Wilderness Forever?

There are two standard lines in the wars over Wilderness Areas that are thrown about as axioms, though neither is.  The first, from those who would oppose Wilderness (or a National Park or National Monument) is that such designation “locks up the land” forever.

Yeah, as if.  When Yosemite National Park was officially created in 1890, it included a vast area to the southeast, including Mammoth Mountain, the Minarets and Devils Postpile. These were removed (along with the El Portal area) in 1905, stripping protection from this region: (map from Online Yosemite Library; originally from 1979 NPS land acquisition plan)



The protection was removed because of mining interests and designs to put some dams on the upper part of the San Joaquin River.  Protection of Devils Postpile was restored in 1911 as a National Monument in the face of destruction of the Postpile by dam construction, but Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area was developed into a major destination resort over the following century.  It was only in the latter part of the 20th century, with the establishment of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, that the threat of a trans-Sierra highway connecting Mammoth to the Central Valley was finally quashed.

 Or consider the first national monument in Colorado: Wheeler National Monument. Designated in 1908, the remote location of the monument doomed it as a major tourist attraction in the days of automobile tourism and Congress revoked its status in 1950.

So designating a National Park or Monument (or Wilderness) is hardly permanent.  What Congress or the President can give, they can take away.

How about the second chestnut? This was nicely articulated in a recent NY Times piece by Kevin Fedarko:

But for those who love wilderness, the loss of a single battle can mean the end of the war, because landscapes that fall to development will never return.

Now if you take the Wilderness Act literally, this is true.  But in practice many places included in Wilderness were, in one way or another, developed.  Nearly every Colorado Wilderness has old roads, foundations of mining structures, and depressingly frequent adits and tailings piles to remind a visitor with an eye for such things that a century or more ago, the area was not just visited by humans, it was occupied and developed industrially. Relaxation of Wilderness characteristics was allowed so that the eastern U.S. could have some Wilderness as areas that had been logged and, at one time, roaded, were eligible for Wilderness designation. Hardly “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man”.

Indeed, while a geologist’s or archeologist’s eye would easily pick out the disturbance of mining or logging, a botanist would probably notice exotic species, which are clear evidence of human activity.  A more thorough look might turn up species of plants that were favored by Native Americans over the centuries, which may well have been bred or distributed to provide food. And at the far extreme, the absence of megafauna that used to patrol many Wildernesses (or even wolves and grizzlies) reflects trammeling by humanity.

So while a new development in a landscape will probably remove its wilderness characteristics for a generation or two (as Wilderness is presently being enacted), it might not presage complete development and the end of any natural qualities for the area. This isn’t to say that fighting such developments isn’t worthwhile, just that losing might not be the end of the world.

Strongly worded battlefield statements designed to rouse supporters usually phrase things in absolutes that are not true, and the battles over Wilderness are no exception. The problem, as we’ve seen the past few years in Congress, is that adherence to extremes prevents reasonable compromise. It is well to recognize the role of battle cries and not to confuse them with cold reality.

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