Why Wilderness?

Wanted to come back to this after earlier discussing that Wilderness as defined by Congress hasn’t ever really existed. (There are several wonderful stories in High Country News related to this, for instance: on mirage of Wilderness, reflections on Wilderness and many more). GG neglected to ferret out the essay by William Cronon on the trouble with wilderness, which is far deeper and more reflective than this geologist’s simple view of the matter. Anyways, what should be the goals of setting aside Wilderness (note the capitals reflect this as a management unit distinctly set aside by Congress, as opposed to whatever you view as wild enough to merit the term wilderness)?

First off, part of the great success of the Wilderness Act has been its ambiguity.  Have an area where people like to hike and that is a breeding ground for trophy-quality elk? Hey, backpackers and hunters unite to preserve it.  Better yet if there is some ecosystem that is relatively rare, then the conservation biologists might come in and defend it too. By allowing there to be different goals of those working to set land aside as Wilderness, the act allows for shifting alliances.

Unfortunately there is a cost to this ambiguity.  Land managers, especially at the highest levels of government, want some common set of rules for all lands with a similar designation.  But what happens if the rare ecosystem that the biologists want to preserve would be damaged by hunters chasing their game or hikers trudging through the meadows? How do you decide whose goals are to be honored and whose trampled?

These decisions are typically made by agency staffers well out of the public eye.  GG has stumbled in to this morass in the process of doing academic geophysical work of a relatively low impact (temporary deployment of widely scattered seismometers; the largest impact was digging a hole about 18 inches deep and slightly over a foot in diameter).  Compared to the catholes dug by a troop of Boy Scouts traveling through the Wilderness, this work was arguably less damaging to the resources in the Wilderness: the Scouts will tend to camp and defecate in areas likely to have been Native American campsites, thus risking archeological resources, and also relatively near streams and lakes, where most of the biological diversity is present, yet these groups are not trained to recognize and avoid such conflicts; in contrast, seismometer sites are well away from these locations and we always ask for information to help us avoid any conflicts with sensitive resources.  What we often find, though, is that land use managers hide this information and will not share it: tell us where exactly you want to go, they say, and we will tell you if that spot is OK.  This ridiculous game of Battleship could be avoided if we could sit with a land manager and say look, we want to be about here, is there anything we have to avoid? In permitting lots of seismometers in a few field experiments, only a few times were land managers actually willing to show maps of known sensitive resources.

OK, enough bellyaching.  In doing all this, though, it has become clear what the priorities are.  In National Forests, you cannot install a temporary seismometer in Wilderness.  Period. Why?  Because the Forest Service has decided that such devices are inconsistent with “the Wilderness Experience”. Er, right, so they confiscate boom boxes at Wilderness boundaries? Ban cell phones and GPS units? No.  The highest priority in Wilderness for the USFS is recreation.  Even wildlife research, where one might think that the special characteristic of Wilderness might make a strong case, is often denied because the tools used are insufficiently primitive or might be visible to the public–this despite the mention of scientific research in the Wilderness Act itself: “Except as otherwise provided in this Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.” In point of fact, the Forest Service tends to limit or ban research unless it specifically addresses the needs of the Forest Service in managing Wilderness.  (It is high time for the Forest Service to be brought before Congress and made to defend its preferences; originally the Forest Service took Wilderness so seriously that they were going to remove trail signs, bridges and possibly trails altogether until they were lectured by Congress about what the real intent of the act was).

The Park Service has a more nuanced view of the act, but what can and cannot go forward in Park Wildernesses depends very strongly on the superintendent in each park.  Sierran parks have generally been pretty reasonable, other parks have presented more formidable roadblocks.  This might seem odd as the mandate to the parks is to preserve resources for future generations, but there you go.

GG isn’t sure but would bet that gathering of herbs and foodstuffs from Wilderness lands is frowned upon (except of course the odd tradition of fishing). Again, this despite “historical uses” being one of the legitimate ones in the Act.

So Wilderness in the U.S. is fundamentally a recreation tool: it limits commercial and industrial activity and provides for recreation as, arguably, the highest use of the land.  Even the overarching reach of the 1872 mining law doesn’t enter here: the Wilderness Act withdrew all Wilderness lands from entry for mining since 1984. And if you look at the lands set aside as Wilderness, they are very strongly biased towards forest lands.  There is very little set aside for grasslands, coastal lands, and low elevation rivers and streams; most of that reserved that is not forest is alpine and desert, both of which have limited potential for economic exploitation.

Is this how it should be? Perhaps.  Wilderness, as explained before, is a fiction arising from the myth of an empty continent; since it lacks a robust definition in fact, allowing it to be managed as a fiction makes sense, since that fiction is only maintained by humans traversing the land and so the need to look wild is uppermost. The fiction of Wilderness allows us to be reminded that there is more to this planet than our own selfish interests.

But an argument can be made that we need lands of all types where the effects of modern industrial civilization are minimized so that we can learn what we are doing elsewhere, intentionally or inadvertently, to alter natural relationships and so better manage our uses of the land and its inhabitants in the places where we allow nearly unrestricted human use.  We can argue that unmanaged lands are needed to allow natural systems the room to evolve and adjust to ongoing global changes, both natural and artificial. These arguments fall on deaf ears when it comes to designating Wilderness, though, and those seeking to develop and maintain such refuges are forced to do so with minimal governmental support and usually by making compromises with land owners (trading, for instance, conservation agreements with certain building rights).

Even accepting recreation as the primary reason for Wilderness, there is a question of how to manage these ecosystems for recreation. Letting nature trundle on untouched by human action, seemingly the least invasive means available, ignores the thousands of years of human impact on the environment. Modern ecosystems are still in transition from the major extinctions roughly 10,000 years ago, let alone the more recent decimation or local extinction of many top level predators. Is it wise to allow for unbridled growth of deer or elk populations, unchecked by sufficient human or natural predation (although hunting is allowed in Wilderness areas, it is a far more strenuous hunt and far fewer hunters will trek into the Wilderness to bag their deer or elk or bear)? Is it wise to allow the growth of thick understory in forests that have been clear of such growth for millennia due to human-set fires? Should we encourage restoration of Native management of these ecosystems? Should we rewind the Wildernesses with our best approximations of mammoths, dire wolves, and cave bears?

On the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it is fair to ask for this discussion to be had.  In 1964 our understanding was simple enough that we could imagine that simply setting aside land and doing nothing would preserve what was there in all of these contexts.  We now know that was naive, but we have not returned to the basic question of what our goals for Wilderness really are.

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