Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Tillmans Ravine, New Jersey

So in my last post I talked about the wilderness experience, and touched momentarily on what wilderness is. But it merits further thought. I said things about tracts of untamed vegetation, flowing streams and towering mountains, but that's pretty general. Rivers flow through the largest of cities, and plants run wild everywhere, they call them weeds. And how big need a patch of trees be before it becomes "true" wilderness?

What constitutes wilderness? This is more complicated a question than it seems at first brush. In legal terms there are specific criteria that constitute official Wilderness Areas. One notion includes the land being "pristine" and "untrammelled by man." But the thing is, humans, a relatively tiny part of the living world, are causing some major, global changes to the biosphere. Global warming; fished-out oceans; pollution in rivers, lakes, and seas; soil erosion; extinctions; habitat loss or transformation... the list goes on. You can be canoing deep in the Adirondack Mountains, the portrait of New England wilderness, and yet the "pristine" lakes all have skewed pH from the acid rain. You can hike out into the less travelled parts of Yosemite National Park, but the wolves and grizzlies are gone.

So even deep wilderness isn't deep wilderness anymore. There is no "land untrammelled by man," no escape from the impacts of civilization. Hell, most of our national forests are more like lumber reserves, or lands set aside for mining and especially grazing. "Land of Many Uses," goes the USNF slogan-- human use, that is. They haven't been set aside to be truly wild, but as resource banks and giant fun-parks for recreating humans. Heavily managed, they are not wild.

Worse than that, we've come to a point where we have to manage these lands. Fire programs are a good example. We spent so long trying to prevent fires in our national and state forests and national parks, that the ecosystems got all fucked up. Turns out that the North American continent, a vast "wilderness" to the first European settlers, was very much so managed by Native Americans. They set fires to run through the old growth forests, which have relatively low productivity in terms of big game animals, in order to encourage a patchwork effect of forest in all levels of succession, from open fields, to scrubby brush, to young forest, and back to old growth. Edge habitats are extremely productive. Same goes out on the prairies, which were pushed further east than aridity dictates.

Or think of species reintroductions. Wolves were hunted out of most of the US, surviving only in Minnesota until the protections of the Endangered Species Act allowed them to expand into parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, and a few down into Montana from Canada. Then the wolf reintroductions began in Yellowstone and Idaho in the late 90s, from which they have spread into Oregon. Which I'm all for, by the way. More predators, please.

But what this means is we are no longer in the position to maintain the idea of wilderness. What a blow for the conservation movement! If we don't use prescribed fires, if we put out every lightning fire, the natural vegetation and wildlife suffer, because they are adapted to wildfire, thanks to a history of long term human management. If we do set fires, and let natural ones run their course, then we are impacting supposed wildlands by taking an active role. If we leave the wolves extirpated from areas, the wild is not wild, because we have taken from it some of its constituents. If we reintroduce them, they are not there naturally, but only because we deign to put them there and suffer a wolf to live. It's the old problem of damned if you do, damned if you don't: inaction is still a form of action.

But really, I think that's okay. As I said before, humans are part of nature too, and the division between human and nature has been detrimental anyways. Time to move beyond such simplistic dualisms, which reach back to notions of a Fall from grace.

No one gets upset thinking about Indians burning the forest-- that is, managing it-- so why shouldn't we do the same? They were increasing biodiversity, a worthy goal, if somewhat self-serving. We can do the same; we can be as gardeners on this planet, rather than miners and pillagers. We are having an effect, so we might as well embrace it and do it right. Obviously this is already happening in the various agencies; when I worked in the Utah forests, they let several fires burn their course, and there was evidence of controlled burns in various places (including one that got wildly out of control, burning around 10 times the area planned).

Obviously, we shouldn't over do it, or we'll end up with bigger versions of urban parks, which is not what we need. If we can get beyond the notion of wilderness versus human world, we can see that the forests and mountains are just responding to us the same way they respond to weather, seasons, and the like. We're just a "new" influence upon them. Bill McKibben talked about this in his book "the End of Nature." It's been ages since I read it, but he details and decries the global impact we are having, saying Nature is no longer natural. But I don't think it really matters that that the land is managed, and it doesn't take away wildness to have global climate change and all the other problems. They remain problems, of course, but a tree doesn't know or care if the climate is altered naturally or by fossil fuel emissions. It's just going to grow how it must.

Not that this is to advocate turning the National Parks, the Forests, and any of our other wildlands into zoos or living museums, or worse, farms, like they already somewhat are, in terms of lumber and grazing, and even fishing, with stocked lakes and rivers. In the city, and even on the farm, by and large, the world is man-made, it is what matter looks like when first passed through the human mind. It is a land of ideas made material, it is a monarchy. Conversely, nature, wilderness, is what matter looks like on its own terms, in a democratic, communitarian way. We have to learn to manage with a light touch. Logging won't stop, nor grazing, but right now we're overdoing it, we are mining it, rather than using it.

I envision a world of responsible use, which takes into account not only human needs, but the needs of the ecosystem, giving legal standing to nature itself. There is a movement for this very thing, though I don't know how large or effective it's been thus far. Where we can see ourselves as a member of the world, not some distant overseer or landlord.

(I'd add Wikipedia links like I often do, but the site is being self-blocked to raise awareness over the SOPA and PIPA bills, and internet censorship in general. I may come back and add some later, but either way, if you're interested in learning more, go here: SOPA and PIPA)


  1. Lots of people like to say of Hawaii, it's pristine, which it isn't (very little native rainforwest left) and land management has been practiced for a long time, even pre-contact, although that land management system was surprisingly eco-friendly. The ahupua'a was a watershed-based land management unit that recognized the interdependence of activities like agriculture, fishing or hunting. You might like to know more about this concept:

  2. I've heard of that, vaguely, at least the part about it being watershed-based, and that it was ecologically minded. I'll look into the link, thanks