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Is There a Future for Wilderness?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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wilderness-act-signingWilderness is dead, long live the Wilderness Act. On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Congress signed into law the Wilderness Act.

The law was the culmination of a populist movement that began with the founding of Yosemite all the way back in 1890. But the Act was also about a very 20th century American problem: cars. The people who promoted the Wilderness Act year after year before its passage—arch-druids like ecologist Aldo Leopold—worried that roads, and cars bearing tourist hordes threatened to overwhelm the last wild places within the confines of the U.S.

In a very real, legal sense, wilderness equals roadlessness, at least in the U.S.

Here’s how the Wilderness Act defines the sometimes problematic term in its name: “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.” In fact, some people had to be removed (see Yosemite) to permit any vision of “an enduring resource of wilderness” (in the words of the Act) to become reality.

From the very beginning then, wilderness has been defined by what it isn’t: humans and the mechanization we increasingly employ, particularly mechanical transport, whether car, boat or aircraft. The Wilderness Act legislated against the American people themselves, looking to keep us out of certain places, so as to retain the “primeval” character of these places—their flora and fauna—and to reserve them for the enjoyment of fleeting human visitors. The Act represents a gesture of humility and self-restraint.

But most wilderness in the continental U.S. is not untrammeled land. Wilderness areas are often former working landscapes—the Orwellian phrase created by the logging industry to explain away clear cuts—whether they were cleared for logging or farming over the course of the 19th century and early 20th centuries in places like the Adirondacks. The great forest that once covered the eastern U.S. has been re-growing for the last 50 years, even if its primeval quality may be illusory, given the exotic animals and plants that now live there. And, in this era of global warming, even the Artic and other remote spots show signs of human trammeling—whether the leavings are plastic detritus or a changed climate.

So what is still relatively wild in this new epoch, tentatively dubbed the Anthropocene? That’s the question facing the Wilderness Act in its next 50 years and one grappled with in a new book of essays called “Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth.” “Self-willed” places is the answer most commonly given (though of course nature has no will), whether by British writer and “dark ecologist” Paul Kingsnorth or scholars of old English who note that meaning nestled in the term “wilderness.” The 27 authors, including Kingsnorth, collectively deride the hubris and arrogance of modern humanity and call for more of the disciplined humility that the Wilderness Act exemplifies. The alternative is the bleakness of an “existential apartheid” in the words of sociologist Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech that translates into an estrangement from all other species. Or as conservation biologist Michael Soule of the University of California, Santa Cruz puts it: “If you live long enough you will discover that most of the wild places you loved as a young person have been peopled to death.”

The Wilderness Society is still out there defending the country’s more than 100 million acres of wilderness from the threat of peopling. Most often by finding justification for its continuing use to humans: helping study climate change or filtering clean water for our drinking needs. And, of course, that 109 million acres is less than 1 percent of the total acreage in the U.S.

The question of defending such natural resources quickly devolves into how much people should intervene to maintain wilderness, particularly for iconic animals or favored plants. Should boundaries be shifted to accommodate the movement of species as climate changes? Or does less mean more when managing wilderness?

That’s what Roger Kaye, an environmental thinker and wilderness coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, argued in his history of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the International Journal of Wilderness back in 2010, the 50th anniversary of the designation of that refuge. The wildness of wilderness is what needs preserving most now, the plants and animals and even geology of a given place’s ability to determine its own fate. Kaye means that an ecosystem should be left to its own natural devices. Plants and animals can take their own course, without any planning, and may change not to anyone’s liking. That in itself may be the ultimate resource wilderness provides—something outside the totality of human civilization.

In the Anthropocene, we will have our novel ecosystems that mix old and new plants and animals, and perhaps even missing species resurrected thanks to synthetic biology. We may even intervene purposefully on a planetary scale to stave off the worst warming from ever-rising CO2 levels as we burn more fossil fuels. But the wilderness will remain in some form, going about its own business in its own way.

