Phone Call of the Wild

A couple of essays today bring the Grumpy Geophysicist back again to the topic of Wilderness and wilderness (you can enter that as a search in the upper right to see some of those posts). In one in the New York Times, the author seems torn over the implications of the use of tracking devices to preserve endangered species.  On the one hand, this helps us keep species around that might simply vanish if neglected.  On the other, how wild is a place if we can find and kill the predators eating what we don’t what them to eat? (You wonder how far we are from Predator drones striking actual predators). The other essay, in Boulder’s Daily Camera, suggests that we have lost sight of the proper goals of preserving natural landscapes. This author argues that “Nature is [now] viewed as highly resilient rather than fragile, not to be valued for its magnificent abundance and diversity, but for the “ecosystem services” it provides humans.” [There is some naiveté in this, as National Forests were created largely to preserve watersheds so that clean water could flow to lowlands below, surely an ‘ecosystem service’].

To recap where GG comes at this, first, there has not been a pristine ecosystem unaffected by humans in probably close to 10,000 years in North America. Second, this means that many if not most ecosystems are in some ways unbalanced.  Third, the setting aside of lands as Wilderness resulted from a coalition of interests. What these and many other similar pieces point to is the ongoing fragmentation of that coalition.

Consider, for instance, the example used in the NY Times piece, where the protection and breeding of Sierran bighorn sheep has led to wholesale monitoring of sheep and their predators. Decades ago, the only conflict between wildlife biologists and wilderness recreationalists was the seasonal closure of some relatively inaccessible country in order to allow the sheep to reproduce undisturbed. But over time, events challenged the notion that simple protection from humans would allow for the sheep to recover.  Sheep were captured and bred in captivity and released.  They were tagged and then wore beacons so they could be found at any time. Increases in predation then led to mountain lions being collared too.  So now you can go and see the sheep, but are they wild? Does the presence of a GPS collar and ear tag make this un-wilderness? If you want Wilderness to save species, this is an acceptable outcome.  If you want Wilderness so you can see nature lacking visible human impacts, this is unhappy, but your objection might be overcome by, say, a subdural tracking system you couldn’t see. If you wanted Wilderness to allow nature to operate free of human interference, this is simply unacceptable. If you read the online comments on this article, you will see these views expressed.

Of course if you had an eye for it, Wilderness hasn’t been wilderness for some time.  To take an uncontroversial example, fish have been introduced in lots of places where they weren’t for more than 100 years, sometimes in fish-free waters, sometimes in competition with native fish. But this still felt natural to many wilderness advocates.

While none of this is particularly new–the advent of mountain bikes led to a splintering of support of non-motorized recreationalists, and the visual pollution of rock walls by climbing aids, the abrasion of lichen and addition of rock chalk has made climbing in Wilderness controversial–it is telling. The old coalition of outdoor enthusiasts, wildlife biologists, and hunters and fishermen is cracking.  What is more, the profits on outdoor gear have increased substantially so that now there are major businesses that would advocate for their form of outdoor recreation to be possible in Wilderness (in 1964, probably most outdoor gear passed through Army surplus stores). Erosion of Wilderness protections is likely as some groups seek accommodation of their interests.

The simple reality is that natural ecosystems don’t have nice clean edges, and even if they did, our legal boundaries rarely coincide with them. So as lands that used to be unoccupied buffers increasingly are used, the limited extent of Wilderness means that undesired impacts will creep in. Tensions that used to be minor and seemingly manageable are slowly growing to the point where you could imagine Aesthetic Wilderness, Biological Diversity Wilderness, Recreational Wilderness and so on.

Perhaps this was inevitable. Wilderness as legislated was an all-or-nothing approach: some Wildernesses border highly developed lands. Does it really make sense to call a patch of land a Wilderness if you can toss a stone and hit a car in a 7-11 parking lot? More sensible management would have formalized some ladder of land protection, each rung reflecting a gradation. At least in the West, this was effectively the case for early Wildernesses, but as development has encroached and more mechanized recreation has intruded closer to Wilderness, the de facto buffer lands have dwindled. In some instances Wilderness advocates have been their own enemy: by advocating for Wilderness lands to extend practically to city edges, the nature of what Americans view as “wilderness” perhaps expands to include places with city lights and traffic noise and cell towers, thus making the erosion of traditional Wilderness values more acceptable.

GG remembers a first backpack long ago.  Two days into the backcountry (designation of that area as Wilderness would come years later) it seemed as though we were far beyond the reach–or aid–of civilization. That perception made clear that any mistakes we made would not be easily undone. There is a hint of terror in such a realization that eventually leads to a sense of self-reliance as mistakes are encountered and mitigated or reversed. It is a sense that is increasingly hard to obtain as cell phones and satellite phones and tracking devices and helicopter rescues and such not make self-reliance archaic. As that sense of isolation dwindles, so does the significance of Wilderness to its visitors.  It just becomes another playground. After all, if wild creatures are now phoning home seeking protection, why shouldn’t you be making phone calls from the wild?

Just some food for thought.

Added note 3/15: Found a commentary and subsequent comment stream at High Country News on bicycles in Wilderness that in so many ways illustrates exactly the problems discussed above [sorry, no link, it seems HCN kind of makes it require a login].  The anti-bike advocate in this case argues that bikes break the Wilderness environment by making it too easy to master the landscape [oddly, neither he nor sympathetic commentators note the profound speed difference between bikes and other Wilderness transportation–having hiked many times on trails open to mountain bikes, GG would note this does matter, at least on the hiking side, even with considerate riders]. Pro-bike comments argue that claims of damage from bikes are overblown and argue that Wilderness exclusion of bikes simply decreases the available acreage for bikes.  There is then some discussion about ecological implications of bikes. What stands out is that different commentators value different aspects of “Wilderness”.

This all illustrates again that Wilderness was created by a coalition willing to overlook some of these differences.  Bikes do affect the perception of “wilderness” to foot travellers–if you have backpacked in two days and camped and a group of lycra-clad bicyclists blows in for a quick lunch with fresh fruit and news of last night’s ball game, it affects your perception of being in wilderness. But if you are worried about preserving a natural environment, bikes might look lots better than horses and mules, who might be allowed to graze and, worse, might have seeds in their droppings that will introduce exotic plants. Or you might even prefer nobody be allowed in.

Perhaps the worst argument for changing Wilderness rules is that it leaves out an access type (I cannot mountain bike/motorbike/jeep/hoverboard/heliski there).  Perhaps the worst argument for Wilderness is that there is plenty of other opportunities for mountain bike/motorbike/jeep/hoverboard outside Wilderness: after all, public lands not so designated are still available for hiking, right? It might shock some hikers to learn that motorbike riders often don’t want to travel on deep dusty trails through blasted terrain any more than the hikers do. If Wilderness is to have any value, it can’t be simply limited to excluding folks, it must be in promoting something special that can only be retained by limiting certain activities. As the arguments devolve into something akin to “which kinds of gym equipment can be in the gym”, the point of the exercise fades.

Perhaps the very simplest question is, can Wilderness be of value if you don’t visit it?


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