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The Promise of Wilderness

American Environmental Politics since 1964

From Denali's majestic slopes to the Great Swamp of central New Jersey, protected wilderness areas make up nearly twenty percent of the parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and other public lands that cover a full fourth of the nation's territory. But wilderness is not only a place. It is also one of the most powerful and troublesome ideas in American environmental thought, representing everything from sublime beauty and patriotic inspiration to a countercultural ideal and an overextension of government authority.

The Promise of Wilderness examines how the idea of wilderness has shaped the management of public lands since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Wilderness preservation has engaged diverse groups of citizens, from hunters and ranchers to wildlife enthusiasts and hikers, as political advocates who have leveraged the resources of local and national groups toward a common goal. Turner demonstrates how these efforts have contributed to major shifts in modern American environmental politics, which have emerged not just in reaction to a new generation of environmental concerns, such as environmental justice and climate change, but also in response to changed debates over old conservation issues, such as public lands management. He also shows how battles over wilderness protection have influenced American politics more broadly, fueling disputes over the proper role of government, individual rights, and the interests of rural communities; giving rise to radical environmentalism; and playing an important role in the resurgence of the conservative movement, especially in the American West.

About the Authors

James Morton Turner is assistant professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College.


"Filled with compelling characters and important parables, The Promise of Wilderness is required reading for environmental historians, but this magnificent book has value well beyond the field. Turner shows that wilderness was neither a transient nor a trivial issue."—Ryan Edgington, The Journal of American History, Vol. 100(1) 2013

"This rich history has many important lessons for those who work for wilderness protection today."—Doug Scott, Friends of Allegheny Wilderness newsletter, June 2012

"Turner’s account is a sophisticated, fresh interpretation, especially for the insights it provides on environmental politics in the 1970s and 1980s. This work pushes beyond the received wisdom in important ways, rethinking the chronology of change, venturing into previously unexplored topical territory, and transforming environmental history into a social-environmental history hybrid."—Chad Montrie, American Historical Review, October 2013

"James Turner offers a compelling narrative of U.S. environmental politics that answers and reformulates such questions for scholars, policy insiders, and anyone who has ever marveled at the eloquence of a wilderness area sign. Turner’s landmark new book shows that [wilderness preservation] was perennially inclusive and cutting-edge."—Josh Ashenmiller, Pacific Historical Review, August 2013

"Turner's research is deep, his writing strong, and his argument persuasive. The Promise of Wilderness is sure to become the standard work. It is an outstanding achievement."—Adam M. Sowards, Montana, The Magazine of Western History Spring 2013

"His engaging analysis suggests a complex tale of political ideology, science, and pragmatism that shaped the expansion of wilderness areas throughout the US. Turner's book is a compelling and detailed read, worthy of attention by scholars and students alike. Highly recommended."—Choice, January 2013

"A fascinating account of the environmental movement in the second half of the century, one that should find a prominent place not only in environmental history but also in political history and the history of the twentieth century . . . an interpretation of the late-twentieth-century wilderness movement that should remain definitive for a long time."—Keith Woodhouse, US Intellectual History, August 2012

"The Promise of Wilderness will be read with pleasure by all who enjoy— and realize they must act politically to protect— the untrammeled great outdoors."—Rupert Cutler, former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, Roanoke Times, July 2012

"James Morton Turner here gives us a highly detailed, exquisitely researched, and exciting account of the nearly 50 years of political, social, and cultural history of the environmental struggle since the act [Wilderness Act of 1964], using wilderness as the flashpoint of that massive endeavor—an endeavor even more important today than it was a half century ago."—Francis Moul, Great Plains Research Vol. 24, No. 1


"The Promise of Wilderness is an epic history of the heart, soul, and mind of the wilderness community over the last fifty years. Through personal stories of legendary conservation heroes, it provides a primer for all who work to protect special places. But even more, it is the story of the significant differences—the deep divide— over the seminal question: what is the role of the State in providing for the public good? This is the question before us today in our polarized political world—and the question we must answer in each conservation policy and political debate. Jay Turner reminds us frequently that in our democratic society 'all politics are local.' The Promise of Wilderness comes from the good will and passion of 'local' people who work for the public good to protect the few remaining wild places in this country."—William H. Meadows, Former President, The Wilderness Society

"A new crop of conservation historians is pushing up new interpretations of wilderness conservation. Jay Turner is a star of these new historians and his book, The Promise of Wilderness, well deserves reading by anyone who loves wilderness and wants to keep it. I hope it sparks lively discussion around the campfire."—Dave Foreman, author of Rewilding North America and founder of The Rewilding Institute

"James Turner's insightful book demonstrates the continued vitality and centrality of wilderness within American environmentalism."—Mark Harvey, author of Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act

"A superb study of the implementation of the Wilderness Act, and a springboard for a new period in wilderness thought and advocacy."—Paul Sutter, author of Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement

"The most deeply researched, analytically rigorous, and elegantly written study of American wilderness politics since the 1960s yet produced."—William Cronon , from the Foreword

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