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ARTICLE

Wilderness Cathedrals and the Public Good

MAY 01, 1987 by WILLIAM C. DENNIS

Dr. Dennis is Director of Socratic Seminars at Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, Indiana.

      This article is an expanded version of a presentation given at a conference sponsored by the Political Economy Research Center, Bozeman, Montana, and appears here by permission.


“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

—Henry David Thoreau


“The public interest” has become one of the cant phrases of the day. In a democratic society, almost by definition, proponents of a particular policy must claim that it promotes the public good and opponents must argue that it will harm the public weal. As the scope of government expands, the claims on behalf of the public interest grow ever more extravagant while the concept of the public interest becomes increasingly vague.

If the public interest is to advance, everyone must benefit and no one should bear disproportionate costs. The Founding Fathers believed that this idea of the public interest could be furthered only through a government of strictly limited powers because only a few measures in carefully defined areas could be expected to benefit the nation as a whole. Today we might call their version of the public interest a positive-sum game. Yet the power of the government has grown since the early days of the Republic to the point where public policy is characterized less by the public interest than it is by transfer activity. In a transfer society, public policy is dominated by efforts at using the power of government to transfer, or redistribute, wealth from some people to others. At best, transfer activity is a zero-sum game—the gains equal the losses. More likely, scarce resources are consumed in the bargaining over the transfer activity, and society is left poorer than before.[1]

One area where claims on behalf of the public interest have been particularly noteworthy has been the cause of wilderness preservation. Without exception, the proponents of the public protection of parks and wild land have maintained that their program was manifestly in the public interest. While most public policies have been subjected to close scrutiny in recent years, the public interest claims of the wilderness preservationists have met few challenges.[2]

Yet there are a number of problems with the argument on behalf of the public provision of wilderness protection. Wilderness protection yields major benefits for a few at the expense of the many. Whatever the general benefits of public wilderness protection, they are far outweighed by the private benefits. Public wilderness preservation, at least in part, is a transfer activity. Even if wilderness preservation is in the public interest, on net, the government probably has done more to destroy wilderness than to preserve it. Public action is an uncertain means to preserve wilderness and may well be counterproductive. Public means do not always produce public benefits. Finally, the proponents of wilderness protection disagree among themselves on such questions as the nature of wilderness, how best to manage wild lands, and how much preservation is desirable. Such disagreements make the promotion of the public interest through government protection of the wilderness even more unlikely.[3]

Indeed a brief look at the history of the public interest arguments on behalf of wilderness protection turns up what, from the perspective of today, can only be called some real embarrassments.[4] For instance, contact with the wilderness was thought to promote those masculine virtues necessary and appropriate for a young virile nation. While this view is commonly and correctly associated with Theodore Roosevelt, it was a typical position throughout the nineteenth century. For example, Washington Irving wrote: “. . . we send our youth abroad to grow luxurious and effeminate in Europe; it appears to me, that a previous tour on the prairies would be more likely to produce that manliness, simplicity, and self-dependence most in unison with our political institutions.”[5]

The most popular masculine sport was hunting. Then, as now, hunters wanted wild lands to be managed for their benefit. But there was little appreciation for the balance of nature among nineteenth-century hunters. Hunters viewed wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and coyotes as vermin which threatened the population of desired game animals, particularly deer. Even as late as 1920, Aldo Leopold, who would later help bring the ecological perspective to the attention of the nation, argued that the restoration of deer population to satisfactory levels required the eradication of every last wolf and lion.[6]

American wilderness demonstrated the purity of the American nation and people. Life in the wilderness invigorated the spirit and better prepared Americans for the challenges of civilization. On the other hand the destruction of the wilderness denoted the Europeanization of America and the general decline of American civilization. Toward the end of the century the masculine argument on behalf of wilderness protection became associated with Manifest Destiny, the Darwinian struggle, patriotism, the mild racism so characteristic of many of the progressives, and even the benefits of barbarism and the cleansing qualities of war.[7]

