Wilderness More Important than Ever

Wilderness More Important than Ever

by Kevin Proescholdt and Howie Wolke

kevin and howie1 07 23 14 Christopher Solomon got it wrong in so many ways in his July 6 New York Times editorial, “Rethinking the Wild: The Wilderness Act Is Facing A Midlife Crisis”.  The history of the wilderness movement and of the 1964 Wilderness Act shows how wrong and myopic he was.  In fact, the visionary Wilderness Act is needed now more than ever.

Solomon bases his argument on a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning and value of Wilderness.  He argues that since all Wildernesses are affected by anthropogenic climate change, human manipulation of Wilderness is now acceptable -- even desirable, since the genie is already out of the bottle.  Intervene and manipulate without constraint, he proclaims. But this approach contradicts the very idea of Wilderness.

Mr. Solomon obviously confuses wildness with absolute pristine conditions. Congress never intended to set the bar so high that only entirely natural and pristine areas could qualify for Wilderness designation. Humanity’s global imprint is not new. Climate change is but the latest in a long history of human impacts to every corner of the planet, from smog and acid rain to habitat fragmentation and widespread human-caused extinctions.

A basic understanding of the Wilderness Act helps us understand the value of the uniquely American wilderness idea.  A half-century ago, Congress defined Wilderness 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.”  Untrammeled means un-manipulated or unconfined, requiring humility and restraint, to allow Wilderness to function without the heavy-handed human manipulations that characterize most of the world.

Human impacts have never disqualified areas from becoming Wilderness.  But once Congress designates a Wilderness, manipulations and interventions must cease. Fortunately, there still remain large untrammeled landscapes where human impacts are “substantially unnoticeable” and where “wilderness character” dominates.

The Wilderness Act’s primary author was Howard Zahniser. His thoughts and writings are central to what the Wilderness Act means, and Solomon would benefit by studying them.  Zahniser wrote, for example, that (unlike Solomon’s contention of the central importance of absolute pristine conditions) it is wildness that is central to Wilderness.  “We must remember always that the essential quality of the wilderness is its wildness,” Zahniser explained, and his choice of “untrammeled” in the poetic definition of wilderness in the 1964 law was intended to protect that core character of wilderness.

Solomon also repeats the misconception that Zahniser and other Wilderness System founders never anticipated threats to Wilderness like climate change.  On the contrary, Zahniser anticipated the very calls like Solomon’s for manipulating Wilderness when he wrote, “Such tracts should be managed so as to be left unmanaged.”  And he defined wilderness as a place where human impacts are “substantially unnoticeable”, not entirely absent.

Change is constant in wild nature; Mr. Solomon is obviously unaware that wilderness enthusiasts have long acknowledged this. Once again, Howard Zahniser provided the needed guidance: “In the wilderness we should observe change and try not to create it!”  Even though changes may occur in Wilderness that we humans may not like, the true test of our commitment to the Wilderness idea is to exercise that humility and restraint and eschew intervention.

Zahniser anticipated calls to manipulate Wilderness, even for seemingly beneficial-sounding reasons such as some of those Solomon proposed.  That’s why Zahniser famously wrote, “With regard to areas of wilderness we should be guardians and not gardeners.”

So while modern human impacts certainly tempt us to try to “fix” whatever we perceive to be wrong or undesirable, let us not forget that such efforts often backfire, simply because nature is far more complex than we can perceive. And such efforts in wilderness would eliminate wildness and the contrast between wilderness and the rest of the planet.

On this increasingly human-dominated planet, un-manipulated wild Wilderness now has more value than ever. Solomon concludes that Wilderness manipulation is a “necessary apostasy to show how much we truly revere these wild places.”  Yet if we follow his suggestions and manipulate the wildness out of Wilderness, there will be no wild places left.  And that is exactly what the Wilderness Act guards against.

 

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Kevin Proescholdt is the Minnesota-based Conservation Director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization. Howie Wolke co-owns Montana-based Big Wild Adventures and has been a wilderness guide/outfitter for 36 years. He is the current Vice President of Wilderness Watch. Each has been actively involved with wilderness conservation for over 40 years.

