I was interested in the views of William Cronon, and his defender, William R. Dickinson, that we need a new vision of wilderness that takes into account the effects humans had on the North American environment in the pre-Columbian period (HCN, 12/6/99).
These views are also similar to those of Prof. Charles Kay at Utah State University, who stresses the large effects earlier peoples had in areas that are now officially designated as wilderness or are managed for naturalness, such as the northern range of Yellowstone National Park.
I must disagree with them. We do not know the degree by which the aboriginal population was reduced by European diseases. We don't know what the impacts of earlier humans were, and so we cannot restore these environments, even if we were to try.
If their population was large, and they degraded their environment, we certainly have no obligation to restore that. It is true that pre-Columbian America was different than the authors of the Wilderness Act imagined. That's interesting, but it is not relevant. The purpose of wilderness, as defined by the Wilderness Act, remains valid in my set of values. Those with another set of values ought not disguise them. Their anthropology has no bearing on the issue except inasmuch as it is useful as a rhetorical weapon against wilderness.