My first encounter with a federally protected wilderness area came in the early 1980s. I was 23 and working for a conservation group in Washington, D.C., so I understood the concept. I even knew people who had dedicated their lives to trying to convince Congress to designate roadless chunks of the public domain as "wilderness," places where nature is allowed to run its course and humans are only guests.
But I had never been to one myself, until my friend Jim invited me on a back-packing trip in the Cranberry Wilderness, a newly designated area in the steep, rounded mountains of West Virginia.
The Cranberry was everything I dreamed a wilderness should be. The thick forests were filled with birdsong above and wild rhododendrons below; the solid trail we followed quickly dissolved into a tentative game path. For two days, we didn’t see another soul.
Until we got back to the car. Next to Jim’s yellow VW bug stood two scruffy-looking men in plaid jackets and muddy jeans, each with a booted foot up on the bumper of a pickup truck.
"What are you guys doing up here?" asked the one.
"We’ve just been hiking in the new wilderness area," said Jim.
"I heard about that," said the other. "But it’s not new. We’ve known this country all of our lives. Been through every holler."
"Want to see what we’ve got?" asked the first one, eager to get to some yet-to-be revealed business at hand.
I looked at the soiled blue tarp in the back of the truck. It bulged up in the middle. No, not really.
"Sure," said Jim.
The man reached under the tarp and pulled out a red fox pelt. It rippled like a wheat field in the cool spring breeze.
He then pulled a picture out of his wallet showing him and his buddy and what must have been 50 fox pelts tacked up on the side of a wooden porch "Whenever we don’t have work in the mine, we come up here and trap fox," said the buddy. "I sure hope they don’t send up a bunch of rangers here, now that it’s a wilderness."
I think about those men now and again, because they burst my romantic notion of pure wilderness. The land now called the Cranberry Wilderness has a human history embedded in its unruly folds, and the locals living there today are a natural extension of that history.
That might not seem surprising in the densely populated East, but it holds equally true for the wilderness areas in the West, which can seem so vast and untouched. Almost every time I hike into western Colorado’s West Elk Wilderness, I run into herds of cows. California’s Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe has become so undesolate that the Forest Service strictly regulates who can get in to keep its meadows and lakeshores from getting pummeled.
Does this mean that we should abandon the concept of wilderness? Absolutely not. Large protected areas, biologists have discovered, provide secure and rich refuges for our native flora and fauna. And wilderness still fills a fundamental human need in an overmechanized, overdeveloped world.
A poll conducted in January for the Campaign for America’s Wilderness, an advocacy group pushing for new wilderness legislation, showed that more than 6 in 10 Americans don’t believe enough wilderness has been permanently protected for future generations. But as this week’s cover story from HCN staffer Matt Jenkins reveals, the politics of getting wilderness legislation through Congress have never been more difficult.
All of the easy areas have already been designated, says wilderness veteran Doug Scott of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness. What remains, he says, are lower-elevation lands that are highly desirable to a lot of interests, from hikers and mountain bikers, to ORV enthusiasts and loggers.
Getting all of these interests to sit down and cut a deal can sometimes be ugly and unfruitful. But when it works, as it did recently in Nevada, it is a marvel of democracy. For the founders of the Wilderness Act made a wise decision back in 1964: They put Congress in charge of wilderness designation, not the executive branch.
That means we all have a seat at the table, should we choose to sit.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.