The Wilderness Myth

Sierra reminds us to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. While keeping some parts of America free from roads and industrial development is something to celebrate, the concept underpinning this legislation is based on a fictional narrative, which would be amusing if it weren’t clouding the vision for managing these lands. Consider the legislation itself:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this chapter an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” Public Law 88-577, 88th Congress, S. 4, September 3, 1964

Now that part about the imprint of man’s work being unnoticeable? Arguably there is no such place, except perhaps on the very rockiest of crags, where this is true.

Consider, for starters, Yosemite Valley (yes, it isn’t Wilderness, but it stands in nicely for less well known areas that are). When first visited by European Americans, the men of the Mariposa Battalion enjoyed riding their horses through the forest without obstruction. The large meadows and frequent vistas were enjoyed by early visitors to the valley, but those characteristics faded with time.  Why? Because the Ahwahnechee were frequently burning the undergrowth, managing the valley to encourage growth of foods they used and reducing the opportunity for predators to attack them. This behavior was widespread in much of the Americas.  The flora and fauna seen by the first Europeans were shaped by Native American behaviors, which included hunting, setting fire, harvesting (and sowing) various plants.

But this is hardly the most significant impact of humans in North America.  Consider, for instance, the Osage Orange (aka the hedge apple), native to parts of east Texas and a bit of Oklahoma. This charming fruit isn’t eaten by anything (squirrels tear it apart to get at the seeds); the development of such large fruit is usually associated with something that eats the fruit.  Also, in the geologic past this was a widespread plant.  What gives?

Daniel Janzen and Paul Martin proposed in 1982 that this sort of orphaned plant was an evolutionary anachronism, a plant with a specialization lacking modern purpose (think an appendix of the plant world). Why would this happen?  In this case, the idea is that there used to be a big animal that ate the fruit and so distributed the seeds. (Arguably this extends to some animals: pronghorn antelope can run far faster than any plausible predator today; was there a predator in the past that could push them hard?). And looking back in time, we see lots of big animals that could be candidates for a consumer of Osage Oranges.  In fact, there were some 30 or more species of large animal, creatures like mammoths, mastodons, cave bears, camels, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, etc. that wandered the face of North America. Why are they no longer here?

Almost certainly the answer is the arrival of Homo sapiens. Megafaunae were wiped out in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania almost in lockstep with the arrival of humans.  While the extinction of these animals in North America coincided with the end of the last Ice Age, there wasn’t an equivalent extinction of small animals, nor was there a comparable extinction event at the end of  the numerous previous glacial episodes. Extinction in Australia and New Zealand didn’t coincide with rapid climatic change. So although the means by which humans extinguished these animals remains controversial (some combination of direct predation, competition, collapse of keystone species, changes in ecosystems though the use of fire, and other, more longshot, possibilities like bringing pathogens to areas), the guilt of humanity is very hard to escape.

What this means is that nearly every ecosystem in North America was beheaded some 10,000-13,000 years ago, so they are hardly “untrammeled by man.” These ecosystems have not yet reached any kind of stable equilibrium; they are all carrying the “imprint of man’s work,” both the long term loss of the megafauna and the ongoing impact of human hunting, foraging, and burning. The myth of wilderness arose in part because Europeans had chosen to denigrate the significance of Indian life, partly because many Native populations had been crushed by disease before significant European contact, and partly to make it seem that Americans were taking possession of a vacant landscape. It reached its pinnacle in the mid-20th century in part because direct experience with original Native practices was so distant from American memory (many early Americans were well aware that American Indians had a major impact on the landscape) and in part because the significance of the megafauna extinction was not yet recognized.

Why is recognizing wilderness as a myth significant? Because it influences how we manage these lands.  And make no mistake, we do manage them even when some of the management decisions are to do nothing.  If there is no wilderness in the sense of an untrammeled nature in harmony with itself, what are the goals of having Wilderness?  Are we trying to remake the pre-Columbian America? So should we encourage traditional harvesting, burning, hunting? Are we trying to restore to a pre-human environment? If so, we need to replace those lost species, as has been suggested in the Pleistocene rewilding initiative. Is Wilderness a refuge for the species that survive? We should perhaps then manage these more as wildlife sanctuaries. Is this just a playground for humans to restore themselves away from industrial life?  Then perhaps some of the cosmetic restrictions on management should be lifted. The irony is that current management is, largely, dedicated to making something that never existed before: a natural environment nearly totally beheaded, missing not only the megafauna extinguished some hundred centuries ago, but the humans that replaced them.

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