by George Nickas
A while back I received an email from the founders of a recently established organization that was created out of a concern for the “wilderness visitor.” They wrote to challenge Wilderness Watch’s long-time insistence that the fundamental mandate in the Wilderness Act requires managers to—first and foremost—protect each area’s wilderness character. They claim WW’s position misinterprets the law, has incorrectly shaped the views of much of the conservation community and, to the degree we influence the federal agencies, caused them to protect Wilderness from the people.
The gist of their argument is that Wilderness was established to provide recreation opportunities, and that the emphasis many put on protection is diminishing the recreational opportunities that Wilderness affords. To bolster their view they point to language in the law, repeated three or four times, that says wilderness areas “shall be administered for the use and enjoyment” of the American people. The law’s protection requirements, according to their point of view, are operative to the degree they don’t unduly interfere with the overarching purpose of providing recreational opportunities.
I’ve heard variations of this argument before. A long-time wilderness advocate once tried to convince me that recreation was the chief purpose of the Wilderness Act, and as proof offered that the Act uses the words “use and enjoyment” or “recreation” a combined seven times, while “protect” or its derivatives are used only five. I replied that since the Wilderness Act uses the word “mining” 11 times, maybe it was mining, not recreation or protection that the Act sought to achieve! It ended that discussion, but obviously hasn’t ended the debate.
The purpose of the Wilderness Act was never lost on the Act’s architect and supporters. Testifying to Congress in 1962, the law’s chief author and lobbyist Howard Zahniser, explained, “The purpose of the Wilderness Act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular use.” This directive was codified in the statute with the clear mandate that “[e]ach agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area and shall so administer such area for such other purposes for which it may have been established as also to preserve its wilderness character.”
The benefits of “use and enjoyment” of Wilderness were also high on Zahniser’s list, but the concept wasn’t merely synonymous with recreation. He understood the phrase in a much more expansive and meaningful way. Responding to a critic who claimed it was rather selfish to set aside large areas for the limited few who would use them, Zahniser insisted that those who sought out wilderness deserved the opportunity to experience it, but he also explained that the use and enjoyment extended to
“many people who never even hope to explore it…they find relief and inspiration in the wilderness vicariously, and a consciousness of its existence is essential to them. This may be hard to explain, but the people I know who want the wilderness saved for these reasons greatly outnumber those I know who want the wilderness saved for their own excursions.”*
None of this suggests recreation isn’t an important public purpose of Wilderness. To many of us our time spent in Wilderness is essential to our being. But Wilderness is valuable for many reasons, including for its own sake; it doesn’t derive its value from us. Wilderness can exist and thrive without recreation, and indeed some areas do, but for us to have an authentic wilderness experience there has to be a real Wilderness to enjoy.
*Quoted from “The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zahniser,” by Mark Harvey. A must read for wilderness advocates who want to understand more about the person, the ideas and the language underpinning the Wilderness Act.
George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch.
There is nothing better than being in the great outdoors, listening to the birds, observing the wild animals, observing bushes and trees and perceiving the sky with its variety of clouds and clouds. Our hectic life hardly leaves us time for such beautiful things and to realize how wonderful and wonderfully unique our nature is. It offers us rest and relaxation. We must finally come to the realization that each of us contributes to preserving the wilderness, i.e. nature, as we found it. We have to help rebuild nature where it was destroyed by human hands. Let us remember that we only borrowed the planet with its nature and therefore have no right to senselessly, mercilessly and irresponsibly destroy it. The planet doesn't need us, but we need the planet with its flora and fauna. Therefore, many thanks to Wilderness Watch, who are committed to this!
I read with appreciation George Nickas’ comments in “Wilderness: Is it all about us?
Over the years, I have enjoyed several week-long backpacking trips through wilderness areas and national forests with the Sierra Club. I applaud their policy to leave nothing behind but footprints (light ones at that). My first trip was to the Paria River Canyon which the BLM oversees, limiting the number of people allowed to hike there at any one time. And as a resident of Central New York, I enjoy hiking in the Adirondacks, which is seeing increasing numbers of first-time hikers during COVID. Inconsiderate hikers are a problem, but even too many considerate hikers, especially those trying to camp, will negatively impact an area. I know the stresses that recreation places on our treasured open spaces. I understand that limiting access to certain areas is necessary, albeit sad to say.
Although I value wilderness for recreation, I don’t think that recreation should be the primary purpose. Certainly it should exclude roads and motorized vehicles. It should not be opened to commercial extractive industries such as logging and mining. Those things destroy wilderness.
