Wilderness is the ancestral home of all that we know in this world.
A few years ago, I led a group through the wilds of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range during the early autumn caribou migration. I think that if I had fourteen lifetimes I’d never again experience anything quite so primeval, so simple and rudimentary, and so utterly and uncompromisingly wild. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this beheld my eye above all else. Maybe that trek—in one of the ultimate terrestrial wildernesses remaining on Earth—is my personal quintessence of what constitutes real wilderness among a lifetime of wilderness experience. The tundra was a rainbow of autumn pelage. Fresh snow engulfed the peaks and periodically the valleys, too. Animals were everywhere, thousands of them, moving across valleys, through passes, over divides, atop ridges. Wolves chased caribou. A grizzly on a carcass temporarily blocked our route through a narrow pass. It was a week I’ll never forget, a week of an ancient world that elsewhere is rapidly receding into the frightening nature-deficit technophilia of the twenty-first century.
Some claim that wilderness is defined by our perception, which is shaped by our circumstance and experience. For example, one who has never been to the Brooks Range but instead has spent most of her life confined to big cities with little exposure to wild nature might consider a farm woodlot to be “wilderness.” Or a small state park laced with dirt roads. Or, for that matter, a cornfield, though this seems to stretch this theory of wilderness relativity to the point of obvious absurdity. According to this line of thought, wilderness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Yet those who believe that perception defines wilderness are dead wrong. In our culture, wilderness is a very distinct and definable entity, and it can be viewed on two complementary levels. First, from a legal standpoint, the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness quite clearly. A designated wilderness area is defined as “untrammeled,” which means “unconfined” or “unrestricted.” It further says wilderness is “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent human improvements or habitation.” The law also generally prohibits road building and resource extraction such as logging and mining. Plus, it sets a general guideline of 5,000 acres as a minimum size for a wilderness. Furthermore, it banishes to non-wilderness lands all mechanized conveniences, from mountain bikes and game carts to noisy fume-belching all-terrain vehicles and snow machines.
In addition to wilderness as a legal entity, we also have a closely related cultural view, steeped in mystery and romance and influenced by our history, which yes, includes the hostile view of wilderness that was particularly prevalent during the early days of settlement. Today, our cultural view of wilderness is generally positive. This view is greatly influenced by the Wilderness Act, which means when people speak of wilderness in lieu of legal definitions, they speak of country that’s big, wild, and undeveloped, where nature rules. And that certainly isn’t a woodlot or cornfield. In summary, then, wilderness is wild nature with all her magic and unpredictability. It lacks roads, motors, pavement and structures, but comes loaded with unknown wonders and challenges that at least some humans increasingly crave in today’s increasingly controlled and confined world.
Untrammeled wilderness by definition comes with fire and insects, predator and prey, and the dynamic unpredictability of wild nature, existing in its own way in its own right, with utter disregard for human preference, convenience, and comfort. And perception. As the word’s etymological roots connote, wilderness is “self-willed land,” and the “home of wild beasts.”
It is also the ancestral home of all that we know in this world, and it spawned civilization, although I’m not convinced this is a good thing. So wilderness isn’t just any old unpaved undeveloped landscape. It isn’t merely a blank space on the map. For within that blank space might be all sorts of human malfeasance that have long since destroyed the essence of real wilderness: pipelines, power-lines, water diversions, overgrazed wastelands, and off-road vehicle scars, for example. No, wilderness isn’t merely a place that lacks development. It is unspoiled and primeval, a sacred place in its own right. Wilderness designation is a statement to all who would otherwise keep the industrial juggernaut rolling: Hands off! This place is special! Designated wilderness is supposed to be different “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape.” (Wilderness Act, section 2c)
Wilderness provides us with some defense against the collective disease of “landscape amnesia.” I began to use this term in the early 1990s while writing an educational tabloid on wilderness and roadless areas. It had begun to occur to me that, as we continue to tame nature, each ensuing generation becomes less aware of what constitutes a healthy landscape because so many components of the landscape gradually disappear. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water slowly brought to a boil, society simply fails to notice until it’s too late, if it notices at all. For example, few alive today remember when extensive cottonwood floodplain forests were healthy and common throughout the West. So today’s generations view our currently depleted floodplains as “normal.” Thus there’s no impetus to restore the ecosystem. This principle applies to wilderness. Wilderness keeps at least some areas intact, wild and natural, for people to see. We don’t forget what we can still see with our own eyes. Moreover, when we keep wilderness wild, there is less danger that as a society we’ll succumb to wilderness amnesia, and forget what real wilderness is.