Recent Comments
Guest — greenpete58
Well said. Keep It Wild, Mr. Solomon.
Tuesday, 02 September 2014 07:21
Guest — Justin Randall
Excellent address of an unfortunately ignorant front-page piece. I did not expect such from the NYTs but I suppose this highlights... Read More
Tuesday, 26 August 2014 10:31
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Wilderness: A Place to Unplug

By Gary Macfarlane

Gary Macfarlane"The temptation for wilderness users themselves to resort to practices that modify through convenience their own wilderness experiences is indeed one of the great threats to the maintenance of wilderness. When this temptation is used by administrators and other friends of wilderness areas to attract more people into the wilderness the result is a compound threat.”  Howard Zahniser, 1949

Howard Zahniser, the author of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the single person most influential in developing the idea of Wilderness, was perhaps prescient. This quote foreshadowed, more than 60 years ago, one of the most insidious threats to Wilderness, technological communication gadgets. Cell phones and GPS units are the most obvious examples with the second generation of tech toys also including satellite and smart phones, notebook computers, eBook readers, digital cameras and video recorders, personal locator beacons, and MP3 players. And if that isn’t enough, new devices formerly undreamed of are being developed right now.

By using these devices, the user diminishes Wilderness and the wilderness experience for himself and other visitors. Real time web-posting of trips to sensitive, “undiscovered” places can lead to overuse and a loss of solitude, which the Wilderness Act seeks to protect. Viewing photos and/or video of a wilderness spot online certainly diminishes one’s sense of discovery and mystery upon seeing the “real thing.” The GPS-supported sport of geo-caching has led some people to leave illegal caches of junk and litter all over some Wildernesses. Evidence suggests that cell phone use is increasing visitor requests for motorized rescues in Wilderness. Gadgets provide a false sense of security and people fail to prepare for the unexpected conditions inherent in wild places, rather than rely on self-sufficiency to keep themselves safe in wild country. And for those of us who value wilderness as a place to unplug, meeting someone shouting, “Can you hear me now?,” certainly lessens our wilderness experience.

The agencies are also using these devices in Wilderness. They radio-collar wildlife, destroying the wildness of wildlife and wilderness.  There ought to be a few places where we don’t poke, prod, and collar wildlife, where they can live out their lives as wild creatures, and where our science is done the way Aldo Leopold used to do it: with a notebook and field observation. If not in Wilderness, then where? Neither should human visitors be tagged and collared with miniature satellite tracking devices on backpacks, even if agencies believe doing so will improve user management in Wilderness.

A few years ago the idea of radio collars for humans would have been considered absurd.  Already, there are chips embedded in drivers licenses and passports. All too soon, visitors may be required to carry tracking beacons, at least in certain areas. Thus we will be, in effect, tracked and collared wherever we wander. This will be sold as a safety device and a way to better provide a “quality” wilderness experience. All it would take would be a location chip embedded into the wilderness permit, something the agencies have begun discussing in the name of “safety.”

As usual, the agencies and most environmental groups are way behind the curve on this major wilderness threat. The outdoor industry’s aggressive marketing and promoting of gadgets certainly doesn’t help. Indeed, some environmentalists may support and see nothing wrong with the use of these wilderness-destroying technologies.

Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahniser both issued warnings against technology in wilderness. Leopold despised the technology of his day—guidebooks and hunting gadgets. How far we have sunk in the decades since his death! The academic community issued a direct warning, in 1998, about the very kinds of devices that have proliferated (see Wilderness @ Internet: Wilderness in the 21st Century—Are There Technical Solutions to our Technical Problems? Wayne Freimund and Bill Borrie, International Journal of Wilderness Volume 3 Number 4. P. 21-23).  The few warning voices in the environmental movement have been literal voices crying in the wilderness. Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness has written passionately about this problem. Wilderness Watch addressed the issue at a conference in the late 90s when the threat was emerging.

You can do something for Wilderness to keep it wild. Don’t take tech toys on your next wilderness visit. Instead, learn outdoor survival and route-finding skills and be prepared for the unexpected. Learn how to read a map or better yet, navigate by sight or teach yourself to follow a rough game trail. You will be amazed by how much you may experience if you are not always consulting that small luminous screen. Perhaps you will catch a glimpse of a wolf, hear a hummingbird fly by, smell the decomposing leaves on a wet forest floor. Your wilderness experience will be real and authentic if you shed the gadgets. Not only you, but wildness itself deserves no less.

Gary is the ecosystem defense director for the Friends of the Clearwater, an advocacy group in central Idaho's Wild Clearwater Country. For nearly 30 years, Gary has been one of the country's most dedicated public lands' activists working throughout the Intermountain West and Northern Rockies. He serves on the WW board of directors.
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