‘Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life.

Two months after being sworn in as President Kennedy’s Interior Secretary in 1961, Stewart Udall was scheduled to speak at the Seventh Wilderness Conference in San Francisco. After preparing his remarks for the occasion, he threw them out, and read instead a six-page document written by Wallace Stegner, which has since been known simply as the Wilderness Letter. 

That America would have large-scale wilderness—that America would maintain a concept of wilderness both philosophical and legal—was not in the least assured. Federal wilderness designation followed nearly a century of conservationism and required an eight-year political struggle, from 1956 to 1964, resulting in the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. 

What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded—but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.

Stegner’s letter was intended to be just an entry in one commission’s report on the Wilderness Act. But Udall’s reading of the letter was broadcast on the radio and the text found print through the Sierra Club and the Washington Post. The letter quickly became celebrated as the essential explanation and defense of wilderness, not just of its usefulness, but of its philosophical necessity to the character of the American land and people. 

When Stegner wrote again of his Wilderness Letter in 1980, he had discovered that his words had traveled far. From Canada to Australia and Baja California to Kenya, fragments of the letter appeared on posters and in books. “The labor of an afternoon,” he wrote, had “gone farther around the world than other writings on which I have spent years.” Not limited to the American identity, the wilderness ideal expressed by Stegner resonated as a fundamental element of humanity. 

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed . . . One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world.

Daniel Arnold, ’01, lives on the Rogue River in rural Oregon. He is the author of three books about climbing—one historical nonfiction, one travelogue and one of fictional short stories. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.