Mr. Nickas asks, “Is it all about us?” I have been blessed to experience the beauty and peace of lying in a mountain meadow, listening to the night sounds, and watching the moon rise. My experiences have been re-creative. Yet all this was possible because I was surrounded by nature, in the open, feeling the sun and the rain, hoping for the chance to see a wild animal or an unusual bird or flower. So my experience was really about the land, the animal life, the vegetation, and the diversity.
Wilderness is also about its beneficial effects on climate change, since forests, lakes, meadows and bogs all serve important functions. Perhaps the answer is that it's about us and the wilderness. It’s about balance between the rush of modern life and our need for quiet reflection. It’s about fostering our appreciation of the natural world, not for how we can mold it to our uses or profit from its wealth. It’s for feeling our place in the natural order of things.
I absolutely agree! As someone who very likely will never be able to physically "engage" in any Wilderness Area, the knowledge that it exists, that the wildlife in it can live free, that the habitat will not be drilled, mined, grazed, or trampled upon - THAT knowledge means so much.
The idea that some humans have - that these ""resources"" are there to be used & profited from has put us right where we are today - with the former administration mining & drilling the public lands (OUR public lands) rounding up & removing Wild Horses & Burros (OUR wild animals) and allowing the overrunning of parks & monuments to the degree they are being destroyed!
So yes apparently to many people - frankly selfish people - it IS all about us! Thats shameful.
Thank you so very much for all that you do & attempt to do, to save Wilderness.
This is something that disturbs me more than anything else about Wilderness in the public perception. It isn't about recreation! It's about preserving Wilderness as wilderness. It wasn't designated to be a playground. Recreation, particularly where I am near a large metropolitan area, is tearing apart Wilderness. This has been true particularly the past year, when the lack of sports, concerts, and open bars has driven many to nearby Wildernesses despite their lack of knowledge about what Wilderness truly is or how to care for it.
I tend to agree. Now, more than ever, we need wilderness to be just that. Recreation is a lot like roads. They expand. They want more. Recreation of wilderness can be just enjoying that it's there. To see from afar, or come close or go inside. We need wilderness to do what it does for climate change. It's a pretty simple thing. Earth does not need humans. She will continue with out us no problem.
earth doesn't need humanity's help, for anything.
earth created humanity, just as she created every other creature living on her.
she survived the dinosaurs, and she will survive humanity.
however, if you want to be a decent person, you could show respect to your mother and siblings by not trashing, destroying or selfishly using up shared resources.
as they say, the earth belongs to no one.....
but we all belong to her.
hank you for sending this with the words of Zahniser. So many times have I, a person unathletic, urban, sedentary, and now old, thought this.
Just thinking that wilderness areas exist makes me feel relieved, peaceful, calm, and happy that others more active and younger still have a place to GO.
In 2018, I passed by Glacier National Park on a train. That is the closest I will come to its wilderness areas, but I was still thankful that it was there for others.
I did spend time camping in many different states as I grew up and know the difference between a campground of trailers and a small tent pitched far away from all others. Please keep up the good work.
Nope, it ain't about us, neither solely nor chiefly. Great column. Thanks for making this point. I love your organization because it directs us to the highest standard of purity of the Wilderness Act as it was originally envisioned. Never compromise.
I agree with you 100%. I always felt the wilderness areas are there to preserve something very special on this earth of which there is very little left. Recreation is a side benefit, but only if it isn't a detriment to the wilderness. Wilderness is a special place to visit and it will regenerate your soul.
The quote from Mr Zahnizer is exactly how I view our wilderness areas. I know I’ll never experience them personally, but I cherish the mere knowledge of their existence and magnificence. I am lucky to have my small habitat, and want for the flora and fauna their habitat on this Earth.
The long held view that the earth - Nature - is here for man to use... and use-up, has been gradually destroying, now at an accelerated pace, the Earth. The thrust and significance of the article above could not be more timely.
Earth is not ours. We, as a part of the natural world, must be diligent to preserve and protect, since doing so will preserve and protect humanity.
Thanks for the perspective. Saving wilderness could be looked at the insurance policy for the Earth. I will never get to see much of that wilderness, but it is vital to my ability to breathe and participate in the biosphere.
Well said George. If anyone doubts the need to keep wilderness free from human construction and machinery and protect it as having value of itself, one has only to observe the degradation of fragile ecosystems and resulting loss of animals and plants in many national parks and multi-use forested areas when recreation and enjoyment devolves into overuse.
Thank you, George. I'm one of those who enjoy the wilderness because it's there--and not because I'll ever now be able to visit it. I appreciate your pointing out the real purpose of the wilderness! Eloise
The Wilderness allows humans to ground ourselves in this world of technology. We owe it to our fellow animals and to ourselves to protect the environment.