“To be whole. To be complete. Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.”
― Terry Tempest Williams

Entering designated Wilderness on public lands, I often tap, touch, or lean my cheek upon the engraved wooden sign marking the boundary. Recently, I hiked the steep Chief Joseph Mountain trail from Wallowa Lake and let out my usual contented sigh as I stepped past a grand fir bearing the entry panel for the Eagle Cap Wilderness on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, in the homelands of the Nimipuu (Nez Perce).

Alone, I spoke quietly to the trees on the safe side. “I am happy you will never feel the deadly bite of a chainsaw or witness the slaughter of your brethren.”

Whenever I cross a Wilderness portal, I breathe with relief that I will not feel the pain of rounding a corner to see stumps, churned earth from heavy equipment, spindly remaining saplings, and “debris piles” for burning in the fall. I will not feel the tears of witnessing the aftermath of joy-riders on ATVs shredding a wildflower meadow into muddy strips.

Instead? Here, people can flow within Wilderness another way. They can walk, run, ride horses, hike, backpack, gather berries for a meal, and learn the way of reverence.

What Wilderness means to me is refuge, haven, and home. I am grateful for all the brave people who saved these wilds as forever free of roads, free of machines, and free for the forests to grow into elders, to fall and to nurture the next generation. Yes, trees will burn in wildfires within a fire-shaped ecosystem, but Wilderness assures the standing dead and fallen trees can be home and habitat for a suite of life.

Today, with human-caused climate change ravaging the planet, Wilderness with the big “W” has become more essential than ever for capturing and storing carbon, sheltering headwaters, offering cooling microclimates within intact ecosystems, harboring threatened biodiversity, and serving as a place of wisdom and renewal.

Hugging a mother tree safe within the Eagle Cap Wilderness (2017 photo).

As I consider my love for Wilderness, I am also humbly learning from the indigenous peoples who are reasserting their languages, sovereignty, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). I understand there are antiquated terms in the definition within The Wilderness Act of 1964 , including “untrammeled by man” and “primeval” character” that do not reflect the thousands of years of peoples’ presence and tending of lands in ways of reciprocity. I wish the words were different, but I hope we can see the language as a constraint of the era when the Act was written.

The Wilderness Act –imperfect as it is–has proved vital to saving places from destruction and is critical for our future as we continue to add to the National Wilderness Preservation System. So far, only 5% of the entire U.S. (with more than half in Alaska) is designated Wilderness. While we should be extremely proud of the 760 Wilderness areas tallying up to more than 109 million acres on public lands, we have much more to save–while we still can.

My son Ian and I give a loving pat to the Wilderness entry sign on our hike to the top of Stuart Peak in June. I am thankful to all the people who worked so hard to pass The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness Act of 1980.

Back in the early 1980s when I was in my 20s, I testified at a La Grande hearing for the Oregon Wilderness Bill held by Senator Mark Hatfield. I was scared, but prepared to speak up on behalf of northeast Oregon wilds I’d come to cherish while living in Prairie City. I stepped up to the podium with a bouquet of wildflowers and a poem. My words contained no mention of economic benefits, but only the passion I felt for the Strawberry Mountain wilderness additions and Glacier-Monument proposed wilderness. Naive and unprepared for the vitriol of the timber-led opposition, I remember my shaking fingers tightening around the paper I read from. I persevered.

Later, I would join volunteers in Washington, D.C. for weeks at a time lobbying Congressional offices. By then I had become courageous. Wearing my borrowed “power jacket” and matching skirt from my mother, I threw my shoulders back and walked into offices and did not take no for an answer when I asked for a meeting.

Often, our Oregon group would stop in the Audubon office for coaching from the indomitable Brock Evans, my mentor then and now. (I highly recommend his autobiography for the stories of so many wilderness campaigns with strategies applicable today: Endless Pressure, Endlessly Applied: The Autobiograpy of an Eco-Warrior as well as Fight & Win: Brock Evans’s Strategies for the New Eco-warrior).

