Reviewed by Rupert Cutler
RUPERT CUTLER of Roanoke was assistant
executive director of The Wilderness Society and a Roanoke city councilman.
The word “wilderness” may conjure images of distant Western mountains and tundra, but in fact wilderness — roadless and undeveloped public land without motorized vehicles or mechanical equipment — is easily accessible here. Thanks to local advocates and supportive legislators, Congress has acted to designate more than a dozen wilderness areas within a two-hour drive of Roanoke.
Examples are the 15,000-acre Mountain Lake Wilderness in the Jefferson National Forest and the 80,000-acre wilderness in Shenandoah National Park. They are heavily used by Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club members and other local hikers, equestrians, fishing enthusiasts and amateur naturalists. All but the national park wilderness are open to public hunting. Together with our greenway trail system and nearby rivers, they contribute importantly to our region’s growing national reputation as an outdoor recreation Mecca.
Determined political campaigns waged at the “grass-roots” level and in Washington have resulted in the growth of America’s National Wilderness Preservation System from only 9 million acres, mostly in the Western states, in 1964 when the Wilderness Act became law, to more than 110 million acres today. Those campaigns, and the organizations and individuals who led them, are portrayed in engrossing detail by Roanoke native James Morton Turner in “The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics Since 1964.” Much of the action described in the book takes place in Virginia and West Virginia as well as in Washington, D.C.
Turner graduated from Patrick Henry High School in 1991, received his undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University in 1995 and his doctorate in history from Princeton University in 2004. He has been teaching in the environmental studies program of Wellesley College since 2006. His interest in wilderness started, he says, with “tromping around” the national forests in Southwest Virginia. This book began life as his doctoral dissertation.
With publication of “The Promise of Wilderness,” Turner is being acclaimed one of the best contemporary authors in the field of American environmental history. The editor of the University of Washington Press “Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books” series, William Cronon, calls the book “the most deeply researched, analytically rigorous, and elegantly written study of American Wilderness politics since the 1960s.”
Having been personally involved in the history being described, as a staff member of The Wilderness Society in the 1960s and the presidential appointee in charge of the USDA Forest Service in the late 1970s, I can vouch for the accuracy of Turner’s account.
At its core “The Promise of Wilderness” is a history of the ups and downs of The Wilderness Society, with due attention given to partner organizations such as the Sierra Club and others ranging from Earth First! to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Turner is at his best telling stories of key individuals in the wilderness movement such as Ernie Dickerman, “the granddad of the Eastern wilderness,” whose last address was Swoope, Va., west of Staunton. Dickerman embodied the passion and dedication of a wilderness movement that remains a vital part of American society today. How this movement fostered such strong citizen involvement and became an enduring part of the American environmental tradition is a compelling story.
“The Promise of Wilderness” will be read with pleasure by all who enjoy — and realize they must act politically to protect — the untrammeled great outdoors.