Note: The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. government.
Copyright David Graber
The Wilderness Act of 1964 was written in a time when nature was thought to be static, or at least changing at the pace of millennia. In the act, wilderness is “recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man … retaining its primeval character and influence … and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which … generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature” (Section 2c). By the 1980s, ecologists had come to realize that while ecosystems trend toward homeostasis in the absence of disruptive forces, those forces—fire, flood, drought, disease outbreaks—impinge periodically, if not frequently, on most ecosystems. In living systems, “primeval” just does not happen. Nonetheless, among wilderness managers, recreationists, and activists, nostalgia for a more primitive and stable world runs very powerfully, as it does in the national park movement. As President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly said upon signing the Wilderness Act in 1964: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
In living systems, “primeval” just does not happen.
It is certainly true that when Congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act in 1975, it tacitly acknowledged that a legal wilderness could, in fact, have been subjected in the past to alteration by humans, even industrial humans. The Shenandoah Wilderness once was logged, settled, and farmed intensively. The Phillip Burton Wilderness in Point Reyes National Seashore affords a glimpse of the San Francisco skyline. However, to most people who are accustomed to backpacking or stockpacking, wilderness is epitomized by large (western) landscapes. According to Wilderness.net¹ (2011), “Wilderness is the land that was—wild land beyond the frontier … land that shaped the growth of our nation and the character of its people.”
The Wild Foundation (2011) broadly defines wilderness areas as the “most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet—those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure.” It goes on to state, “A wilderness area is not necessarily a place that is biologically ‘pristine.’ Very few places on earth are not in some way impacted by humans. Rather, the key is that a wilderness area be mainly biologically intact: evidence of minor human impacts, or indications of historical human activity does not disqualify an area from being considered wilderness.”
According to The Wilderness Society (2011): “Wilderness offers people solitude, inspiration, natural quiet, a place to get away. At the same time, designated wilderness protects biodiversity, the web of life.… Of 261 basic ecosystem types in the U.S., 157 are represented in the wilderness system. Without these large, complex areas of preserved landscape, species protection would be virtually impossible and our understanding of how natural systems work would be reduced to childish speculation.”
¹ Wilderness.net is a partnership of the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana, the Arthur Carhart Wilderness Training Center, and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute.