Visitors jostle to climb Yosemite’s Half Dome. How the Park Service has protected an icon from being loved to death.
Amid the hubbub of Yosemite Valley — its roads packed bumper-to-bumper on a late-June weekend, its hotels and campgrounds booked solid six-months in advance — it was hard for Matt Lunder to believe he was surrounded by an immense tract of federally designated wilderness.
"It felt more like Disney World," admitted Lunder. An attorney from Maryland, Lunder and his family had decided to spend their summer vacation in the park, in the process contributing a few more drops to the sloshing bucket of Yosemite National Park's massive visitation, now topping out at four million people annually.
Photo by John Krzesinski
Several hours after leaving Yosemite Valley, and after many calories burned, Lunder stood at the base of the pale, curving slope of Half Dome's summit. He gazed upward at a pair of 800-foot-long steel cables bolted to the rock. He pulled on a pair of gloves, gave a shrug, and began the heaving, 20-minute climb up the 45-degree slope.
On top, Lunder leaned over the sheer north face of the peak to peer at the Yosemite Valley floor 5,000 vertical feet below. He could see relatively few signs of civilization between the dense canopy of ponderosa pine. The Curry Village parking lot was an exception, full of glinting specks of cars, along with the two-lane road tracing through Sentinel Meadow. Lunder could not see the hotel where he'd left his family that morning, nor the grocery store, nor the theater or stables or ice cream shop. He could hear the wind rush over the lip of granite and the low echo of Tenaya Creek rumbling almost a mile down. Ravens played on the upwellings of the pine-resined air. Lunder was sure he had entered a wild place.
"There is no doubt in my mind that this is wilderness," he said. "So much of the world these days just strokes our human egos. Wilderness reminds you just how small you are."
Mark Fincher, the wilderness specialist at Yosemite National Park, also believes wholeheartedly that Half Dome is wilderness, but due to a more pragmatic reason: Congress said so.
After the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, Congress assigned the National Park Service, along with all federal land management agencies, with the task of surveying their lands to …more
Every faith in some way holds nature sacred – that is, as a place apart
When Congress passed the Wilderness Act, the importance of wilderness for spiritual value, while not explicitly stated, was implied through its definition of wilderness as an area with “outstanding opportunities for solitude.” In the years since, many scholars and activists have mined the precepts of major religions to formulate stronger arguments for the preservation of wild lands. Perhaps claiming a spiritual basis for wilderness does indeed help to save it. But the claim can also be turned around: In what way do most major faiths need the idea of wilderness?
photo by John Utter, on Flickr
Alan Hodder, a professor of comparative religion, has noted that an “American nature religion,” or belief system, based on wilderness preservation has emerged, melded with historical-cultural views of what might be embodied in the national character and value of frontier. Derived from the Aldo Leopold and John Muir traditions, such wilderness piety is perhaps most often cited through the writing of Henry David Thoreau, who, in his essay about wilderness and civilization, Walking, wrote, “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure”.
But the contrast between the wild places and the city is not an American invention. Most of the world’s established religions have an element that engages the notion of what is sacred and holy in wild places. The word sacred originates from the idea of being set apart. But apart from what? In Thoreau’s mind, wilderness is set apart from settlements and has value because sacred nature allows “much air and sunshine in our thoughts.” Wilderness is a place where people can regain a lost relationship with Earth.
For some religions, wildland sacred space is set apart from the human-created environment to help us see “the Other,” particularly the glory of a Creator God. For other traditions, the sacred may be separate, but it is intended to remind humanity of the holistic interrelatedness of all the created Earth. We are separated to be brought back as one. And wilderness is the place that is the purest expression of that sacred element, where humility – not utility – guides our visits. The word wild in English is derived from the same root as “will;” wilderness is the place uncontrolled by human will. When the illusion of human control is removed, …more
What does “untrammeled” mean in the Anthropocene
In northern Idaho and Montana, whitebark pines are “keystone species” that play essential ecological roles in high-country forests. They are among the first plants to establish following a fire or landslide, creating shade that nurses other trees’ growth, and helping to reduce snowmelt, soil erosion, and avalanche risks. Grizzly and black bears gorge on their large seeds – the size of big popcorn kernels – and Clark’s nutcrackers and other birds and red squirrels cache the seeds for winter stockpiles.
photo by Matt Lavin, on Flickr
The trees are also, however, in danger, and today are an official candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. White-pine blister rust, a non-native fungus, infects more than two-thirds of whitebark and other pines in the region. The rust kills trees, curtails seed production, and leaves forests, potentially already weakened by climate change, more susceptible to fires and other insect outbreaks.
