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The Problem With Wilderness

This is not a call to weaken wilderness protection in law or management policy, to remove any land from consideration for wilderness protection, or to criticize efforts to protect land as wilderness except as specified. This is a call for strengthening and broadening land protection, making habitat protection law not only more powerful but more accurate and based in better science.

Wilderness is a crucial legal tool for protecting habitat, but it’s become clear that it is a deeply flawed tool as well. The environmental movement as a whole subscribes to a hierarchy of protected statuses for ecologically important land, with increasing restrictions on activity on that land as you travel up the hierarchy. This is as it should be. The problem is that Capital-W Wilderness has been placed at the top of the protection hierarchy, but Wilderness characteristics, as we will see, are the wrong metric to use in determining which lands deserve the greatest protection.

And yet increasing numbers of activists would use Wilderness as their sole tool to determine whether land is worthy of strong protection, even going so far as to offer to loosen protection for “non-wildernessy” lands in exchange for Wilderness designation in other places. These deals sometimes go so far as to weaken wilderness protection on the land designated as wilderness as a trade-off for mere designation. These so-called “quid pro quo” Wilderness deals have been eagerly adopted by the resource extraction industries and their servants in Washington, DC. (For more on quid pro quo wilderness deals see Western Lands Project’s position paper on the topic.)

This is not a new criticism. Many environmentalists have long bemoaned the “rock and ice” quality of old-school Wilderness, chosen for remote scenic grandeur rather than biological importance. In the meantime, landscapes with crucial habitat value go unprotected due to visible evidence of human occupation or exploitation. Witness the broad acquiescence by environmentalists to the sacrifice of what was likely the best remaining habitat for the desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert to build the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System — whose footprint was also habitat for rare and endangered plant species, including the majority of the California population of the Mojave milkweed — for the most part because the site was in clear view of an Interstate highway and a recreational development on the Nevada state line. Wilderness the Ivanpah site was not. It offered little chance for complete solitude for recreational enthusiasts. It was merely of crucial ecological importance.

As our environment unravels and our scientific techniques improve dramatically, we can ill-afford to rely solely on an outdated, inaccurate tool to determine which lands are most worthy of the greatest protection.

Wilderness Is a Recreational Zoning Designation, not an Ecological Status

The United States’ federal wilderness law, the Wilderness Act of 1964, includes the canonical definition of Wilderness:

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. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

Though the legal definition has been altered and nuanced somewhat since 1964 — notably by the Eastern Wilderness Act of 1975, which allowed protection of notably altered land if that land could be returned to a “primeval condition,” — the Wilderness Act definition still basically holds both in the minds of environmental advocates and in the policies of land managers. It’s worth noting, for example,  this questionnaire used in 2010 by the Bureau of Land Management to assess wilderness characteristics in Utah. Its questions:

  1. Is the unit [of land being assessed] of sufficient size?
  2. Is the unit in a natural condition?
  3. Does the unit have outstanding opportunities for solitude?
  4. Does the unit have outstanding opportunities for primitive and unconfined recreation?
  5. Does the unit have supplemental values?

All the discussion of the land’s ecological value, its biotic intactness, the presence of endemic species, important breeding or migrating habitat values, or any other environmental value outside the land’s aesthetic or recreational value is confined to that vague fifth question, of less importance than whether the land could be considered a good place to hike.

Wilderness Is Based At Its Core On a Racist Assumption

The concept of land in its “natural condition” is less straightforward than it may seem at first glance. In the contiguous United States, a vanishingly small percentage of land — including the broad, sublime Western landscapes that gave rise to the modern Wilderness movement — was unaffected by human beings at the time of White contact. With the exception of a few places held as holy by local people — the summit of Mount Shasta, for example — human beings have been interacting with, managing and occupying the North American “wilderness” for millennia. Pre-contact Native land management techniques were necessarily non-mechanized, but they were by no means uniformly subtle or light-handed. Agricultural practices made use of plowing and slash-burn land clearing techniques. Wildfire was harnessed to clear land of encroaching brush. Many current Wilderness areas hold extensive archaeological evidence of intensive land use, including settlement, mining of flint, pipestone and other mineral resources, or large-scale harvesting of plant materials for food and fiber.

While it does no one good to romanticize the Native way of life by assuming Native land management was sustainable by definition, it does often turn out to be the case that Native land management techniques increased biodiversity, and that removal of Native people using traditional practices from the land was followed by a degradation of that land’s habitat value. The author Gary Nabhan has written about the Sonoran Desert oasis Quitobaquito, once a thriving Tohono O’odham settlement, now part of Organ Pipe National Monument a literal stone’s throw from the US-Mexico line. When the Tohono O’odham lived there, the spring-fed pond was a spectacularly diverse assemblage of bird and plant life. Under the protection of the National Park Service, biodiversity has declined dramatically. A similar oasis across the line in Mexico, still fringed by small O’odham family farm plots, still bears diversity like that Quitobaquito once hosted.