The progressives also brought to the wilderness argument their belief in scientific management and planned economic growth. Proper, knowledgeable, centralized management of natural resources was the only way a healthy, prosperous future could be assured. As Gifford Pinchot wrote, “Conservation stands for the same kind of practical commonsense management of this country by the people that every businessman stands for in handling of his own business.”[8] Eventually this attitude led to a split in the wilderness movement, which is with us yet today, between those who saw the wilderness primarily as a resource storehouse for future development of the common good, and those who desired large quantities of wild land to be set aside and protected from economic exploitation.[9]

But there has also been a good bit of commercialism of one sort or another in the wilderness movement throughout its history. The preservation of Yellowstone was partly the effort of the Northern Pacific Railroad which saw the possibilities of a tourist trade. Congress viewed Yellowstone largely as a collection of geysers, waterfalls, and other curiosities rather than as wild parkland. Railroads and other commercial enterprises contributed to the preservation of the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Yosemite, Glacier Park, the White Mountains, and the Maine woods. Improvements in transportation brought people closer to the wilds and contributed to the popularity of the preservation movement. Certain tours became the “thing” to do for the leisured elite. Trips to Mount Marcy, Natural Bridge, or Crawford Notch were more dating, but just as acceptable as sojourns at Saratoga, Newport, or White Sulphur Springs. As late as the 1950s advocates of preservation gloried in the rising park attendance and commercial tourism made possible by the automobile and the Federal highway program. Growthmanship has not been limited to the for-profit sectors of-the country.[10]

Paintings, panoramas, photographs, lecture tours, accounts of life in the woods, and famous explorations—these were signs of a popular interest in the wilderness in the nineteenth century. But to a surprising degree the impetus to preserve wild lands came from the intellectual elite of the eastern cities. Emerson, Thoreau, Irving, Greeley, Whittier, Bryant, Cooper, Cole, E. L. Godkin—men who believed it was their responsibility to elevate the taste and standards of a mediocre democracy and who were uncomfortable with the bustle and whirl of nineteenth- century economic expansion, were often the ones who first sought solace in at least a tentative contact with the wilds. Much of the nineteenth-century wilderness movement came not so much from a love of nature as it did from an antipathy to the city. The urban elite delighted in romantic pastoral poems, in genteel outdoor activity (such as beach walks, fishing trips, and picnics), in leisured travel, and in summer migration to fashionable watering places. When the parks and beaches and resorts near home became too crowded the wealthy patrons who had “pioneered” these retreats, like aristocratic “Daniel Boones,” moved farther off so that they would not have to rub elbows with their social inferiors.[11] Some of the most venturesome of these travelers eventually got so far out that they met up with real wilderness at Mount Katahdin, or in the Adirondacks, or even along the Oregon Trail, as the young Francis Parkman did, out for a lark in 1846. When they did, not all of them liked what they found there. Thoreau’s rather terrifying climb of Mount Katahdin served to remind him of the many benefits of civilized life. There were, of course, lovers of the wilderness of the modern-day stripe who actually knew the wilds from long personal experience-men like Alfred Jacob Miller, John Wesley Powell, Osborne Russell, John Muir, or William Henry Jackson, but in comparison to the East Coast elite whose contact with the wilds was rather remote, such figures were few and far between.

The nineteenth century produced other, more familiar arguments on behalf of wilderness protection: wilderness was an important source of aesthetic beauty, wilderness served as an antidote to the ill effects of the corrupting materialism of modern civilization, wilderness provided an escape to freedom from the cares of daily life. These views, and the masculine, romantic, commercial, utilitarian, planning, and aristocratic arguments for wilderness preservation which are discussed above, continue to be of historic interest, and serve to give us pause about present-day claims of furthering the public interest through the public provision of wilderness. But far more common than these arguments, and surprisingly modern in its approach, was the frankly theological argument that wilderness brought one closer to God and helped to restore the soul. For Americans, wilderness was to be the Temple and the Cathedral for ages to come:


What are the temples which Roman robbers have reared, what are the towers in which feudal oppression has fortified itself, what are the blood-stained associations of the one, or the despotic superstitions of the other, to the deep forests which the eye of God has alone pervaded, and where Nature, in her unviolated sanctuary, has for ages laid her fruits and flowers on His altar!

