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.
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.
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
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.
reached under the tarp and pulled out a red fox pelt. It rippled
like a wheat field in the cool spring breeze.
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
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
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
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
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
That means we all have a seat at the
table, should we choose to sit.