One can argue over whether Native techniques fostered biodiversity in general. One cannot honestly argue, however, over whether they existed. The evidence is incontrovertible. As Kat Anderson’s book Tending The Wild documents thoroughly, for instance, California’s “wild” landscapes were in fact the result of intensive human management. Few seriously dispute this these days: the facts are simply ignored. Native manipulation of the landscape is not counted as a “human impact” for purposes of determining Wilderness status whether the topic is individual visually prominent artifacts such as grinding rocks or artistic sites, or a broader landscape type that still bears the marks of intensive management — as an example, the “open-parklike forests” lauded by Nineteenth Century explorers that were the result of regular burning by local Native people. Indeed, the very concept of “primeval character and influence” essentially rewrites the environmental history of the landscape to exclude those human beings that may well have created that character of the landscape.

The upshot is that the Wilderness definition of “human influence” excludes Native people, especially historic Native people, from full membership in the human species. In most social contexts such exclusion is lately considered anathema. In Wilderness law, it is canon.

This is not meant to suggest that if a canyon full of ancient petroglyphs won’t exclude a landscape from Wilderness designation, neither should a modern religious billboard that fulfills essentially the same function. Nor is it meant to suggest that all human activity is necessarily as promotive of biotic diversity as certain old Native land management techniques. People do constitute a major source of damage to any particular landscape’s biotic integrity. But if the emphasis on “primeval character” enshrined in US Wilderness law turns out on examination to be based on historic racist assumptions about land management practices and the competence or savagery of Native people, then it is unlikely to be an appropriate or accurate way of measuring the biotic health of a landscape.

Wilderness Is Steampunk Inside-Out: The obsolescence of Wilderness’s definition of “human impact.”

For all that the Wilderness concept is based on inaccurate assumptions about old technology, the practices it does assume are inappropriate technological intervention in “wild” lands are themselves increasingly out of date. According to the Wilderness ethic, the kinds of modern technology that are properly barred from Wilderness all essentially existed in the late 19th Century: motorized vehicles and other machinery, fuel-or human-powered.

This definition of human technology was already obsolete at the time the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, and technological change has increased at an exponential rate. And yet whole sectors of human technology are never considered for exclusion from Wilderness. During the 1990s there was brief controversy in Wilderness recreationist circles over the use of mobile phones in the backcountry, including in Wilderness areas. That controversy is now well and truly dead. If Wilderness areas are excluded from phone coverage, it is through remoteness rather than by design. Few places in Wilderness are out of satellite phone coverage areas. Remote sensing allows close, detailed and consistent examination of Wilderness areas: while this is undoubtedly helpful from a management perspective, and undeniably a boon to science, it does illustrate that technological incursion into wilderness areas is only selectively prohibited.

Wilderness law also ignores biotechnology, in both the gene-spicing and old-fashioned selective breeding senses. Take for example the US Department of Agriculture’s attempts to breed a cold-hardy strain of Pennisetum ciliare as a range fodder crop. The species Pennisetum ciliare, aka buffelgrass, is a dangerous invasive plant in warmer areas. Though the cold-resistant strains thus far show lower seed production than the species, a successful and seed-productive strain would almost certainly spread into Wilderness areas in the Great Basin and western mountain ranges. Were Wildernesses set up to preserve the biotic diversity and stability of the lands involved, such biotech applications would almost certainly be seen as far more potentially disruptive of those landscapes than, say, riding a mountain bike along a trail.

Grazing has attracted the ire of many Wilderness activists, but it remains technically legal in Wilderness subject to management decisions. Again, this points up the solely aesthetic underpinnings of Wilderness policy, with little or no consideration of ecological benefit. If one cannot use a chainsaw to remove invasive trees from Wilderness, then logically removing native plants for private profit should be even more frowned upon, even if you do so using an imported biological grazing “machine.”

As in the example of invasive crop plants, the most pervasive human impact on Wilderness areas comes from activities conducted outside the Wilderness. From atmospheric pollutants changing soil pH in remote forests to invasive species transported across oceans to carbon-driven climate change melting ice in the old-school “rock and ice” Wildernesses, the majority of the deleterious human impacts on Wilderness come from many miles away.

In sum, impacts that are invisible to the naked eye, or which to the non-ecologically aware seem more or less “natural,” are not considered as dire as the immediate threat posed by a machine, even though the latter may be local and temporary while the former is often chronic and pervasive.

Wilderness: A Religious Ideology

Before the 19th Century the prevalent European-American attitudes toward wild lands was that they were morally suspect places that required taming through intervention by human effort. With the advent of the Romantic movement and its artistic and cultural offspring, which took seeds planted by Montaigne and his cohort and nourished them, this view was inverted. Wilderness became the source of the highest form of beauty, and human industry — especially in the wake of the Industrial Revolution — was “dark” and “satanic.”  Nothing of substance had changed in the dichotomy: it had simply been turned upside down.

