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Volume 28
Number 3
Winter 2011-2012
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Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in Johns Canyon, Grand Gulch Wilderness, Utah. Invited Feature
Integrating cultural resources and wilderness character

By Jill Cowley, Peter Landres, Melissa Memory, Doug Scott, and Adrienne Lindholm
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
Legislative history
The Wilderness Act and the National Historic Preservation Act
Cultural resources and wilderness character
Cultural resources management and minimum requirements analysis
Tribal perspectives on wilderness
Future needs
Acknowledgments and literature cited
About the authors
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Cultural resources are an integral part of wilderness and wilderness character. Not all those involved in the preservation and appreciation of wilderness agree with this statement. Varying perspectives derive from a basic difference in belief about the relationship between humans and the nonhuman world—whether or not humans are a part of nature. For some, wilderness means pristine nature and the absence of human modification, where the presence of ancient dwellings, historic sites, or other signs of prior human use degrades wilderness. For others, wilderness is a cultural landscape that has been valued, used, and in some areas modified by humans for thousands of years (fig. 1). Reconciling these perspectives can be difficult.

To foster this reconciliation, the National Park Service (NPS) National Wilderness Steering Committee (now the Wilderness Leadership Council) stated that “National Park Service policies properly and accurately incorporate cultural resource stewardship requirements into the management standards for wilderness areas” (National Wilderness Steering Committee 2002). Likewise, in her 2011 draft white paper, Laura Kirn (National Park Service, branch chief, Anthropology, Yosemite National Park) discusses the philosophical perspectives as well as agency practices and implications of recent court cases that have led to what is perceived as a divide between cultural resources and wilderness. She notes, however, that according to historical research and policy, the two camps need not be divided.

Our position is that cultural resources—archaeological sites, ethnographic resources, cultural landscapes, and historical structures and sites—are components of wilderness areas and may contribute positively to wilderness character. In addition to preserving ecosystems, wilderness helps us understand human use and value of the land over time. One of the fundamental purposes of cultural resources is to promote multiple views of history, and wilderness can also be valued from multiple viewpoints.

In addition to preserving ecosystems, wilderness helps us understand human use and value of the land over time. One of the fundamental purposes of cultural resources is to promote multiple views of history, and wilderness can also be valued from multiple viewpoints.

For example, a wilderness trail may reflect centuries of use by hunters, traders, miners, settlers, and travelers; today this same trail is used by wilderness visitors and represents a merging of past and present. Ecologically, while past human presence may not be apparent on a landscape, “the legacies of historic land-use activities continue to influence the long-term composition, structure, and function of most ecosystems and landscapes for decades and centuries after the activity has ceased” (Wallington et al. 2005; also see Foster et al. 2003). All wilderness areas have a human history.

In this article, we offer a perspective that promotes human history as integral to wilderness. Specifically, our intent is fourfold: (1) to enhance mutual understanding and respect between the cultural resources and wilderness communities; (2) to review relevant legislation and policy, the concept of wilderness character, and Minimum Requirements Analysis as they relate to cultural resources and wilderness; (3) to provide park examples of how cultural resources are being managed within wilderness; and (4) to recommend future actions. Several important related topics are not within the scope of this short article. We defer to others to provide legal responses to recent court cases that have raised questions about cultural resource management in wilderness (e.g., Olympic Park Associates v. Mainella [2005]). We do not offer specific tools to reconcile difficult cases; rather, our purpose is to develop a foundation for wilderness and cultural resources staffs to talk with each other and to make better decisions that respect all park values.

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This page updated:  6 February 2012

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Through the looking glass: What value will we see in wilderness in 2064?
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