Sorry, have been here before but a new example of the wilderness myth just cropped up and it seems worth revisiting this chestnut. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Doug Scott argues against bikes in Wilderness (unfortunately, he does not really distinguish capital-W Wilderness areas, which are a legal description, from lowercase w wilderness, which might extend to areas not so protected). Anyways, GG agrees that bikes in Wilderness is a bad idea. But Scott then goes on to say just why we have Wilderness
We set aside wilderness areas to protect them for what they are — wild places, untrammeled, as much as possible, by man, a reminder of what this country was like before Columbus set foot on this side of the Atlantic.
Now this is carefully worded, but as we’ve noted before, by removing Native Americans and greatly changing the populations of wild animals, these Wilderness areas look quite different from what was here before Columbus. They might indeed be a “reminder,” but that reminder leaves something of a false impression. They are wild in the sense of being unmanaged, but not wild in the sense of a natural balance free of human impact.
Also, this was only one of the motivations for creating Wilderness areas. Other motivations might actually encourage the use of bikes (such a possibility is discussed in some of those earlier posts linked above).
The bill in question is inspired in part by closure of popular mountain bike trails in a recently created Wilderness. It isn’t much a leap for mountain bike advocates to say, if we were using it and it was still in a pristine enough condition to become Wilderness, then why say that Wilderness must exclude bikes? The answer above is, basically, because Wilderness visitors require there be no bikes. Yet Wilderness does not prevent the use of boom boxes (GG can testify from a recent trip that such use along Wilderness trails is actually growing), smart phones, handheld radios, or GPS units, none of which embody the essence of Wilderness. Leaning too hard on the experience visitors get will get very sticky very fast.
Or, had Wilderness advocates allowed this Wilderness to permit bikes, why exclude them elsewhere? This is presumably why the bikes were excluded, the old camel’s nose under the tent flap argument taking hold.
This headache is the product of using Wilderness as a one-size-fits-all means of protecting a landscape. We desperately need a more nuanced approach that buffers sensitive lands rather than extending complete protection right to the edge of civilization. Originally things like National Forests (originally the Forest Reserves) were meant to serve such a purpose, but conservationists increasingly grew wary of allowing Forest administrators to decide the fate of pristine lands as they showed an appetite for getting the cut out and promoted the number of miles of new road they were creating. The result are very contentious land management decisions made at the highest levels. This might not always produce results really consistent with Scott’s vision of WIlderness.
Consider the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which includes several lakes dammed for hydroelectric power, dams with cable railways and lakes with big bathtub rings late in the summer. (To be clear, the cable railway and associated maintenance buildings are indeed cherry-stemmed in). How much of a “reminder of what this country was like before Columbus set foot on this side of the Atlantic” is that? And this is “untrammeled, as much as possible”? Really? By jamming stuff like this inside Wilderness and running these boundaries right to the very edge of civilization, we have cheapened the concept of–in Scott’s view, the very justification for–Wilderness areas. In a very real way, Wilderness advocates have brought this down on themselves.
Much as we have seen National Parks and Monuments evolve in some instances to be administered by non-Park Service agencies and continue to allow activities not usually consistent with parks, it seems possible that we might see something like this happen to Wilderness areas. And you know, that would actually be too bad because, well, the camel’s nose argument, the slippery slope–those are plausible outcomes.