My God is in the wilderness . . . My church is the church of the forest.[12]

Now, it is one thing for an individual to be guided by his religious beliefs on decisions of public policy, but it is quite a different thing to demand that the state in its own best interests, actually provide both a church and a religious service. In a diverse democratic society, there are serious problems with providing religious goods through statist means. Yet the theological argument, or its modern equivalent, for wilderness protection, remains every bit as popular today as it was a hundred years ago. In his beautifully written and highly acclaimed, Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks, Joseph L. Sax, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, is unabashedly moralistic in his plea for wilderness preservation. Wilderness advocates are secular prophets, says Sax, bringing to the people a much needed superior set of values. God may be missing from Sax’s impassioned plea, but Sax is a preacher for the political establishment of a faith nonetheless. Let Sax speak for himself:[13]

The preservationist is not an elitist who wants to exclude others, notwithstanding popular opinion to the contrary; he is a moralist who wants to convert them. He is concerned about what other people do in the parks not because he is unaware of the diversity of taste in the society but because he views certain kinds of activity as calculated to undermine the attitudes he believes the parks can, and should encourage. . . .

The setting of the national park provides an opportunity for respite, contrast, contemplation, and affirmation of values for those who live most of their lives in the workaday world.

The preservationist is an elitist, at least in one sense. He seeks to persuade the majority to be distrustful of their own instincts and inclinations, which he believes are reinforced by alienating work and the dictates of mass culture. To the social reformer his message is that he can help generate incentives that will lead toward reform of the workplace. To those who say “let’s look at demand,” he says that people need to pay attention to what they ought to want as well as to what they now want. To those who ask how anyone else can purport to know what another citizen should want, he responds that complacent acceptance of things as they are is not the hallmark of a democratic society.

Right or wrong, persuasive or not, his claim is that he knows something about what other people ought to want and how they can go about getting it, and he should not back away from, or conceal, that claim. . . .

The preservationists are really moralists at heart, and people are very much at the center of their concerns. They encourage people to immerse themselves in natural settings and to behave there in certain ways, because they believe such behavior is redeeming. . . .

It is not enough to accept the preservationists simply as a minority, speaking for a minority, however impressive. For that reason I have described them as secular prophets, preaching a message of secular salvation. I have attempted to articulate their views as a public philosophy, rather than treating them merely as spokesmen for an avocation of nature appreciation, because the claims they make on government oblige them to bear the weightier burden. (Emphasis added)

What Professor Sax recommends is coercion on behalf of a good cause: Wilderness preservation, he believes, will redeem mankind from the evils of the modern world through an official policy of moral uplift. Americans will be won away from their passive existence. Mental health will improve. In short, wilderness will bring a new (secular?) salvation to mankind.

But when it comes to moral uplift, Sax will find that there are many denominations, each with its own version of salvation, each with its idea of what a cathedral should look like.[14] Fishermen (and Sax is one) know the moral value of casting a fly some early morning out onto the waters of a calm lake. Hunters and trappers conduct their slaughter in the name of the higher value of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, camaraderie, and family unity. Wendell Berry calls for a restoration of the historic values of the small, independent farmer.[15] Popular culture touts the freedom of the cowboy or the trucker as being socially redeeming. Pick almost any special interest magazine off the newsstands, (I find Sports Afield, Car and Driver, and Runner’s World, to be of interest because I do not share in their enthusiasms), and one will find claims of social virtue almost as extravagant as those of Joseph Sax (in whose enthusiasm I share).

