50 Years On, the Wilderness Act Should Remind us that We Need to Value All Nature


Did you “get away” this weekend? Labor day weekend is traditionally celebrated outside – whether it be grilling in the back yard, picnicking in a city park, heading for a lakefront cabin in one of our neighbor states or aiming for a little slice of America’s wilderness preserved in our state and national parks and wilderness areas.

Wilderness Act Turns 50

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act – a perfect reminder of the amazing resource of preserved open space that have at our disposal.  With 84 million acres of national park alone (that’s a quarter acre for every American) there’s a lot of land set aside for un-developed use.  We tend to think of this as pristine wilderness – protected from human intervention and that was certainly the stated intent of setting it aside in the first place.

From the Wilderness Act:

“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.”

But how realistic is that idea, really?  In a world where climate change is increasing, and chemical pollutants move through our global air and water systems, no wilderness area, no matter how remote and inaccessible to humans, really goes un-touched by us.

Protecting the Wrong Nature?

In The Trouble With Wilderness: getting back to the wrong nature, (an essay well known to Environmental Studies majors everywhere) William Cronon argued that focusing too much attention on remote and theoretically pristine areas of wilderness perpetuated a number of harmful myths about the separation between “man and nature” – not least of which that the early park system was created in the wake of a huge effort to round up and remove Native American communities to reservations.

The whole idea of separating human from nature in order to preserve its ‘naturalness’ sets us up for failure.  We can never perfectly “protect” nature from ourselves while continuing to exist.  Instead, Cronon calls on us to think of the tree in the garden and the tree in an ancient forest as equivalent, and equally deserving of our care and attention.

Protecting the Right Nature?

A few years later, Botonist Donald Waller answered Cronon’s argument with the counterpoint “Getting Back to the Right Nature: a reply to Cronon’s ‘The Trouble with Wilderness.’”  He argued that people are capable of multi-tasking their interests to protect both ‘wilderness’ areas and their local parks and gardens.  He also points out that large, uninterrupted tracts of natural area are vital to support many types of threatened and endangered species, especially top predators which need wide ranges to support their eating habits and don’t mix well with human communities.

We can value and protect small patches of green space in cities but shouldn’t use them as a replacement for “larger and ecologically more intact habitat” farther away.

What does “Protect” mean anyway?

The original idea of the Wilderness Act – to identify areas “untrammeled” by people and prohibit trammeling, hasn’t always turned out to be possible or practical over the last fifty years.  Strict laws regulate everything from cutting new roads (forbidden) to using chainsaws to clear hiking trails (also forbidden) in designated wilderness areas.  Workers for the National Park service maintain trails with two-person cross cut saws and hand tools once they cross into protected areas!

However, keeping motors out of the preserves doesn’t keep them in a pristine state of stasis.  Nature is always in flux and some of that flux is being caused by human intervention which needs to be addressed.  In a recent NYTimes article on the Wilderness Act, Cat Hawkins Hoffmann, the national climate change adaptation coordinator for the National Park Service (that job title really says it all) frames the debate this way:

“The real conundrum is, how much manipulation in wilderness is acceptable in order to protect the values for which the wilderness was established.”

Now the Park systems are thinning over-dense forests threatened by drought and fire, and considering assisted migration of endangered species.  What is our goal – to freeze these open spaces in the state in which they were protected, to support them in healthy change or to stand back and see what happens?

Value of Wilderness

Regardless of how we chose to manage or keep our hands off of it, so-called wild spaces remind us of the power of nature – huge forces which we may affect … but certainly can’t control.  It’s important to celebrate the areas of wildness protected by the Wilderness Act at the same time as we support and increase access to green space in our own neighborhoods and back yards.

After all,  Dan Burden of Walkable and Livable Communities Institute points out that city trees “absorb 9 times more pollutants than more distant trees” but thinking of a street tree or a tree in a distant forest may have the power to inspire us to leave our motor vehicles parked and walk to our next destination, giving both of them a break.