Wilderness poses this fundamental question at least: what kind of place do we want for our home? Will our terrestrial abode retain an abundance of plants, animals, microbes and fungi like the world Homo sapiens was first born into? Or will the Earth become a vast monoculture, a grim subset of nominally wild species that co-exist in symbiosis with modern human civilization, like rats and seagulls? “Is being an asteroid the great purpose of our species—to steal the lives and homes of millions of species and billions of creatures?” asks political scientist David Johns of Portland State University, in his essay in “Keeping the Wild.”

In the end, wilderness is a state of mind. The natural world can only persist now as a deliberate act of human will. That will require firm human purpose as a gesture of humility, yes, but also a form of self-protection. “This is not really an ‘environmental problem.’ It’s a human problem,” writes environmental historian Roderick Frazier Nash of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “What needs to be conquered now is not the wilderness, but ourselves.”

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Percival 3:07 pm 09/3/2014

    I am not enamored of the extremist view that humans should be confined to urbanized “reservations” while leaving the rest of the planet effectively wild, but the current situation of leaving Nature its own reservations while we transform the rest of the planet to our tastes of the moment is clearly untenable.

    I suggest a compromise- stop “development” as it is, but allow free access to National Parks and such remaining wild areas. By “free” I mean whenever you want, for as long as you want, and you can do anything you want while there. Of course there’s a catch- no vehicles, no electronics, in fact no technology at all. You must enter completely naked, and when you leave you can take nothing out with you. You must feed, clothe, and shelter yourself as best you can with what you can find, and there would be no interference *or assistance* from Park Rangers. You lose weight and toughen up, fine. You get injured or dead, well, fine. That way you get to experience Nature pure and unfiltered.

    Seems fair to me. After all, that’s how wildlife has to cope with civilized areas.

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  2. 2. The Dude 4:22 pm 09/3/2014

    For me, wilderness and solitude are synonyms, whether you are truly alone or in a small group. Percival’s idea of being the naked survivor is childish and could only come from a clueless city-slicker. Wild animals are able to withstand heat and cold, they have weapons in their claws and teeth, and they are opportunistic feeders. The thrill is to leave civilization and enter the wild, if only for a little while. Solitude is what makes wilderness…I don’t want to encounter a dirty, naked, starving, homeless Percival while I’m there.

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  3. 3. Percival 2:18 pm 09/4/2014

    Sorry Dude, but you’ve completely misread me. I’ve done my due diligence, living in wilderness for weeks at a time just as I described. It’s really not that difficult *if* you go in with a plan (select a location for that night’s shelter and build it, know what’s edible in the area you want to explore, know how to find water, know how to deal with animals, and so on). This was long before the current crop of “reality” shows like Naked And Afraid or the other “survive the wild” programs that blatantly try to make it seem like a risk-a-minute.

    Knowing how to find and knap flint and how to select sticks to tie them to, and other skills help. All that you really need to survive indefinitely in the wild can be carried conveniently in your head. Teeth and claws are not necessities, and “heat and cold” are relative. Remember, our ancestors managed it before civilization convinced us we are separate from Nature.

    Don’t get me wrong- I like my technology, but typical “camping out” amounts to bringing with you a set of distractions from the experience. The extreme of that is “glamping”… I ask you, what’s the point of that?

    OTOH for you, it’s the solitude. For me, it’s my interaction with Nature on its own terms- “when in Rome”, you see?

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  4. 4. Periomax 4:45 pm 09/4/2014

    Maintaining wilderness is important however there is a balance. Due to the restrictions placed on the uses for wilderness areas, only a very few people have the time and resources to access these lands. If we accept that people will value those things they personally know and experience, it follows that as a greater portion of our population become more isolated from natural world they will have a diminished commitment to funding wilderness efforts. We need to consider some changes to the niavity of the 60′s mentality that established these lands making them more accessible. We also need to stop politicians form playing politics with their establishment.

