We need a new vision for the wild

  Dear HCN,

In his interesting piece on disputes about creating new wilderness areas, Jon Margolis dubs the William Cronon critique of the wilderness ethic post-modernist, meaning that it's mostly about an impressionistic appraisal of wildlands (HCN, 9/27/99).

Margolis misses the point here; Cronon's analysis is more substantive than that. The modern wilderness movement believes that wilderness exists apart from human presence, and that notion is built into the Wilderness Act of 1964. The act's roots are in the romantic notion of a pre-Columbian America unmarked by human hand. It's romantic because we know that pre-Columbian communal owners had been managing and manipulating their environment for millennia before Columbus arrived.

The original misunderstanding was a product of the devastating impact of Old World diseases the Europeans introduced here. The rapid spread of smallpox and other diseases wiped out entire tribes, creating a depopulated landscape. But human emptiness was a momentary condition. Taking a longer view, the Native Americans were here from the outset of the land's change from one dominated by the Ice Age.

There was never a time after the glaciers when the land and its wildlife evolved separately from human cultures. Of course, their impacts didn't have the immense impact of industrial civilization. But they did have an important impact, and for us to presume an absence of human influence on North American landscapes is so far from logical as to be fantastical.

With our wilderness ethic of nature apart from man we are attempting to create a condition for which there is no precedent in this geological era, on this continent. Fortunately, our attitudes are evolving. We now approve the burning of wilderness by lightning-set wildfires. But we need to go further. In pre-Columbian times, man-set fires were as natural as any other kind, and we may need to learn to burn with as much fervor as they did if we are to retain or regenerate healthy and wild land.

Regardless of how we finally come to use fire, we need to rethink the wilderness ethic. Scholars like William Cronon, who question the intellectual underpinning of the current wilderness ethic, are not paving the way for development but for more trenchant thought. Only a wilderness vision more realistic than the present one will stand the test of time.

William R. Dickinson

Tucson, Arizona

The writer is a professor emeritus of geology at the University of Arizona and a former president of the Geological Society of America.

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