Friday, November 22, 2013

In Defence of Wildness and Federal Lands: the Stegner Legacy Part I

View from the Stegner Homestead (image courtesy of Jim Foley)

"I may not know who I am, but I know where I came from."
 Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow

For many of us who live on the prairie parts of this continent, Wallace Stegner is regarded as one of the first to articulate the ecological and cultural destruction in the wake of western frontier-chasing.  Saskatchewan people claim a piece of his legacy because he lived for a spell in this province and then, returning for a visit forty years later, wrote Wolf Willow, part memoir and part history of the Cypress Hills region.

In 1914, when Wallace was five, his family moved from Iowa to southwest Saskatchewan, spending the six years that comprised the most settled and formative part of Stegner's childhood. His father, George Stegner, was a feckless schemer always on the move looking for eldorado, taking his wife and two sons from frontier town to frontier town, and often leaving them behind for spells as he continued to search for a way to get rich fast.

Arriving in southwest Saskatchewan, George took out a homestead quarter and a pre-emption quarter, 320 acres of prairie wildness just north of the U.S. border. The soil was very poor but they ploughed some of it anyway and had a decent crop the first year. In 1916, though, the crop was rained out. For the next three years after that, the grain withered in drought. The Stegners moved back to the States in 1920, abandoning their homestead. Wallace was eleven years old.

By then, he had learned two things that stood in opposition to one another: one, that the prairie earth, with its winds, solitude, dangers, and wild creatures, has a moral and spiritual weight that feeds the soul, and, two, that there are men like his father who will dedicate themselves to taking the gifts of the land and exploiting them without thought for tomorrow.

Wallace Stegner (Wikipedia)

For the rest of his life, Stegner's effort to carry these two lessons in his imagination fostered not only some great novels (including the Pulitzer-prize winning Angle of Repose), but a Western environmental movement that successfully defended wildness on public lands.

In the 1950s he wrote an article for Harper's about the threats to public lands in the West, a book telling the story of John Wesley Powell and the Colorado River, and then a book celebrating and defending the Dinosaur National Monument. The latter, This is Dinosaur (1955), is widely credited with saving both the park and the Green River from proposed dams.

But Stegner's triumph was a 2400 word letter he wrote that galvanized the movement to pass The Wilderness Act of 1964, a single piece of federal legislation in the United States that continues to this day to defend more than 100 million acres of Federal public lands from any activity or development that would destroy it. If Canada had such a piece of legislation, the PFRA pastures would never have been transferred to the provinces.

Stegner composed the letter, now known as The Wilderness Letter (full text here), shortly after returning home from  the visit  back to Saskatchewan that forms the heart of Wolf Willow. When Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall spoke at a 1960 conference on the need for legislation to protect and preserve wild places, he scrapped his own speech in favor of simply reading the Wilderness Letter. The language Stegner used is reflected in the wording of the final act and when it was passed in '64, Stegner's letter was read out in the House.

At the heart of the letter's eloquent plea, is this passage clearly tracing his "idea of wilderness" to his time on the Saskatchewan prairie:

“Let me say something on the subject of the kinds of wilderness worth preserving. Most of those areas contemplated are in the national forests and in high mountain country. For all the usual recreational purposes, the alpine and the forest wildernesses are obviously the most important, both as genetic banks and as beauty spots. But for the spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe, other kinds will serve every bit as well. Perhaps, because they are less friendly to life, more abstractly nonhuman, they will serve even better. On our Saskatchewan prairie, the nearest neighbor was four miles away, and at night we saw only two lights on all the dark rounding earth. The earth was full of animals--field mice, ground squirrels, weasels, ferrets, badgers, coyotes, burrowing owls, snakes. I knew them as my little brothers, as fellow creatures, and I have never been able to look upon animals in any other way since. The sky in that country came clear down to the ground on every side, and it was full of great weathers, and clouds, and winds, and hawks. I hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone. A prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea. It is as good a place as any for the wilderness experience to happen; the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the alpine forest.

What does this mean for Canada's public lands and the PFRA pastures in general? More on that in Part II of this story but the land that inspired those words, which in turn inspired legislation to defend public land in the United States, rests just north of the Montana border at the base of the Battle Creek Community Pasture in Saskatchewan. Yes, the "wilderness" of Stegner's Wilderness Letter, including the site of his family homestead, is on a piece of Federal public land that is scheduled to be transferred to Saskatchewan and then leased out like all of the other PFRA pastures.

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

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