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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.