Then we think back to the exaggerated claims of the nineteenth-century lovers of nature and we realize that little has changed since those days. A preacher is a preacher wherever he may be. One of the early nineteenth-century adventurers into the wilderness was himself a minister. Timothy Dwight, Congregational clergyman, President of Yale College from 1795 to 1817, left an account of his journeys in four massive volumes.[16] Dwight actually got out into the wilds and was one of the first New Englanders to record his admiration of the physical beauty of natural America. But, Dwight feared the wilderness as well. In contrast to Joseph Sax, he thought that extensive contact with the wilderness was morally debilitating. Men living in the wilds, away from home, church, and town become dissolute and antisocial. For Dwight the wilderness could never be a church; a good church required a settled town, an educated clergy, and regular worship within a community setting.[17]

Dwight, like Sax, however, believed in an established church at public expense with compulsory church attendance, only it was the Congregational Church, not the church of the wild wood that he supported. Dwight believed that Christianity was God’s plan for mankind and that God demanded that His Church be supported by the civil authorities, because through church attendance some would be brought to salvation who would not otherwise obtain it. Of the many varieties of the Christian faith, the Congregational Church was the highest and most pure expression of God’s will and should receive preferential treatment. But Dwight was not just a Congregational minister of the old school. He was a modernist, a rationalist, and a scientist who established the first chair of natural philosophy at Yale.. He knew that his theological arguments would not appeal to everyone and he went on to bolster his argument on behalf of the establishment of religion with arguments from political economy as well.* The Church provided public benefits and, therefore, all should help pay for it. Church attendance promoted good morals and, with its appeals to conscience, reduced crime. The Church taught Christian charity so that people would live together in peace and harmony. It reduced social tensions and increased good will among men. A higher degree of social morality meant less public expense for police, punishment and rehabilitation, and court litigation. The Church, for Dwight, had what economists would call a favorable cost/benefit ratio. Without a strong public commitment to religion Dwight feared that vice, crime, and licentiousness would grow to the detriment of the society as a whole.


*Dwight’s language is so similar to some of the arguments of modern day preservationists that it is worth quoting at length; “The legislature of every State is the proper superintendent of all its prudential concerns. It has not only a fight, but is obliged by an authority, which it can neither oppose, nor question, to pursue every lawful, and expedient, measure for the promotion of the public welfare. To this great purpose Religion in every country is not only useful, but indispensable. But Religion cannot exist, and has never existed, for any length of time, without public worship. As every man ought, therefore, willingly to contribute to the support of whatever increases his own prosperity; he is by immoveable consequence obliged to support the religion, which by increasing the common prosperity, increases of course his own.
      Should an advocate for the doctrine, which I oppose, demand proof, that Religion is indispensable to the welfare of a free country: this is my answer . . . Moral obligation has its sole ground in the character, and government of God. But, where God is not worshipped, his character will soon be disregarded: and the obligation. founded on it, unfelt, and forgotten. No duty. therefore, to individuals, or to the public, will be realized or performed. . . .”
      ”I am well aware, that in spite of this and any other reasoning: in spite of demonstration itself: them are men. who may, and in all probability will, say, that, however good and useful the public worship of God may be, they do not wish to avail themselves of its benefits; and owe, therefore, no contributions to its support. To these men I reply, that he, who has children, or who does not wish to send his children to school: and he who does not use the roads. and bridges, of his country, because be is either necessitated, or inclined, to stay at home; may on exactly the same ground, claim an exemption from supporting schools, roads, and bridges. To such an objector it is a sufficient answer, that these things enter into all the happiness which he enjoys; and that without them he. and his countrymen, would be hermits, and savages. Without Religion, man be comes in short time a beast of prey: and wastes the happiness of his fellow-men with as little remorse, as the wolf. or the tiger: and to a degree which leaves their ravages out of remembrance.” (Dwight, Travels IV. 403,405. Also see, Theodore Dwight. Jr.. President Dwight’s Decision of Questions Discussed by the Senior Class in Yale College in 1813 and 1814, New York, 1833. “Dispute XII, December 8th 1813: Ought the Clergy to be Supported by Law?”).

