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Wilderness’s Midlife Crisis

Don’t believe the haters: wilderness remains more important than ever

Today, September 3, is the birthday of the Wilderness Act, one of the most important US environmental laws on the books. Forty-nine years ago President Lyndon Johnson signed the act, which ranks among our most eloquent laws, distinguished by its especially poetic definition of wilderness. The act proclaims: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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.”

Hoh RainforestPhoto by This Drive Never Felt So/Flickr Hoh rainforest, Washington. The wilderness is alive and well — at least for those who go looking for it.

The original law set aside 9 million acres as wilderness areas. Subsequent Congressional action has dramatically increased that number. Today more than 110 million acres are protected as wilderness areas where mining, logging, oil and gas drilling, and road building are prohibited. The law is one of the bedrocks of environmental protection in the US.

But as the Wilderness Act approaches its fiftieth anniversary, it’s beginning to experience something of a midlife crisis. Today the wilderness ideal — the belief that there are some places humans should not dominate — is under threat. In the first part of the twenty-first century, wilderness is ignored, neglected, or maligned — dismissed as an anachronism in the epoch of the Anthropocene.

In an article published Sunday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, an avid backpacker, bemoaned how our national parks and wilderness areas are suffering from inattention. Kristof wrote:

America’s public goods, from our parks to “Sesame Street,” are besieged today by budget-cutters, and it’s painful to hike some trails now. You see lovingly constructed old bridges that have collapsed. Trails disturbed by avalanches have not been rebuilt, and signs are missing.

“Infrastructure is really crumbling,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, herself a backpacker, told me. She notes that foreign tourists come to visit America’s “crown jewels” like Yosemite and are staggered by the beauty — and flummoxed by the broken toilets.

It’s even worse at the Forest Service, which is starved of funds partly because firefighting is eating up its budgets. The Forest Service has estimated that only one-quarter of its 158,000 miles of trails meet its own standards.

The situation may be even worse than Kristof reports. Wilderness conservation, once a bi-partisan passion, is now off the political radar. The previous Congress (the 112th) was the first one since 1966 not to designate any new federal wilderness areas.

A certain apathy compounds the official neglect. Yes, millions of American make the effort to strike out into the wild; this year an estimated 8 million people will go backpacking in federally designated wilderness areas. Environmental groups like The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club continue to make public lands protection a top priority. But I think it’s fair to say that wilderness conservation no longer ranks at the top of the environmental agenda. On an overheated and overcrowded planet, human self-preservation seems to have taken precedence over preservation of flora and fauna, even for many self-described environmentalists.

Perhaps most worrisome, a new crowd of so-called neo-environmentalists have begun to attack the very idea that wilderness has value. We now live in a “post-wild world,” we are told, in which the whole planet is a garden to be tended by humans. Supposedly there is no such thing as wilderness. “The wilderness so beloved by conservationists — places ‘untrammeled by man’ — never existed, at least not in the last thousand years, and arguably even longer,” argue conservation biologists Michelle Marvier, Robert Lalasz, and Peter Kareiva. They then declare: “Protecting biodiversity for its own sake has not worked.”

Nonsense. Hogwash. The reports of wilderness’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The wilderness is alive and well — at least for those who go looking for it.

So far this year I have spent more than two weeks in the backcountry — from the alpine terrain of the Sierra Nevada to the coastal cliffs of California, to the Hoh rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula. Some of those excursions were taken with first time backpackers who had never been more than a few miles from blacktop. Those trips into wild lands bolstered my belief that wilderness remains an essential physical and spiritual resource.  I suspect that some of those people who are so eager to write wilderness’s obituary have not themselves spent much time in places where “man himself is a visitor.” Because if they had, they might see that wilderness endures — even when one considers all of the caveats.

Long before the Romantic poets made a fetish of wild areas, people perceived a numinous power in untamed landscapes. Pre-Christian societies in Europe had sacred groves; pre-European cultures in North America had hallowed places for initiation rites and other ceremonies. Humans have always removed ourselves from some spaces as a way of acknowledging the divine in nonhuman nature. Today, modern wilderness — deliberately remote and apart from civilization — continues to serve as a spiritual tonic, a place for people to renew their connection to something bigger than themselves. In his New York Times column, Kristof wrote of “alpine meadows so dazzling that they constitute an argument for the existence of God.” Here’s how Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson described to me the mystical dimension of wilderness, in a conversation we had this summer:

“Everything flows. When you’re in the wilderness, you’re in that flow. You wake up when the sun wakes you up, you go to sleep when the stars come out. You can hear the wind blow through the fabric of the tent. You can hear any critter that’s out there — whether it’s a coyote that’s howling away. You can hear that there’s not much of a separation between you and it. And the longer you’re there, in the wilderness, the separation gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Until pretty soon, there is no separation.”