Amid this threat, it’s perhaps some relief that nearly half of whitebark pine stands are protected within national wilderness areas, where industrial activities are prohibited. The Wilderness Act first recognized and designated such areas 50 years ago this month, defining wilderness as large tracts of land of “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation” and “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” But wilderness boundaries have done little to slow blister rust. In fact, wilderness protections may even constrain efforts to control the rust’s spread.
Some whitebark pines have shown a genetic resistance to the rust, leading researchers to breed and plant trees that can withstand the blight. But that confronts researchers with an unusual dilemma, says Beth Hahn, of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute. In areas protected as “untrammeled” and where planting is typically prohibited, should managers make exceptions and directly manipulate landscapes – particularly if we’re indirectly causing harm through invasive organisms, fire suppression, and climate change?
Such decisions are part of the raging debate facing wilderness advocates in the Anthropocene epoch in which human impacts have intermingled with and overtaken natural processes. Taking action to protect whitebark pines seems like a no-brainer, but at what point does action – even in the name of restoration – diminish the qualities of wilderness itself?
“The science is the relatively …more
It’s time to launch an ambitious project of rewilding North America
The problem with wilderness today is there’s not nearly enough of it.
One of the most prescient pieces of legislation ever passed, the federal Wilderness Act has saved 110 million of North America’s wildest – and thus loveliest – federal acres, and inspired comparable state protection systems that have saved millions more. But the Wilderness Act needs another half century to reach its full fruition. Given that we humans are just one species among tens of millions, most of the world ought to be wild – outside of human domination – while huge parts of it should be strictly protected from commercial exploitation and kept unmanaged, as the Wilderness Act does best. Conservationists, environmentalists, animal lovers, naturalists, outdoors-people – everyone who cares about the natural world should be working together to protect, restore, and reconnect wild lands and waters. We need to free semi-developed areas of roads and dams so that they qualify for wilderness protection. And we need to do this at local, regional, and continental scales, before the extinction crisis becomes an all-out biological meltdown.
In short, we need an ambitious, continent-wide project of rewilding that will provide other plants and animals with the space they need to thrive.
The case for rewilding begins with the humble acknowledgement that we humans have taken far too much. We are expropriating for our one species close to 40 percent of Earth’s primary productivity. Humans have fragmented and diminished most ecosystems on Earth. The results include escalating extinction rates, dooming tens of thousands of species to premature demise.
Parks, wildlife refuges, and designated wilderness areas have helped to stem the tide of extinction, and they remain important to help meet the needs of relatively sedentary species. But these protected areas are too often isolated – islands of wild nature in a sea of human development. Fragments of wild nature
generally will not long afford secure homes for sensitive and wide-ranging animals like bears, otters, wolves, big cats, migratory ungulates, raptors, songbirds, butterflies, trout, salmon, whales, and seals. As human-caused climate chaos worsens, many plant species, too, will be susceptible to habitat fragmentation, and some will go extinct if not given grounds and waters to move northward …more
Hint: It’s not all about us
As a species, we have been lousy members of the ecological neighborhood. We’ve followed with a vengeance the Old Testament advice to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain. That means conquest and control, breaking the will of self-willed – or wild – land. What’s left are remnants – islands in a sea of modified land. At present in the contiguous United States the amount of protected or designated Wilderness is very close to the amount of pavement – about two percent each. And you know which way the wind is blowing. Wilderness is an endangered geographical species, and our generation needs to appreciate its accountability.
Laws protecting wilderness (notably the Wilderness Act of 1964, which was signed by President Johnson 50 years ago today) were an American invention and one of the best ideas our culture ever had. The traditional argument for them was very anthropocentric. Whether involving scenery, recreation, tourism economics or nature’s "services," it was all about us. But a new, eco-centric argument looks at protected wilderness as a long overdue demonstration of restraint on the part of a species notorious for its excesses. This way of thinking sees nature as a community to which we belong, not a commodity we possess. It understands that natural rights philosophy could extend to the rights of nature. This means that humans should – in some places and in some ways – stand down.
