’s also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “They’ve left formal religion behind, and connect that spirituality with the land. It’s more of: Nature is my church, where I feel closest to God.”

Spencer has also seen growing interest in Native American, Buddhist and other Asian religions.

“But the challenge is: How do we learn from spiritual wisdom without misappropriating somebody else’s tradition?” he said. “A lot of people are very open and intrigued, but they don’t know much about it. And you don’t want to become a member of the Wannabe Tribe without understanding what something really means.”

In Missoula, the Rev. Terri Grotzinger at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church said she sees many people “with one foot in the wild and one foot in the church.” She strives to offer the structure of the church community to help people understand their place in creation.

“It’s like a pack string, where you have to think about the order you put the mules in,” said Grotzinger, who worked for years as a wildlife biologist in the Spotted Bear Ranger District deep in the Bob Marshall before ordination. “You need to know which ones are comfortable around others, and which ones need to be at the end where they have some room."

“We know what it is to have a holy experience out in the woods, and the holy experience in the community,” Grotzinger said. “The idea you’d be using sense of hearing and smell and your voice in a church -- that was done to trigger all the senses. It’s the same thing in the woods -- in grizzly bear country. Your attentiveness is greater. Your sense of smell is greater. Is that a holy experience? It depends on your mindfulness about it.

“But when I’m in the wilderness where a grizzly bear is walking around and I see a fresh footprint with no rain in it, I value that. It’s worth the risk. The more wild the place, the closer I am to the humility of one who’s not in control of everything.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.