That may be a little woo-woo for some people. But one doesn’t have to experience transcendent ecstasies to feel reinvigorated by the aesthetic beauties of wild areas — beauties that are more unique and valuable than ever in an increasingly digital-virtual world. More than a century ago, John Muir wrote that wilderness was a necessity for a “tired, nerve-shaken, over civilized people” suffering from the “vice of over-industry.” In the age of the iPhone, that complaint seems quaint. Sure, appreciation of the wilderness aesthetic may be a uniquely modern phenomenon, an acquired taste. But a love of expressionist painting or classical music is also an acquired taste. And, just like those human artifacts, the artistry of natural forms can spark wonder and sense of the sublime. “Had I not been able periodically to renew myself in the mountains and deserts of western America I would be very nearly bughouse,” novelist and wilderness lover Wallace Stegner wrote. “Being an intangible and spiritual resource, [wilderness] will seem mystical to the practical-minded — but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.”

For the practical-mined, then, there’s this: Wilderness areas are essential laboratories for understanding how intact ecosystems behave, and how they will react to the dislocations from climate change. There’s no arguing with the fact that today no place on Earth is entirely free from human disturbance. We should acknowledge, though, there is a continuum of disturbance — ranging from, say, the near-total obliteration of flora and fauna in central Tokyo, to the mixed-use ecosystems of pastoral lands, to managed forests, to the untamed tundra of Alaska. To understand any point on that continuum, it’s useful to have a baseline. Wilderness, because it’s relatively undisturbed, can serve as that baseline for scientists to better understand the workings of ecosystem. And as the weather gets warmer and weirder, wilderness areas will serve as vital refugia for flora and fauna that are on the move.

Those who have sought to undercut the importance of wilderness lay out a number of arguments to make their case. Humans have always manipulated ecosystems, they say. There is no way of knowing what an “original” landscape looked like, they argue. Solitude is over-rated and, besides, sought out only by a few.

These are mostly strawmen arguments, taking epistemological difficulties and inflating them into an existential dilemma. There’s a world of difference between pre-industrial ecosystem management and mountaintop removal coal mining; to conflate the two beggars the imagination and buggers believability. A place doesn’t have to be “pristine” to be wild; one can experience the sublime even in a landscape that has experienced some human disturbance. And it’s precisely because wilderness is remote and unusual that it is so important. Everything else in our human economy becomes more valuable as it becomes more scarce; why wilderness should be any different, I have no idea.

The most vexing issue confronting the wilderness ideal in the twenty-first century centers on what (or whether) wilderness can teach us about living with nonhuman nature. Environmental historian William Cronon (who is a far more of conscientious critic of wilderness than those who have followed behind him) has written: “Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home. Most of our most serious environmental problems start right here, at home, and if we are to solve those problems, we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it.” In short, the “problem” with wilderness is that it says little about how to live amid nature.

As a (hobby) organic farmer, I have to agree. Since the advent of agriculture, humans’ natural home mostly has been an in-between place, some partially tamed area between the wilderness and the city. Such an arrangement, naturally, is full of never-ending complications and compromises. The task of trying to find a harmony between our own needs and the needs of other plants and animals is what Wendell Berry has called “the forever unfinished lifework of our species.”

Wilderness — as a “place where man himself is a visitor” — doesn’t offer much instruction in that task. It can’t tell us how to live in harmony with nonhuman nature. But wilderness provides an even more fundamental question: When it comes to discovering an accommodation with nature, wilderness supplies the why.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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Thank you. I appreciate these thoughts and value the perspective. I have been pondering a comment from a fellow naturalist recently and wonder where it may fit into this line of thinking. Many places called wilderness, or I should say, that have been designated as wilderness, a place untrammeled by man, are places where man has lived for tens of thousands of years. Our perspective can often be narrow and from a sliver of time compared to the big picture. Were do native footprints fit in the modern wilderness ideals? I get that your point here is of a different nature. These are thoughts inspired by your fine article.

By Karyn "Kestrel" on Mon, September 16, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Most Congressman think nature is a well manicured putting green and flowers around a club house. Trees and plants only get in the way of sliced and hooked tee shots…

By Charles Fleeman on Tue, September 03, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Enjoy this article very much. Best I have read. Thank you.

By Carol Denny on Tue, September 03, 2013 at 8:44 pm

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