When we defend or extend the National Wilderness Preservation System we deliberately withhold our technological power. We put limits on the civilizing process. Think about self-willed land: we didn’t make it, we don’t own it, it’s not "about" us at all! When we go to designated Wilderness we are, as the 1964 Act says, "visitors" in someone else’s home. As such, there are house rules to be followed. Some of them concern what we bring into those places where the wild things are. Of course this restraint means some conditioning of our freedom, but that’s the price we pay for membership in …more
The ocean is the biggest wilderness on the planet. But legal protections are scant.
Note: This article has been modified since its original posting. In addition to directly managing the 13 marine sanctuaries referenced in the article, NOAA co-manages four marine national monuments with the USFWS.
The waters off the US coastline, the eighth largest in the world, have long been a vital source of sustenance, transport, recreation and inspiration for Americans. It’s hard to stand on the shore looking out in the distance and not experience a sense of wilderness.
Yet the 1964 US Wilderness Act, which established the framework to protect the country’s wildest places, made no mention of these waters and resources, primarily because 50 years ago we knew little about the importance of our oceans, the complex web of life they support, and the need to protect them. The general thinking was that due to its sheer size and seemingly inexhaustible resources, the ocean could overcome any environmental disruption. Since then, however, sophisticated technology and research have enabled scientists to better explore and understand the beauty, health, and value of our marine ecosystems.
photo by Adventures of KM&G-Morris, on Flickr.
What we have learned is that the ocean, covering 70 percent of the planet, is critical to life on Earth. It regulates our climate and produces 97 percent of the planet’s fresh water through evaporation and condensation. Ocean phytoplankton produce up to three-quarters of our oxygen, and absorb CO2 at up to twice the rate of land-based plants. Our seas provide protein for half the world’s population, and employment and recreation for millions of people.
Yet, there’s much we still don’t know. As the hunt for Malaysia Airlines MH 370 – lost on March 8 – starkly revealed, the seascape is vast and deep. Scientists estimate that 95 percent of this realm is still unseen by human eyes.
Unfortunately, as with wilderness areas on land, unseen or “untrammeled” doesn’t necessarily mean unharmed. We now also know that human activities have pushed marine ecosystems to critically dangerous limits.
Three-quarters of the world's fish stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce; 90 percent of all large predatory fish – including tuna, sharks, swordfish, cod and halibut – are gone. Invasive species, such as the lionfish off the nation’s East Coast, are devastating native species and altering ecosystem …more
The Mountain to Sound Greenway Trust aims to find a happy balance between development and wildlands protection
Whenever I go back to Seattle after a long time away, I’m struck by how green it is. The streets are lined with trees; there are parks everywhere; and I can see snow-covered peaks to the west, the east, and the south.
Those green spaces – the urban, suburban, and nearby wilds – are important both for people and for wildlife, says Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a Seattle-based author, naturalist, and eco-philosopher. “A tree outside a hospital window – just one tree can speed healing from surgery. One tree outside of a Chicago housing project can increase the attention span and the study habits for a student that lives in that project,” she explains. “Time in nature, even if it’s a small urban green space, makes us smarter, more creative, happier, and healthier.” At the same time, she adds, “creating even a small green space will invite more species diversity into a city.”
Photo by Monty VanderBilt
Greater Seattle’s green spaces were hard-won, says Doug Schindler, the deputy director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. In 1991, as the Seattle area’s population started to grow rapidly and exert pressure on remaining undeveloped land, a group of conservationists, business leaders, and nonprofits came together to protect key green spaces and wild areas in three Western Washington watersheds. They started to negotiate and bargain in order to preserve a greenway that stretches from the Cascade Mountains in the east to the Puget Sound in the west. The aim of the project, according to the trust’s mission statement, was to find a “long-term balance between people and nature.” This model of protecting key tracts of land and wildlife corridors and of working with developers to find ways to incorporate green space in new developments could be replicated in many urban areas throughout the United States, thus ensuring access to nature for generations to come, Schindler says.
If anything, the threats to greater Seattle’s remaining green spaces have been growing over the years. Seattle is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States, according to the 2013 census. That said, the …more