Taming the Wilderness

To save wilderness, we may need to learn how to just leave it alone.

| Summer 2015

  • The Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness.
    Photo by Flickr/Rex Peters

In late 2013, as if to flip its middle finger at the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the state of Idaho dispatched a hunter-trapper on horseback to track and slaughter two packs of wolves in the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the contiguous United States. Ragged with mountains and cut by chutes of whitewater, the Frank Church is a forbidding and trackless place. Here the cougars slip through the forests. The wolverines show their claws. And the wolves howl and hunt and take down elk for dinner, which was the behavior that prompted the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to hire its mercenary. Elk bring in wholesome revenues for the state in the form of hunting licenses and fees, and large herds of elk—preferably unnaturally large herds, fat and lazy and without threat from native predators—provide local guiding concerns a major source of profit. A total of nine wolves in the Frank Church wilderness were killed in January 2014 in contravention of the spirit and letter of the Act, which was passed by Congress in 1964 to protect those tracts of land “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” where the land retains “its primeval character and influence” and is “managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

What is meant by primeval character is not up for debate. Wilderness is intended, among its other purposes, to be a refuge for wild animals and plants, where the processes of evolution, so far as we humans have observed them, are to remain unmolested and unhampered. There is a practical argument here—the preservation of certain genetic pools as the human race busily wipes out genetic diversity elsewhere—and a transcendent one, related to the not-so-transcendent fact that our species evolved out of such primeval places, and our character was substantially shaped by them. Howard Zahniser, executive director of The Wilderness Society for two decades and the primary author and principal advocate of the Wilderness Act, wrote in 1956—the year the bill first arrived to the floor of Congress—that we need “to know ourselves as the dependent members of a great community of life, and this can indeed be one of the spiritual benefits of a wilderness experience. Without the gadgets, the inventions, the contrivances whereby men have seemed to establish among themselves an independence of nature, without these distractions, to know the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness, and responsibility.”

We have neither been humble nor responsible. Federally designated wilderness in the lower 48 adds up to a pitiably small figure, less than 3 percent of the total landmass. In a country that has historically spent its energies on the crushing of the wild for exploitation and gain, this minor achievement is nonetheless admirable. These acres have been given the highest form of protection for public lands: no mechanized transport (not even bicycles), no manmade structures (but for the occasional sign), no commercial activity (except for outfitters whose work is “necessary,” in the words of the law, for certain members of the public to realize the benefits of wilderness).

When the Act passed in 1964, Congress opted to immediately place nine million acres into the nascent National Wilderness Preservation System. The requisites for designation are formidable. Wilderness must be “of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition” (Congress suggested “at least 5,000 acres” would be a start); it must have no functioning roads (old wagon trails and boulder-strewn four-wheel-drive tracks don’t count as roads); and it should provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” We should laud the relatively good run of the last 50 years, during which time Congress expanded our wilderness more than tenfold. A tally of current federally protected wilderness comes to roughly 110 million acres, which is 5 million more acres than the area of California. Over half of this wilderness, some 57 million acres, is in Alaska, our last frontier. Just 4.5 million acres sits east of the Rockies, where human populations, our roads and cities, have spread amok. Some states have added to the wilderness total with their own land-use designations based on the language of the Act (with state-managed wilderness at roughly 2.7 million acres). Thus, New York, for example, has the High Peaks Wilderness in the Adirondack Mountains and the Slide Mountain Wilderness in the Catskill Park, both welcome and needed respites from the man-swarm, and home to herds of deer, big black bears, singing coyotes, and rumored cougars.

Most federally designated wilderness in the contiguous United States is in the handsomest part of the country—Idaho, California, Utah, Arizona, Washington—and almost all of the potential wilderness, what might still qualify for protection, is in the sparsely populated intermountain region, what remains of our wildest West. No one knows how much land has been—and I use the word deliberately—trammeled across the West since 1964. Consider the original meaning of that word, for the authors of the Act certainly did: It means to shackle, to hinder, to chain, to make un-free. “We do not know how much potential wilderness existed in 1964,” Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy for The Wilderness Society, tells me. The Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service hadn’t completed inventories at that time. We can make guesses. We know that, according to the Forest Service, the miles of roads in national forests more than doubled from 175,000 in 1964 to 385,000 in 2000. We know the Forest Service estimates that over the last 35 years at least 2.8 million roadless acres—probably an extremely low estimate—have been sliced through with four-wheel-drive and all-terrain-vehicle tracks and logging roads.

In the red rock country of southern Utah, where I live, with its enormity of stone and sky, its arches and mesas and canyon glens, its awesome evidence of geological time, we can guess, with the help of the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, that about half of the federally owned land was rendered unsuitable for wilderness designation during the period from 1964 to present. This was due to oil and gas exploration, the damming and diverting of rivers and streams, the creation of huge reservoirs (Lake Powell foremost, called by some the Blue Death), the construction of power and rail lines, the mining of coal and potash and uranium, the disposition of public land into private ownership, the building of roads to facilitate extraction and possession, and the development of industrial tourism infrastructure so that every American can drive at high speed, burger and fries in mouth, Navajo dream catcher in hand, across land that has been shackled. Which is to say that it took 300 million years to form one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes, the canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau, and our species required only 50 years to subjugate a good part of it.

11/17/2017 9:41:12 PM

The so-called "wilderness" areas are in fact ones from which the Native American inhabitants have been ruthlessly dispossessed. The only reason they look primeval to us is that we have forgotten how they were used by the people who lived there, and who were moved or slaughtered to make way for the parks that have replaced them.

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