Timothy Dwight was probably correct about the social benefits of a well-ordered church. As long as he was alive, Connecticut remained true to its long-established policy of public support of religion. The year after Dwight’s death in 1817, however, a contentious election brought to power a party committed to a complete severing of church and state. But was this dramatic change in Connecticut policy accompanied by rampant immorality and criminality, together with associated social costs, as Dwight feared? Not according to Lyman Beecher, Dwight’s friend and protegé and Congregational minister at Litchfield. After disestablishment, no longer able to rely upon state support, the Congregational Church began an intensive effort to keep existing parishioners and to attract new members to the fold. At the same time, the dissenting sects stopped viewing the Congregationalists as the enemy and ceased wasting their scarce resources on political opposition to the establishment. Soon a wave of religious enthusiasms known as the Second Great Awakening swept over Connecticut. The voluntary, instead of compulsory support of religion, ended petty religious quarrels and brought about greater social cooperation and new religious concern.[18]

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. The state is not a good means to promote either religious or secular salvation. Considering this brief history of the strange arguments made for the public provision of wilderness, should we not expect the preservationists to be more modest in their claims today?[19] Is it not at least plausible that the “disestablishment” of wilderness might bring with it many of the benefits that came to Connecticut with the disestablishment of religion?[20] Joseph Sax and his friends could promote wilderness preservation as one of the many good achievements of modern civilization and would no longer have to promote their position after the manner of true believers. The various sects of “preservationists” and “developers” would stop spending scarce resources on the unending and increasingly strident battle for the political control of the wilderness, but instead could cooperate in the discovery of new ways to provide wilderness through private means. We would come to see wilderness as a scarce good, worthy of ownership and stewardship as with other scarce goods. The public appreciation for the value of wilderness would grow accordingly.

Less wilderness in public hands, in the long run, might well lead to better wilderness preservation as well. At the end of his third edition of Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash writes: “It has occurred to others that the need for the wild is a transitory, fron-tier-related enthusiasm that Americans will outgrow . . . . Changing ideas and values replaced the wilderness hatred with wilderness preservation, and ideas could change again.”[21] If that day should come, would it not be better for the cause of preservation to have substantial tracts of wilderness in private hands where it could be protected from changes in public taste and public interest?

Finally, and most importantly, the disestablishment of the wilderness, as with the disestablishment of the church, would contribute to the expansion of liberty. Wilderness then would truly contribute to the support of those liberating values held in high esteem by the preservationist community—values, which it might well be in the public interest to further.


1.   For more on the public interest and the transfer society, see William C. Dennis, “The Founding Fathers and the Public Interest,” unpublished lecture, delivered at Shawnee State College. Portsmouth, Ohio, April, 1976, and Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill, The Birth of A Transfer Society (Hoover Institution Press: Stanford, California, 1980).

2.   There is, however, a growing literature on this subject. Three good references are: Edwin G. Dolan. Tanstaafl. The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971), Robert J. Smith, Earth’s Resources: Private Ownership vs. Public Waste (Washington, D.C.: Libertarian Party, 1980); and John Baden and Richard Stroup, “Priceless Wilderness: A Paradigm Case of Rent Seeking” (paper prepared for a Liberty Fund Conference on, “The Political Economy of the Transfer Society,” Montana State University, Bozeman, September, 1980). But also see the convenient bibliography in Stroup and Baden, Natural Resources: Bureaucratic Myths and Environmental Management. San Francisco, 1983- See also William R. Tucker, Progress and Privilege: America in the Age of Environmentalism (Garden City, NY, 1982).

3.   These arguments are developed at length in William C. Dennis, “The Public and Private Interest in Wilderness Protection,” (The Cato Journal. Vol. 1, No. 2. Fall 1981), pp- 373-390.

