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Marble Mountain Wilderness in Northern California

Thoughts on Wilderness: Protecting a Sanctuary

Wilderness, the word itself is music. Edward Abbey states more eloquently than I our feelings about wilderness, a sanctuary that beckons me relentlessly. But what is wilderness? 

According to Merriam-Webster, wilderness is an area undisturbed by human activity. By that definition, there’s almost no true wilderness left in the lower 48 states. On the other hand, there are 765 designated National Wilderness Areas in the US states and territories. 

Federally-designated wilderness areas like Goat Rocks Wilderness are a glimpse of the grandeur of past times.

Federally-designated wilderness areas like Goat Rocks Wilderness are a glimpse of the grandeur of past times.

True wilderness is scarce, but I’m content to enjoy the remnants left behind as protected areas. There are some amazing wilderness areas scattered across the country that feel as remote and undisturbed as they must’ve a few centuries back. These are pristine and beautiful areas like Bob Marshall, Boundary Waters, Pemigewasset, and Ansel Adams wildernesses. A visit to one of these places will leave you feeling as if you’ve stepped back in time and entered a realm far from civilization, even though you might not be all that far off the grid.

Just as there are varying views on what wilderness is, there are differing views on how to manage it. Is a hands-off approach to management best, or should it be manipulated? Preservation or conservation? Conservation implies managing an area for sustainable use, whereas preservation is the idea of letting nature take its course. 

Oregon's Mt. Thielsen Wilderness has incredible scenery.

I tend to think of a preservationist approach. Leave wilderness be, don’t manage it for timber or mineral resources, and let things revert to how they once were. But this is an unrealistic, utopian ideal. To some extent, wilderness must be managed and used because we live in an expanding society with an above-average standard of living. Further, some ecosystems have been altered to the point where they would collapse were it not for human intervention. Even still, I am grateful to live in a country where natural areas that cannot be exploited are set aside for recreation. Because I recognize the inherent value of these places, I will always support their protection. 

When it comes to recreation in the wilderness, I have cognitive dissonance. Should these areas be open to the public or restricted? As the number of people hiking, camping, climbing, and kayaking increases, the potential for damage to our lands does as well. As a result, there are permits in place that restrict the number of visitors in areas like Zion National Park, Baxter State Park, and the John Muir Trail. In the future, more of these sensitive environments will have permit requirements. It’s inevitable, and as of now it seems like the best measure to allow access without further damage to the ecosystem. I’m glad to see more people enjoying the same things I do, but there are times when I can’t help but long for lonely trails unspoiled by crowds. 


One of the most remote wildernesses, Washington's Pasayten Wilderness offers respite from everyday life.

On top of permits, there’s the move to make natural spaces more accessible to everyone: roads through every mile of our national parks, cement pathways to views, hotels on site. I hate to visit a park and fight through crowds of people; I head to the wilderness to escape from that. Sometimes I come to a view and wish that everybody in the world could see it; other times I step out of the woods at a bustling mountaintop and want to be alone. 

The ongoing debate over our wilderness areas inevitably involves accessibility. Do we make roads instead of quiet backcountry trails and build hotels where primitive campsites once stood so that the beautiful areas are accessible to all? Or do we leave them accessible to only a few? Making national parks and forests a tourist attraction will degrade the wilderness and come with negative environmental impacts. But there are strings attached. If these areas are not accessible, then there will be no public support for preserving them. I love having to hike into an area to see jaw-dropping vistas, but why should I be the only one that gets to see that? Shouldn’t anyone that wants to but might not be capable of hiking be allowed to see the same view? And thus the debate rages on. 

Our treasured lands will have more public support and their future will be ensured if everyone enjoys them. After all, most of these wild spaces are public land, owned by each and every one of us. I’m not fully able to accept the consequences of that tradeoff yet. I want those natural areas to remain wilderness, but I also want them to last for future generations. Wilderness is a special thing; it’s a shame that there isn’t a better way to protect it than to open it up. 

My thoughts on wilderness are rambling and incoherent in the way of a glacial stream. I have a lot of opinions and unrealistic solutions for the problems inherent with public lands. Wilderness is a complicated subject, and my own opinions do nothing to make it simpler. All I can do is plan my next trip, get out there, and enjoy the wilderness that is left. I’m going to enjoy every moment in the mountains. If I have to share those mountaintop sunsets with a dozen other people, I’ll accept that consequence. Wilderness has a value that’s larger than me or the people I share it with, an intrinsic value that can’t be taken away by human hands. 

Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington protects one of America's most stunning landscapes.

Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington protects one of America’s most stunning landscapes.

by: Will Babb