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The Wilderness Act At Age 44


Is the salvation of our natural souls tied to the preservation of wilderness? And if it is, must we actually travel into the wilderness to achieve its benefits, or is it simply enough to know wilderness exists? As the Wilderness Act turns 44, how much has it done to protect nature?

An ancillary question, of course, is whether only officially designated wilderness meets the bill, or whether de facto wilderness is just as beneficial a salve?

Enacted September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act (attached below) was written by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society. Its passage created the National Wilderness Preservation System to "assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

Congress's intentions certainly were good, but how successful where they? Forty-four years later we've set aside more than 106 million acres of officially designated wilderness. That sounds somewhat impressive, until you realize the United States spans 2,379,400,323.67 acres. Too, while 44 million of the 106 million wilderness acres are found within the borders of national parks, there are hundreds of thousands of more acres within the park system that meet wilderness qualities but which are not preserved officially as wilderness.

For instance, did you know that much of Yellowstone and Glacier national parks are not officially set aside wilderness?

Does it matter? After all, you can head into many of these places on foot and never seen sign of another human, or that of a man-made feature.

Technically, it matters quite a bit. For while there is quite a lot of national park landscape that arguably would qualify for wilderness designation, until that designation is bestowed by Congress these lands are open to development, to road building, and to off-road vehicle travel.

Just as the National Park Service Organic of 1916 directed the fledgling National Park Service to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations," the Wilderness Act looked to preserve "for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

Wilderness long has resonated with Americans. Initially, of course, it was seen as a dark and sinister place filled with heathens and wild beasts. So we moved to tame it, by taking down the forests and driving out the beasts as well as the natives. But there were some who saw in wilderness a sanctuary that couldn't be found anywhere else.

Henry David Thoreau once said that, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." To that Michael Frome adds, "that in the preservation of wild nature lies individual salvation. I don't mean in wildness alone, but in the conscious effort to preserve and perpetuate wildness, for nature and humankind, after all, are indivisible."

There do not seem to be enough, however, who share those thoughts, who insist that more wilderness in the United States be preserved before it's gone. For instance, the proposed Red Rock Wilderness Act, which would set aside some 9.5 million acres in Utah as official wilderness, has languished in Congress for 20 years.

Now, requests that national park landscapes be designated wilderness come from both Congress and the National Park Service. According to the agency, since 1978 it has recommended that nearly 135,000 acres in units of the National Park System be designated official wilderness (see attachment). Of course, such recommendations don't seem to garner much attention, certainly not as much as do those pushed by members of Congress.

Plus, politicians tend to be a tad more ambitious in scope. For instance, wilderness legislation currently being pushed by U.S. Sens. Ken Salazaar (D-Colo) and Wayne Allard (R-Colo) would designate nearly 250,000 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park as wilderness, or roughly double the entire acreage the National Park Service has been seeking for designation across 19 park units.

On this, the 44th birthday of the Wilderness Act, let's give thanks that it's around, and make a wish that it might accomplish more good before it's too late.


Nice essay, Kurt. Can anyone imagine such a visionary piece of legislation being passed in today's political
climate? Me memory's fadin', but I seem to recall from '60s Sierra Club Bulletins that top NPS brass lobbied
against inclusion as the Wilderness Act was being passed? An "increasing population", with it's
ever-increasing economic aspirations, may have to settle for whatever wild lands escape the frenzy,
designated or not. The best definition of 'real wilderness' I ever heard was 'a place with a very high
probability of your body never being found'.

"For while there is quite a lot of national park landscape that arguably would qualify for wilderness
designation, until that designation is bestowed by Congress these lands are open to development, to road
building, and to off-road vehicle travel."

Ed Abbey long ago characterized the NPS as divided into preservationist and development camps, varying in
relative strength from unit to unit. I think this is still a fair generalization today and a factor in the slow pace of wilderness designation. Even in NPS designated wilderness, the development faction is sometimes still fighting rear-guard actions.

A good example is Ted's beloved Olympic NP, where some major trails on the map were so seldom maintained by Park crews as to be functionally abandoned. At the same time, new high-standard frontcountry 'Nature Trails' were built almost every year for two decades. Olympic is arguably our finest 'real wilderness' south of Canada,
but man's urge to tame and 'improve' it has resulted in a trail inventory totaling over 11,000 manmade
structures, including several hundred bridges and at least eight miles of boardwalk. Five major trail bridges, costing almost a half million in the 1990's, were so poorly designed (in-house) that they were destroyed by snow within a very few years, while older bridges survived.