A few years ago when rummaging through old papers, I found a yellowed clipping from the Oregonian newspaper written by James Flanagan and titled, “Grassroots lobbyists plead case for wilderness areas.” The article began (and note this is my given name of Deborah): “An exuberant smile lights Deborah W. Richie’s freckled face every time she talks about Eastern Oregon wilderness areas. Lately, the 25-year-old forestry biologist has been doing a lot of talking about pristine areas in the Malheur, Wallowa, and Whitman national forests while making the rounds of congressional offices in Washington, D.C.”

I’ve aged a lot since then, but I think I still have an exuberant smile whenever I talk about wildlands. I am honored to have joined my fellow young(!) environmentalists in a pivotal time of making a difference. The Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984 was a triumph, even if smaller than we’d hoped for. I remember the joy of celebrating at Table Rock Lookout by the new Monument Rock Wilderness, as I also jotted notes for the lengthy article I would write for the Blue Mountain Eagle newspaper (out of John Day, Oregon).

The Act added 861,500 acres of Wilderness, including the ancient forests of Drift Creek, Middle Santiam, Waldo Lake, Rock Creek, Salmon-Huckleberry, Cummins Creek, Bridge Creek, Black Canyon, Badger Creek, Bull-of-the-Woods, Boulder Creek, Mill Creek, Grassy Knob, Monument Rock, North Fork John Day, North Fork Umatilla, and Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wildernesses. (Read more on Andy Kerr’s blog about the wilderness champion Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver (1927-2020).

Monument Rock Wilderness dedication 1984 (at Table Rock Lookout). I was a reporter then for the Blue Mountain Eagle.–scribbling notes with mittened hands. (Photo courtesy Bill Fleischmann).

Now, thirty-eight years later, can we save more wilderness with a big W in a time of deep political divide? I say yes. Be bold. Be passionate. Help President Biden achieve his promise of protecting 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 and protecting old-growth forests (both are in danger of being watered down). Be creative with legislation that, for example, combines Wilderness with protecting big trees that are capturing and storing the most carbon in a forest. Join the Climate Forest campaign. Enlist the many people who love wildlife and wildlands to act. Support grassroots groups that are keeping our wildlands wild (like Greater Hells Canyon Council and Oregon Wild).

Take inspiration from youth leaders via the Sunrise Movement, Earth Uprising, Fridays For Future, and others. Acknowledge tribal sovereignty and support indigenous-led conservation. Advocate and vote for climate, environmental, and social justice champions.

I could keep going, but I will pause the action list with a key component: the need to reform our elections and a winner-take-all system that has become minority rule to the detriment of women’s rights and the very planet that sustains all life. See FairVote and RepresentWomen.

Phew! That’s a lot to take in….I think I’ll step outside in our mini-wilds of our pollinator garden for a breather and to remind myself of what’s at stake…like the young white-headed woodpecker that flew in from a pine and the two rufous hummingbirds zinging through the columbines in a feisty chase. Coming back to my desk, I am swept up by their beauty as I renew my promise to defend this Earth, to be among the “Keepers of the Door” as Brock Evans described:

“I see this door in my mind. On one side of it is now, the present, with all of its strife and anger, noise, bulldozers, and yet music and loving too. That is where we are: in now, the present.

On the other side of my door is the future.

We do not know what that future holds for us or for the things we love. We only know that it might be a better, more benign, world than this turbulent now.

So the answer to, “What must be done?” is simple. Our job, as Keepers of the Door, is to shove every acre and every species through that door. To pass them on into that future time, where they will have another chance to survive. To rescue them from the now.” – Brock Evans


Note: If you are looking for summer reading while shading up on a hot day, check out this Cool Green Summer Book Review (and yes–my book Halcyon Journey is one of them).

Below–a few more photos of Wilderness signs… please share yours in the comments!

Rufous Hummingbird among native columbines outside our door!