I was raised in Wyoming and have lived much of my life in Laramie, where I currently reside. I am the writer-in-residence for the University of Wyoming, a contributing writer for National Geographic Magazine and the author of four books. Over the past 20 years, I have visited many of the Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Areas in Wyoming, including Encampment River Canyon, Adobe Town, Ferris Mountains, Lankin Dome, Split Rock, Miller Spring, Savage Peak, McCullough Peaks, Sweetwater Canyon, the Sand Dunes and probably a half dozen others.
As a journalist for National Geographic, I have traveled around the world dozens of times doing assignments in over 100 countries. And yet, there is no place like Wyoming. Wyoming’s greatest resource is its wildness, in particular, designated wilderness as part of the National Wilderness Preservation Systems and the wilderness study areas. For example, the Red Desert in southwest Wyoming contains some of the rarest and most extraordinary features in the world. It is home to 13 wilderness study areas, the longest ungulate migration in the lower 48 states and the largest desert elk herd in North America. Wyoming citizens, in particular hunters, know that it is the undeveloped WSAs that allow these animals, and their remarkable migrations, to exist.
While I acknowledge that coal, oil and natural gas play a significant role in Wyoming’s current economy, I can guarantee you that in 50 years (probably less) they will mean little in the global energy market. The world will have moved on. It already is. Scotland is building the largest ocean wind farm in the world. Sweden has promised to eliminate fossil fuel usage entirely in the next generation. Germany already gets almost 30 percent of its energy from renewables. China has more solar panels in place than the U.S., and most of the countries in Africa are moving to small-scale solar as a consistent means of obtaining electricity.
Wyoming needs to wake up and recognize what it really has: unspoiled wildness. As the world becomes desperately overpopulated and despoiled, wildness is more valuable, by far, than any other natural resource. The wilderness study areas are one of the richest examples of Wyoming’s natural heritage—and they will be destroyed forever if they are opened up to industrial and motorized use. These are the very places we should protect, not just for Wyomingites, but for all humans.
As a member of the Governor’s Task Force for Recreation this past year, we concluded that tourism will be the biggest economic force, outstripping energy production, in the next few years. People around the country, indeed, around the world, crave open space. They crave open vistas. They crave what is vanishing, and that is exactly what Wyoming still has. These people will come to Wyoming and spend money. The surrounding states of Colorado, Montana and Idaho have already realized that the tourism economy brings in more money than timber, cattle and coal.
If we want to boost Wyoming’s economy, the best possible decision is not simply to preserve WSAs, but designate them as permanent wilderness. What a concept! That was the point of their special preservation in the first place.
I urge Representative Liz Cheney to abandon HR 4697 and to refrain from introducing any other anti-wilderness legislation. It is bad for the economy of Wyoming, bad for the people of Wyoming, and particularly bad for the future of Wyoming.
Mark Jenkins is a contributing writer for National Geographic Magazine and a writer-in-residence for the University of Wyoming.