The Peninsula chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen has for many years been allowed to carry chainsaws and
firearms, for 'trail maintenance' and 'euthanasia of injured animals'. This management policy has resulted
in the Park purchasing quite a few dead horses. The real cause of death in many cases was falling off way
trails where horses had no business being. I guess ORV enthusiasts aren't the only ones who like to 'see what
this baby can do'. This 'upgrading' is just another form of wilderness development.

The local Park Association threatened to file suit over the replacement of damaged backcountry shelters with non-historic prefab designs. Olympic's Wilderness Management Plan has been written for over a decade, even copied, modified and approved by other NPS units, but has yet to be approved by Olympic Park management. I believe they were sued over the delay by The Wilderness Society, but they're still stalling.

It's amazing how the NPS gets away with whining about the humongous 'maintenance backlog' when much of the
list is actually desired development, and much of the real maintenance on it was deferred because the money
and labor resources were transferred to past development. But then, few NPS managers ever got promoted to
Hawaii or Virgin Islands for just taking care of what was already there at their current Park.

tahoma et al;

You raise several interesting particulars about Olympic Nat'l Park, in the context of Wilderness.

Let's consider those boardwalks first. Most boardwalks are in the vicinity of Ozette, at the north end of the Olympic Wilderness Coast. The name encompasses the largest lake on the Olympic Peninsula, the short river that empties it, the coastal Cape & beaches adjoining it ... and the Native Tribe (and Reservation) that lived there for thousands of years. (The last remaining families moved to the nearby Makah Reservation, and the Ozette Native sites are now unoccupied.)

The reason there are boardwalks in the Ozette area is that this is what we call a 'cedar swamp', so the ground is often too wet & mucky to make a reasonable trail. Some will object, "Then why put a trail there at all? Since it is Wilderness, why not just let it be Wilderness?".

Before this country was Wilderness ... before it was Park, the entire perimeter of Lake Ozette had been homesteaded. They built the first modern-style boardwalks. The surrounding forest was extensively but usually selectively logged. Indeed, much if not all of the Olympic Wilderness Coast strip was logged in the days before steam engines and heavy equipment. It was practical for ox-teams to skid large logs a short distance downhill to the beaches. Once on the beach, logs and other products could be towed or loaded on small ships and taken elsewhere for processing and marketing. Timber-stands further from the water were, in the early days, too hard to get to and it was not practical to move logs long distances overland.

So the coast-forests were extensively 'cherry-picked' (not usually clearcut, in the early days) - and cedar was extensively salvaged for roofing shakes (always, in fact, the most valuable component & biggest economy-driver in these coastal forests). Even easier than logs, obviously, cedar-blocks were brought down to the beaches, then loaded onto small ships. No roads serviced this rugged terrain.

And before the settlers, homesteaders and loggers, this Wilderness had been the core-home of accomplished cultures for millenia. And, they had modified it to suit their needs, extensively. The most conspicuous Native impact in this region, are the 'prairies', important examples of which the Ozette trails pass through. These are extensive fields or meadows, which the tribes kept clear by annual burning. See "Natural History of the Ozette Prairies". For those with a keen interest in Ozette & its issues, be sure to also collect this hard-to-read but provocative & fascinating "1895 Map of the Ozette Prairies"

This is far from "untrammeled" country. It is anything but a place "... where man
himself is a visitor who does not remain." These are the leading characteristics that define "wilderness" in the Wilderness Act. Man has made this place his home for thousands of years, and European settlers flocked here.

The Olympic Wilderness Coast is extremely picturesque, and it is easy to agree that it merits special status & protection. However, but for a brief tragedy that saw most of its owners die, then be bought out by timber companies, then bought out by the Park, it would be today as it has been for thousands of years: Prime human habitat, fully occupied and extensively trammeled.

The Wilderness Act has doubtlessly enabled the preservation of regions that might otherwise have fallen under on-going industrial development, and that is a good thing. However, the very foundation premises of the Act are often little more than romantic whimsies that defy fact & reality. However much incidental good it has done, no matter how ardently it might be embraced, as a policy statement & guide, the Act is flawed & weakened by both the way it was written, and the way it has been applied.

I am all for 80% solutions, realistic compromises, and incremental & step-wise progress. The Wilderness Act has largely lived up to my own personal standards - 'flexible' and 'desultory' though they often are. But as a formal document meant to serve as official government policy, it ought to be heavily rewritten, or replaced.

