Is the Idea of Wilderness Dead?

adventure journal wilderness poll

At first glance, asking the question, “Is the idea of wilderness dead?” might seem like an artificial provocation. Of course wilderness isn’t dead, most of you would say, “I was just there the other day.” There are more than 56 million acres of wilderness set aside in the United States, and battles are being fought daily over whether to include more. Wilderness would seem to be alive and well.

The Wilderness Act says, “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.”

It’s a nice thought. But in the last decade or two, as science has learned more about the handiwork of those who peopled the Americas before Europeans arrived, the dynamic nature of earth, and the impact of climate change, it has become evident that the idea of nature primeval is at best a moving target and at worst a misguided fantasy. Books such as 1491 and Rambunctious Garden have shown non-scientists that the America we were taught in school isn’t that America that really existed back in the day. There were more people, with a heavier hand, than we even imagined.

As the description for Garden puts it, “A paradigm shift is roiling the environmental world. For decades people have unquestioningly accepted the idea that our goal is to preserve nature in its pristine, pre-human state. But many scientists have come to see this as an outdated dream that thwarts bold new plans to save the environment and prevents us from having a fuller relationship with nature. Humans have changed the landscapes they inhabit since prehistory, and climate change means even the remotest places now bear the fingerprints of humanity.”

A few weeks ago, good friend of AJ Chris Salomon wrote a piece in the New York Times titled Rethinking the Wild: The Wilderness Act is Facing a Mid-Life Crisis. In it, he wrote, “…reality has pushed respected scientists to advocate what many wilderness partisans past and present would consider blasphemy: We need to rethink the Wilderness Act. We need to toss out the “hands-off” philosophy that has guided our stewardship for 50 years. We must replace it with a more nuanced, flexible approach – including a willingness to put our hands on America’s wildest places more, not less, if we’re going to help them to adapt and thrive in the diminished future we’ve thrust upon them.”

In addition to the usual goal of wanting to see where you guys stand on the issue, the purpose of this week’s poll is to kick off debate and awareness of the fundamental changes taking place in the thinking about wilderness and other public lands. Although the idea of wilderness is certainly a human construct, changes in philosophy about how to manage land have very tangible effects. Fueled by global warming, lodgepole pines are moving into Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows; should the park cut them down or let the earth do what it wants? In Joshua Tree National Park, the namesake trees might not be able to survive climate changes and could be gone by the end of the century; should botanists develop hardier hybrids in their place?

And if land managers do taker a firmer hand on the environment, including in designated wilderness, what does that mean for our perception of wilderness as a place untrammeled by man? Are we at last seeing the world with clearer eyes? Do we lose something important when the idea of untrammeled is gone? What role does wilderness have, if any, in the rapidly changing globe?

Tough questions, and they won’t be answered in a poll. But we can dive in and start talking.

[polldaddy poll=8197020]


products_2320_58_158_enlargeThis week, one poll participant will receive a pair of Smith Optics Cornice sunglasses from Smith’s Archive collection. We’ll pick the winner via random number generator (and announce it here) – all you have to do to enter is vote and leave a comment so we have your email to contact you. Must have a U.S. or Canadian address. Contest ends Sunday, July 27, at midnight PST.

Congratulations to Christopher Byars, who wins the Smiths this week!

Photo by Shutterstock

aj logo 35



Four issues, free shipping, evergreen content…