Friday, April 1, 2011

Mountain Majesty Bias

By Drew Hanson


author atop Matterhorn, Oregon, 1992
I need to be clear about something from the start: I love mountains. I've spent months backpacking in them. I did three weeks of mountaineering in the John Muir Wilderness through one of my favorite mountain ranges--the Sierras. I've backpacked three times in Glacier National Park, two times at Mt. Rainier, summited two of the Three Sisters in Oregon and without boring you further suffice it to say many others. I disclose this at the beginning not to proudly pound on my chest but to make it clear that I am not against mountains nor am I naively unfamiliar with them.

On the other hand, many people think mountainous areas are "wastelands." My grandfather can't understand why I "waste" my time visiting mountains to hike. Like many Americans, he has never hiked on one. But I suspect he and others living in "flatter" landscapes have a deeper understanding of scenery. Out of this I discovered that scenery should not be measured by elevation alone.

The Bias

The Conservation Movement, like the Labor Movement, Civil Rights Movement or Suffrage Movement, has a rich history that includes certain tendencies and biases. These biases are most on display at the large national conservation groups like Audubon, Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) or what is sometimes collectively called, Big Green. One of the currents running through the history of the Conservation Movement and Big Green is a bias I call mountain majesty bias.

For example, a few years ago, there was a large property in New Mexico that was offered for sale to the federal government to add to Bandelier National Monument. The Big Green groups and National Park Service all got behind it, pushing Congress with all the rhetoric they could muster to allocate the $101 million needed to buy it. Big Green quoted John Muir and other conservation greats and found a couple rare species on the property to justify why this property was so critical to America. After a couple years of public relations blitz in which the mainstream press eventually jumped on board, they got the needed votes in Congress, the money was allocated and now the Baca Ranch is owned by the federal government as conservation and recreation land for all of us. It sounds like a beautiful place and I plan to hike there one day.

It’s a tried and true recipe used by Big Green countless times and loaded with mountain majesty bias. If you interview conservationists, especially those who support Big Green, I suspect you will discover that quite a few unconsciously subscribe to the following logic: lots of elevation (i.e. mountains and canyons) equals scenery that should be protected. The converse to this line of logic is: flatter landscapes are not scenic and hence receive less conservation attention.

Look at a map of federal lands in America. Where are nearly all of them? Most are in the west. And where do the loudest calls of “sell federal land” and “we don’t need to be spending any more tax dollars buying land” come from? Local people living in the west. Ever heard of the Sagebrush Rebellion?

So it’s hard for me to sympathize with Big Green when they make noise to have this mountain or that canyon in the west purchased by the federal government. If the Conservation Movement were concerned about filling gaps in America's existing conservation lands and serving a host of other societal benefits, such as undoing some of the damage done to imperiled ecosystems (i.e. savannas, prairies, barrens, wetlands) and economies of the Mississippi River basin, we need to look outside of mountainous areas for places to focus our conservation attention. It is long overdue for the Conservation Movement to turn its focus to America's mid-section to make it our nation’s highest conservation priority to protect farmland, great river systems, wetlands, prairies and a system of protected corridors with footpaths through them that includes the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

$101 million to purchase land for the Ice Age Trail is unheard of. But for those of us who know the Trail, we know that $101 million would forever protect a couple hundred miles of it. Imagine an additional couple hundred miles of Ice Age Trail for the 18 million Americans who live within a two hour drive to enjoy! But the forces of Big Green and the mainstream press are not ready to help. To Big Green the Ice Age Trail has no mountains, so what’s the point?

Mountains add to the great diversity of landscapes in America. But the absence of mountains does not mean that a landscape is uninteresting or inferior or unworthy of a (thousand mile!) hike or other conservation attention. The mid-section of the United States is home to some magnificent scenery!  Think about it the next time Big Green asks you to urge your member of Congress to support protection of xyz mountain or abc canyon. Then think about how long it has been since Big Green did as much to help the Ice Age Trail or just about any place in the Midwest.


As an aside, at one point or another I was a member of all the Big Green groups including sixteen years as a paid member of NPCA. I read virtually every page of every magazine they sent me and sometimes responded to their “calls to action”. I wrote to NPCA at least a dozen times during those sixteen years asking that they please give even the slightest bit of attention, either in their magazine or in the halls of Congress, to my neighborhood National Park area–the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. But it was not to be. My membership in NPCA came to an end after they published an article about all the great National Park areas along the Great Lakes but failed to make any mention of the Ice Age Trail. I sent NPCA a farewell letter but NPCA’s misunderstanding of the Ice Age Trail stems from more than just mountain majesty bias. I described it in detail at


  1. ah - but you neglect an important component of the topographical bias - yes, mountains have great charismatic mega-landscape appeal - but there's another (terribly simple and harshly pragmatic) reason that mountains win the conservation battles - they're just a pain to develop. mountains are hard to build on, costly to log, damn near impossible to farm. the competing interests scream less loudly to get a piece of rugged mountain territory. :) sjr

  2. Thanks for the comment, coo-coo-ca-choo! I think you’re on to something there, but I’m not yet convinced. I agree that the “worthless lands” test (Runte 1979) you cite weighed heavily in the battles to create new national parks and federally designated Wilderness Areas on existing federal lands. But when it comes to the expenditure of federal land acquisition dollars to purchase private lands by the federal government for conservation purposes, such as with the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) with which I am most familiar, I’m not sure that the “worthless lands” test is prominent in the arguments. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it used in this context. Please enlighten me if I’m missing an important thread or specific major debates.

    Regarding the screams of competing interests, again, when it comes to federal land acquisition for conservation purposes instead of national park or Wilderness Area designations, my take is the loudest anti-federal land screams come from the west. Sure Wisconsin had PLOW (Private Landowners Of Wisconsin) and other localized demonstrations of opposition to public land ownership but these sorts of flare ups east of the Mississippi seem to have had nowhere near the sway in the halls of Congress as the western Sagebrush Rebellion and its modern and historical counterparts. On this point, too, if you see them, please fill in important gaps in my understanding of federal land acquisition.