4.   I do not want to be misunderstood, I value wilderness highly. During the last fifteen years, I have spent more than 600 days in wilderness or park settings. Many, indeed most, of the arguments on behalf of wilderness protection, both historical and current, are persuasive to me. They just do not establish convincingly, a sound basis for a public policy of wilderness protection. I confess, however, that most persons I talk to do not seem to object to providing me with a wilderness experience through the tax system even though they use little wilderness themselves. Perhaps they feel that the indirect benefits they gain from the preservation of wilderness fully compensates them for their expenditures on wilderness. But a modern society offers many moral and aesthetic goods without public support or subsidy.

5.   Quoted in Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1967), p. 73. Also, Nash, Wilderness. pp. 148-149; Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., Man and Nature in America (University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1973, org. pub. Columbia University Press, 1963), p. 65.

6.   Susan L. Flader, Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and The Evolution of an Ecological Attitude Toward Deer, Wolves and Forests. (University of Nebraska: Lincoln, 1978, org. pub. University of Missouri Press, 1974), pp. 53-61. Alston Chase in Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park (1986) shows how the National Park Service itself successfully eliminated wolves from Yellowstone.

7.   Nash, Wilderness. 11, 102, 106, 145, 152-53; Ekirch, Man and Nature, pp. 33-34, 98-99.

8.   Quoted in Ekirch, Man and Nature. p. 98. Also, Ekirch, Man and Nature, pp. 88-90, 97, 99; Hans Huth, Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes (University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1972, org. pub. University of California Press, 1957). pp. 186-187. Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and The Gospel of Efficiency : The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1959), pp. 41-42.

9.   Ekirch, Man and Nature, p. 88; Nash, Wilderness, pp. 161-181.

10.   Nash, Wilderness, pp. 105, 112-113, 155; Hath, Nature, pp. 72, 155, 202; Hays. Conservation, p. 196.

11.   Hath, Nature, chapters 4 and 7. Huth, p. 62. quotes the painter, Asher Durand, as worrying that the rural districts around New York City in the 1840s were being “invaded by roughs—the inevitable canker of public grounds, contiguous to our great cities. . . .” Some modern day preservationists, viewing Yosemite, say, know what Durand was talking about. But, then, what are public grounds for if not for the public?

12.   Nash, Wilderness, pp. 11, 73, 157, 67, 71,121,157-159, 167; Ekirch, Man and Nature. pp. 52- 53; Hays, Conservation, p. 145.

13.   Joseph L. Sax, Mountains Without Handrails, Reflections on the National Parks (The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1980), pp. 14, 42, 51, 59, 103-104.

14.   Ernst R. Habicht, Jr., first put this idea in my mind.

15.   Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (Sierra Club: San Francisco, 1977).

16.   Timothy Dwight, Travels In New England and New York (New Haven, Connecticut, 1821- 24, in four volumes).

17.   The paragraphs on Dwight are based on William C. Dennis, A Federalist Persuasion: The American Ideal of the Connecticut Federalists, 1795-1818 (unpub. Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1971), Chapters 2 and 3.

18.   Lyman Beechar, Autobiography, Correspondence, etc. (2 vols., New York, 1864-1865), I, p. 344. Charles Roy Keller, The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1942), pp. 55-69. Keller argues that the revival was a spontaneous development and was not something artificially created by the Congregational clergy to counter the effects of disestablishment. Keller believes that most of the clergy were unconcerned with politics by 1818. Indeed, the presence of revival may have eased the path to disestablishment by showing the clergy they had nothing to fear.

19.   i find support for this position in Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 1981), p. 145: “Conservationists perform an invaluable service when they alert us to dangers to our unique treasures, and when they remind us of the values of these treasures to ourselves and to coming generations. But when they move from this role to suggesting that pulp trees or deer should be conserved beyond what we are willing m pay to set aside the trees or deer’s habitat, they are either expressing their own personal aesthetic tastes and religious values, or else they axe talking misguided nonsense.’”

20.   Or in Madison’s famous words from Federalist #10: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”

21.   Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 3rd. ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. 387-388.

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