Even the language of the Wilderness Act, penned a century after the painters of the Hudson River School popularized the Romantic conception of the landscape for Americans, contains this dichotomy, covering land “where man himself [sic] is a visitor who does not remain,” and “which… generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

This is essentially a religious ideology about the relationship between human beings and Nature. It is not by accident that Wilderness activists talk about sublime places in religiously charged terms. Wilderness forests are “cathedrals,” deserts are “sacred,” solitudinous places offer the possibility of pilgrimage, reflection, and personal growth, and the rest of the world is profane in the original sense. To be honest, this is a religious ideology that I mostly share, at least on an emotional level. I would be devastated by the loss of the places the Wilderness Act tries so inaccurately to describe.

But we cannot confuse religious beliefs with science. A conception of land that is defined by the absence of humans is still centered on humans, as opposed to by the ecological integrity of the place, the biotic richness, the rarity of the species — or communities of species — therein, or the ecological importance of the place to wildlife and plants whose ranges may spread over thousands of miles of unprotected land — breeding and migration stopover habitat, genetic connectivity links, and the like.

Such issues are often crucially important to individual wilderness activists, many of whom will invoke ecological values of the land they want to protect as reasons why the land should be protected.

But they’re using a tool that’s ill-suited to the job. “Wilderness characteristics” as defined by the Wilderness Act” exclude the majority of vulnerable ecologically important land deserving of protection. A casino five miles distant may be all but invisible to an endangered desert tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley, but that same casino seemingly blinds Wilderness activists to the ecological value of the land.

Fortunately, activists have other tools at their disposal. The system of National Wildlife Refuges, the provisions of the Endangered Species Act relating to Critical Habitat, and other ecologically based land management policies and institutions show that we can actually work to protect land based on its biotic value and characteristics.

We need more initiatives like these, based on promotion of the landscape’s ecological health. Where they exist they should be strengthened, expanded, and broadened. Wilderness protection should be a part of those initiatives. But it cannot supersede them. To sacrifice healthy landscapes with rich biodiversity because they fail to meet human-centered criteria about solitude, “natural” appearance and opportunities for outdoor recreation is no more defensible than sacrificing them for their mineral wealth or timber.

10 thoughts on “The Problem With Wilderness

  1. Larry Ayers

    Good cogently-stated essay.  I like how you tried to bridge the gap between irrational but emotionally compelling views of landscape and scientific views.

  2. Adrienne Adams

    Excellent essay! It is indeed high time to revise traditional environmentalists’’ thinking about the characteristics and qualities of land to be protected. “Wilderness” designation is, as you so well said, a fabrication based on European values of beauty, ecstatic religious experience, and the inferiority of Native peoples.

  3. Laura Cunningham

    Excellent essay on how many people do not understand the technicalities of what legally constitutes Wilderness. Makes me think the concept of federal Wilderness still carries a hint of the old Manifest Destiny way of thinking—all wild nature is placed here for humans, specifically privileged Americans, for their own uses like some park lawn next to Civilization where one can find brief respite. Totally ignores inherent values of other species, other communities, other cultures, who have a right to exist independently.

  4. Jeremy Nathan Marks

    Thank you for this. I really appreciate the points you are making and especially value the case you make against the racist assumptions of “pristine wilderness” and the problems of placing human aesthetics at the heart of wilderness conservation. This is an insightful and wise essay and I definitely will be recommending it to my friends.

  5. Ceal Smith

    Thanks for this a cogent and thoughtful essay.  As we stand on the cusp of the largest species extinction event in human history, it would behoove conservationists to push for Endangered Ecosystem protection as a more useful metric for protecting our natural biodiversity heritage.  Given the rate and aggressiveness of current efforts to privatize our remaining public lands for Big Energy and the willingness of corporate environmental groups to make backroom deals, we’re in a serious quandary.

  6. Bill A

    Excellent analysis. These thoughts need to be brought up more. All environmentalists should think this through. Our world is changing (has changed). Classical “wilderness” no longer exists, and the sooner everyone accepts this the better.

  7. Fred Levitan

    “I come more and more to the conclusion that wilderness, in America or anywhere else, is the only thing left that is worth saving.”  -Cactus Ed, Vox Clamantis in Deserto

    ‘Nuff said.

  8. Fred Levitan

    Above comment is not to disagree with anything you said in your excellent essay.  Not sure that Ed would not agree -he said as a humanist, he’d rather kill a a man than a snake, after all…

  9. Rob G

    he’d rather kill a a man than a snake, after all…

    I hope he would have reconsidered if the snake ran for public office.