It is a delicious irony, that this Olympic Wilderness Coast is held up as a "jewel" among our Wilderness treasures, despite a profound human presence and the presumed depredations of a century & a half of logging & loggers. Both of which folks either ignore or are unaware.

See the lead image at The Last Wilderness: Lake Ozette, An Introduction for, clearly & paradoxically, plain photographic evidence of extensive logging right up to the edge of Lake Ozette - and on the side usually thought of as "Park". The fact that it has been logged does not impair anyone's enjoyment of this delightful country.

The facts & realities in the case of the deservedly famous Olympic Coast Strip plainly indicate that the natural values we all seek can, have & do coexist with humans & human activities. Humans and their enterprises do not necessarily 'sully' nature, and we do ourselves no favors to make such an assumption.

The Olympic Wilderness Coast stands as strong evidence that the Wilderness Act, its authors & many supporters have the underlying ideas & conditions significantly askew. It would do us good to reexamine what it is we are really after, and what kinds of requirements must be attached ... leaving aside those which encumber rather than clarify the goal.

The confusion & contradiction of Wilderness Act is dramatic, and that could impair the next incremental steps we might make to an even-better set of environmental & habitat policy-tools for tomorrow.

By accepting that humans & wilderness are not incompatible, we stand to benefit by the inclusion of regions in which it is not so easy as it is on the Olympic Coast to overlook the fact that trammeling & occupation by humans are part of many other none the less for wear & tear natural habitats.

Thanks for your comments, Ted. I especially agree that "...the very foundation premises of the [Wilderness]
Act are often little more than romantic whimsies that defy fact & reality. However much incidental good it
has done, no matter how ardently it might be embraced, as a policy statement & guide, the Act is flawed &
weakened by both the way it was written, and the way it has been applied." Wilderness managers do need
more flexible guidelines for our spectrum of 'wildernesses', but I fear that legislative attempts to improve the Act would probably result in even more flaws and weaknesses.

My main point was that there are those within the Park Service (and allies such as the Horsemen), that resist
the concept of wilderness, not that people, bridges, or boardwalks don't have a place there. At the other
end of the spectrum, purist preservationists also sometimes cause loss of respect for the NPS and the idea
of wilderness when they attempt to apply a 'pristine' standard in basically 'scenic drive' National Parks like Mount Rainier. For an example see Page 3, Reply #74, on a forum for NW backcountry skiers:

I suspect both our posts are pretty far from the discussion Kurt had in mind, but since you mention the
Ozette boardwalks, here's some additional facts to chew on. You're absolutely right about the prehistoric
and European use of the area. I'm pretty sure even the NPS was in the boardwalk business before the coastal
strip was designated as 'wilderness'. It probably made sense when the cedar for the boardwalk could be
"extensively but...selectively logged" from windblown trees adjacent to the trail. After 2-4 cycles of
replacement, this was no longer a viable option for most sections.

By the 1990's, all the cedar lumber for Ozette boardwalk maintenance and replacement was purchased from Canada and flown to the trail at great expense. The replacement cost at that time was about $60/linear foot; no doubt it's much higher now. Bear with me through a little arithmetic. Having 30,000 linear feet of boardwalk with an average service life of twenty years meant the Park had to replace an average of 1500 linear feet every year at a cost of $90,000. This was almost a third of the entire Olympic Park annual trail budget spent on about 2% of the maintained mileage. Many visitors, managers and staff loved the boardwalk and seemed unable to grasp that this was completely unsustainable. Talk about "romantic whimsies that defy fact & reality". In addition, the slimy, tilted, sometimes frosty sections resulted in about one litter evacuation (mostly broken legs) per week in the busy season.

I could make a similar analysis for the hundreds of bridges, but hopefully, I've made my point. Any given
wilderness (or 'frontcountry') development may make sense as a response to a particular situation. However, each ultimately adds to the overall maintenance load, even if fubars like poor design are avoided. If your favorite tool is a chainsaw, it's not surprising that you'll see most problems as having a carpentry solution.

I'm not totally opposed to National Park development, even in our finest wilderness, but it needs to be at a
sustainable level, whether we're talking trails or $103,000,000 museums. The usual NPS response to
questioning their policies and priorities is: 'we only have limited resources'. Well, almost all of us have limited
resources, but most of us live within our means, something the National Park Service has not yet learned to do.

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