National Geographic : 2014 Sep
70 national geographic • September 2014 F red Lavigne is looking for a tree. It’s a beautifully clear day, with a sky the deep blue of delftware. Though the calendar says early spring, in the Sand- wich Range Wilderness in central New Hampshire there are still several feet of snow on the ground. A thin layer of ice coats the snow, making it sparkle underfoot. We’re surrounded by trees: towering spruces, scraggly beeches, maples, oaks, birches. But Lavigne, a sometime logger and full-time out- doorsman, is looking for one tree in particular. We’ve left the trail behind, and he’s navigating the steep terrain by memory, on snowshoes. Finally he finds what he’s been searching for, a red pine with a wide, sticky gash right at eye level. Plucking a coarse black hair from the fro- zen sap, Lavigne says that the gash was made by bears as a form of communication. (Though what exactly they’re telling each other no one’s quite sure.) Farther on we come to a dead beech with a much longer and fresher gash—the work of a pileated woodpecker. A bit beyond that, we reach a clearing. “You see, nature does its own logging,” La- vigne tells me. The gap was produced by the demise of an enormous spruce, which lies before us like a fallen giant. With a ski pole Lavigne points out some balsam fir seedlings that moose have nibbled on. We spend several more hours snowshoeing through the forest, mostly off the trail, and, as Lavigne happily observes, do not come across any other human footprints. The Sandwich Range Wilderness isn’t very big—just 55 square miles—and it’s certainly not remote: Some 70 million people, including my own family, live within a day’s drive. But for precisely these reasons, it’s a good place to reflect on the legacy of the Wilderness Act, which turns 50 this year. As I follow Lavigne through the woods, I wonder what explains our enduring attachment to wilderness and what these days that term even means. The Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964. But to understand the genesis of the act, you have to go back another three decades, to the 1930s. During the Great Depression tens of thousands of Americans were put to work by the federal government in national parks and for- ests. They cleared trails, erected shelters, and laid down mile after mile of pavement. The Going- to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park was opened in 1933, Skyline Drive in Shenandoah WHITE CLOUDS PROPOSED WILDERNESS In the 1960s, opposition to a planned open-pit mine on Idaho’s Castle Peak helped create the Sawtooth Wilderness (background). Castle Peak and the mountains nearby still await such permanent protection. By Elizabeth Kolbert Photographs by Michael Melford Elizabeth Kolbert’s most recent book is The Sixth Extinction. Michael Melford photographed New Zealand’s jade country for the March issue.