Perhaps the most important thing that sets wilderness apart is that real wilderness is dynamic, always in flux, never the same from one year or decade or century to the next, never stagnant, and entirely unconstrained despite unrelenting human efforts to control nearly everything. Natural processes such as wildfire, flood, predation, and native insects are (or should be) allowed to shape the wilderness landscape as they have throughout the eons. Remember, wilderness areas are wild and untrammeled, in contrast with areas dominated by humankind. That domination includes our interference with the natural forces and processes that shape a true wilderness landscape.
It has been said that wilderness cannot be created; it can only be protected where it still persists. There is some truth here, but there’s a big gray area too. Even though most new wilderness units are carved out of relatively unspoiled roadless areas, Congress is free to designate any area of federal land as wilderness, even lands that have been impacted by past human actions, such as logging and road building. In fact, Congress has designated such lands as wilderness on numerous occasions. Once designated, agencies are legally required by the Wilderness Act to manage such lands as wilderness. Time and the elements usually do the rest. For example, most wildernesses in the eastern U.S. were once heavily logged and laced with roads and skid trails. Today, they have re-attained a good measure of their former wildness.
Wilderness is about humility. It’s a statement that we don’t know it all and never will. In wilderness we are part of something much greater than our civilization and ourselves. It moves us beyond self, and that, I think, can lead only to good things.
Perhaps above all, wilderness is a statement that non-human life forms and the landscapes that support them have intrinsic value, just because they exist, independent of their multiple benefits to the human species. Most emphatically, wilderness is not primarily about recreation, although that’s certainly one of its many values. Nor is it about the “me first” attitude of those who view nature as a metaphorical pie to be divvied up among user groups. It’s about selflessness, about setting our egos aside and doing what’s best for the land. It’s about wholeness, not fragments. After all, wilderness areas—despite their problems—are still our healthiest landscapes with our cleanest waters, and they tend to support our healthiest wildlife populations, particularly for many species that have become rare or extirpated in places that are less wild.
Having made a living primarily as a wilderness guide/outfitter for over three decades, I’ve had the good fortune to experience many wild places throughout western North America and occasionally far beyond. Were I to boil what I’ve learned down to one succinct statement, it’d probably be this: Wilderness is about restraint. As Howard Zahniser stated, wilderness managers must be “guardians, not gardeners.” When in doubt, leave it alone. For if we fail to restrain our manipulative impulses in wilderness, where on Earth might we ever find untrammeled lands?
Finally, when we fail to protect, maintain, and restore real wilderness, we miss the chance to pass along to our children and grandchildren—and to future generations of non-human life—the irreplaceable wonders of a world that is too quickly becoming merely a dim memory of a far better time. Luckily, we still have the opportunity to both designate and properly protect a considerable chunk of the once enormous American wilderness. Let’s not squander that opportunity. We need to protect as much as possible. And let’s keep wilderness truly wild, for that, by definition, is what wilderness is, and no substitute will suffice.
Howie Wolke co-owns Big Wild Adventures, a wilderness backpack and canoe guide service based in Montana’s Paradise Valley, near Yellowstone National Park. He is an author and longtime wilderness advocate, and is a past president and current board member of Wilderness Watch. This piece was first published in “Wilderness: Reclaiming the Legacy” ©2011. Source: Keeping Wilderness WILD! The blog of Wilderness Watch http://wildernesswatch.wordpress.com