The Wilderness Act at 50: In 2014, what makes a place wild?


In December 1960, the iconic Western author Wallace Stegner wrote a letter to a University of California, Berkeley researcher in support of what would become the Wilderness Act. Wilderness is important, he wrote, because it “was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there – important, that is, simply as an idea.”

Stegner’s eloquent urging helped pass the Wilderness Act four years later. The act defines “wilderness” as an area 5,000 acres or more that retains its primeval character, provides opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation, and where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Since 1964, the feds have created more than 750 wilderness areas and designated over 100 million acres of federal land as wilderness (see here for more wilderness facts).

2014 will mark the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary. To get a sense of public perception of wilderness today, as well as current management challenges, HCN spoke with Dr. Troy Hall, professor and head of the department of conservation social sciences at University of Idaho. Hall spent 13 years as a wilderness ranger in Oregon while she pursued advanced degrees in anthropology and forest resources, focusing on management and visitor experience of wilderness. She’s currently helping Yosemite National Park assess how visitors are using its wilderness areas.

Dr. Troy Hall, professor and head of the department of conservation social sciences at University of Idaho.

High Country News Tell us about the context in which the Wilderness Act was passed. What was going on in America at the time?

Troy Hall The automobile has taken off. We have big initiatives putting highways all over the country. We’ve got increasing population. We have affluence after the war. We have major extractive uses of forests, together with some big development projects like dams that really galvanized environmental activists. The writers of the Wilderness Act were concerned we’d lose these unique opportunities that were dependent on wild places.

HCN The Act seems difficult to manage for because it is a bit vague. How have land managers coped with that challenge?

TH The Wilderness Act says we should maintain wildernesses in an essentially pristine way, but that we should also manage them to be untrammeled, to be wild. Well, a lot of folks say those things are incompatible. Fire is a good example. We’ve been suppressing fires and people describe fuel accumulations as unnatural, so to “restore” (to natural conditions) requires active management. The one I wrestle with is solitude. In a really heavily used wilderness, you might say we are not providing opportunities for solitude. How can we do that? You could limit use like they do on (Idaho’s) Selway River, where they allow one launch a day. But that’s confining.

HCN You’ve extensively studied visitor attitudes towards crowding. How much does it bother people to see lots of other hikers in the wilderness?

TH People are really adaptable. Even where they run into a lot of people they often will say, “it was busy on the trail but when I got to a lake I could find a beautiful area where I was by myself.” We often hear people say, “sure, would I like it better if there were more solitude, but I don’t really want to accept the trade offs that would entail. I’d rather run into a few people than (have use limits or a permit lottery).”

HCN How does technology impact solitude and primitive and unconfined experiences provided for by the Wilderness Act?

TH It clearly reduces self-reliance and challenge. If you know that you can push a button on some device and somebody will come find you, that is a very different experience from hiking seven days where you told somebody the day you’re leaving and if you don’t show up we’ll start looking for you. But GPS also allows people to get to places where traditionally they haven’t gone. If you feel comfortable you can navigate by GPS to some remote meadow and spend a few days by yourself, potentially you could have more solitude.

HCN Here at HCN we’ve been thinking a lot about diversity and how to make national parks relevant to America’s growing minority populations. I assume wilderness areas face that same challenge?

TH The majority of people who visit wilderness tend to be upper-middle class, white, and male to a certain extent. But some of the national surveys that have been done suggest that wilderness and things like watershed protection, clean air and wildlife habitat are extremely well-supported across demographic groups in society. So even demographic groups that don’t visit wilderness tend to place very high value on it.

HCN What challenges do you see on the horizon for wilderness areas?

TH The challenges we face moving forward are on a different scale all together. What does climate change mean in terms of managing wilderness? What do you do when a major species drops out of the ecosystem? Should we allow that to happen? There are some huge challenges that can’t be dealt with on a wilderness-by-wilderness basis. We may need some fundamental re-thinking about the role of wildernesses in connecting different ecosystems.

Interview conducted and edited by HCN correspondent Emily Guerin. She Tweets at @guerinemily. Photo courtesy Troy Hall.