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  5. 5. acuvox 4:51 pm 09/4/2014

    The definition is simple and obvious, but it eludes humans in their anthropocentric myopia: Wilderness is where people get eaten. As long as the top carnivores continue to be endangered species and the most plentiful source of meat in history does not nourish them, the Earth is unhealthily out of balance.

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  6. 6. 13inches 5:13 pm 09/4/2014

    Percival My Boy: WHERE in the USA have you been doing all this living off the land while naked ? If the Forest Service or BLM agents spotted you while you are naked lurking among the trees, you would be arrested as some kind of pervert. I lived alone in a tent at 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mtns for 6 months, and the solitude and escape from civilization was life changing, but doing all this NAKED would simply be ridiculous. It makes sense to ban roads and cars from wilderness areas, but banning clothes from widerness areas is just dumb and will NEVER happen.

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  7. 7. jimfromcanada 6:12 pm 09/4/2014

    Perhaps Percival had solitude as well.

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  8. 8. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:03 am 09/5/2014

    As an enthusiant of wilderness, I would point that tourism is actually the best way to preserve the wilderness.

    Tourists may be noisy and leave litter. But for ecosystem itself it is benign compared to forestry, hunting and similar less visible land use. Most people cannot tell a native forest from a tree plantation with all old trees removed, and planted with tree species unsuitable to the locality but with maximal production of timber. But the ecosystem is altered, often as much as on a crop field, up to 2/3 of species is gone.

    Travelling across the owrld, I usually see most wild animals in places with intensive tourism, oblivious to noisy picknickers and cameras. In the nearby unvisited forests hunters wiped out almost everything.

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  9. 9. The Dude 12:48 pm 09/5/2014

    Thanks for the correction, Percival. As I’ve gotten older I’ve deemed some things necessary when I’m camping in the mountains, like an air mattress and tent. In remote locations where there are heavy deer and berry populations, I fear mountain lions and bears. Someone gets killed every year up here in the Rockies. But usually when I’m in that situation I’m hunting and already have a big gun. On camping/fishing trips I also take one.

    My ranch borders BLM land. While vehicles are restricted by law in many areas, the damage that violators inflict is obvious and depressing. My entire ranch (600+ acres) is fenced and posted and I ride the fenceline weekly on horseback when weather permits, with a 30-30 on the saddle. Sad to say that I’ve drawn my weapon on humans more times than on lions or bears. Haven’t had to shoot anyone yet, but I do consider the humans as more dangerous. I’ve gotten permission from DOW to shoot nuisance predators that kill my stock. Mountain lion tastes surprisingly good.

    If I ever see a naked survivalist I’ll relax and say “Hi, Percival”. Cheers.

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  10. 10. Percival 1:01 pm 09/6/2014

    Dude, I agree on the exigencies of advancing age. My “due diligence” was forty years ago, and I must admit to having cheated a bit- I am very nearsighted and wore my glasses. These days I’d have to either take my dentures along too, or fake them along the way. I’d have to read up on natural arthritis meds too…

    I did my thing in the remote parts of Yosemite that tourists usually don’t go to. I never had to remind bears, mountain lions, etc. that humans became the Earth’s apex predators due to of our use of pointy tools, simply because I went in being familiar with their odors and the appearance of their scat. Avoiding them is simpler than confronting them. Also, it’s my personal policy not to eat from too high or too low on the food chain. I don’t do insects, and apex predators tend to concentrate toxins. Rattlesnake though, that doesn’t taste like chicken. It tastes like rattlesnake.

    I understand your ongoing irritation with clueless city folks failing to respect not just the wilderness but private property bordering it. Personally, I avoided fences like I avoided roads, bears, and mountain lions.

    And naked? No way. Burrs and bugs are no fun. I’m sure you know that most mammals have just enough brain to tan their whole hide. The hard part is making sure smoke from the smudge fire doesn’t escape and alert Rangers.

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