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New Book Explores Evolution of "Wilderness" In National Parks

Author : John C. Miles
Published : 2009-07-06

When Stephen Mather and Horace Albright went about piecing together the initial elements of the National Park System, there was no understanding of officially designated wilderness. But Albright, primarily, had an intention for wilderness in the parks just the same.

As the two went about organizing the National Park Service around Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Sequoia and the other Western icons that were the foundation of the agency, Albright understood and envisioned the need for “wildness” in the parks.

“As for the natural features of the parks, I stated that only the outstanding ones, which were the prime reasons for creation of a park, would be considered for development,” Albright said while looking back in a book published in 1999, Creating the National Park Service. “The remainder, usually seventy-five percent or more of the total, were to be preserved as wilderness areas.”

The great Western parks long were viewed synonymously with “wilderness” notes John C. Miles, a professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University, in a new book that tracks the evolution of the concept of “wilderness” and its role in national parks.

Wilderness in National Parks, Playground or Preserve “traces how the national park system began and what role the idea of wilderness played in that early stage,” the professor explains in this book’s introduction. “It follows the development of the idea of the national park and seeks to explain how, in the early stages, the ideas of park and wilderness were separate and then converged, at least in the minds of some park advocates.”

The book’s arrival in July was certainly well-timed. While nearly one million additional acres of officially designated wilderness came into being in the National Park System back in March with passage of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, including nearly 250,000 acres in Rocky Mountain National Park alone, much more protection needs to be extended in places such as Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, neither of which has any federally-designated wilderness.

In spite of Albright’s best intentions, there are surprising gaps in wilderness protection across the 84-plus million acres of the National Park System . None exists in Grand Canyon, Voyageurs, Canyonlands, or even Great Smoky Mountains, nor in Grand Teton, Big Bend (although a proposal is in the works there), or Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore.

At a time when urban growth and development are lapping over more and more of the country, the need to preserve primitive wilderness is more vital today than it was a century ago due to the diminishing acreage available for such designation. In the parks, without official wilderness designation, there technically is nothing to prevent decisions to blade roads or to build lodges or marinas in their backcounty.

Professor Miles' book describes and analyzes the early steps the National Park Service took towards wilderness designation, and the conflicts that arose along the way. He notes the seeming irony of building roads to provide access to the exquisite grandeur of such places as Yosemite Valley, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake and Glacier. Access was needed, the agency’s founders maintained, to both show off these places and convince the visitors of the need for their protection.

“At the cost of loss of the wild in some portion of the parks, the wild in the rest would be protected,” writes Professor Miles.

The professor also shines an interesting light on the early 20th century rivalry that evolved between the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service over landscape preservation.

Under Gifford Pinchot, its first chief, the Forest Service followed a multiple-use approach towards resource consumption. The agency even opposed creation of the National Park Service, fearing the fledgling agency would seize some of its lands to create parks. (Indeed, one example of that happening came in 1933 when Olympic National Park was hewn from national forest lands known as Olympic National Monument.)

But in 1929, leaders of the Forest Service began development of a wilderness policy. Flimsy as it was in that it would not “withdraw timber, forage or water resources from industrial use,” the policy didn’t go unnoticed at the Park Service, where some were pushing for a more visible approach to resource protection, notes the professor.

“The Forest Service actions on the wilderness front are brought into the national park wilderness story here because the interplay between the two agencies affected development of Park Service wilderness policy. From the moment the Forest Service accepted, however reluctantly, the idea that it had some responsibility to preserve portions of its domain as wilderness, it laid a challenge before its rival,” writes Professor Miles.

Just as there are conflicts today over wilderness and the role of national parks in preserving natural resources, there were conflicts and philosophical debates decades ago over what exactly constituted “wilderness” and how the Park Service should manage it. One illustration of this debate highlighted by Professor Miles was the concern Joseph Grinnell, a prominent biologist at the University of California in the early 1900s, expressed over Park Service management in Yosemite National Park.

“Grinnell became increasingly critical of what he perceived as too much emphasis on recreation at the expense of Yosemite’s wildlife,” writes Professor Miles. “He thought park officials were catering to the needs and desires of visitors and concessions at the expense of other park values. Events were being staged that were simply entertainment rather than contributions to education or appreciation of the park.”

This book also touches on how wilderness should be explored. Aldo Leopold, notes Professor Miles, “extolled ‘primitive modes of travel and subsistence’ as essential to wilderness experience.” While the Park Service didn’t necessarily disagree with Leopold, the professor notes that it took passage of The Wilderness Act in 1964 to force the agency to adhere to wilderness preservation.

Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall conceived of wilderness similarly but added the idea that such land would serve a particular recreational approach -- primitive travel on foot or horseback without modern amenities.

The Park Service had recognized these ideas and catered to them to some extent, but it was also engaged in what came to be called 'industrial tourism.' It would protect the wilderness as long as it could -- most Park Service people thought (and hoped) that would be a long time, perhaps forever in some places -- but if the public demand grew so as to require development even of remote places, it wished to be free to exercise its professional judgment on how that development might be done.

The Wilderness Act defined the purpose of wilderness preservation in a more clear and restrictive way. It established ‘a national policy of maintaining a system of areas where natural processes could operate as freely as possible. Recreational use was an appropriate use of these areas only so long as it was consistent with this purpose.’ This policy should pose no problems for the Park Service, which had for so long claimed to be protecting nature in its parks, but it would continue to have difficulty as it attempted to comply with the act.

Wilderness in the National Parks is a valuable aid to understanding the Park Service’s approach to identifying and managing wilderness in the system, and a worthy addition to any park or wilderness advocate's bookshelf.


"In spite of Albright’s best intentions, there are surprising gaps in wilderness protection across the 84-plus million acres of the National Park System . None exists in Grand Canyon, Voyageurs, Canyonlands, or even Great Smoky Mountains, nor in Grand Teton, Big Bend (although a proposal is in the works there), or Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore."

Just because lands have not been designated Wilderness (capital W) by the federal government, does not mean that they are not protected as wilderness or that they do not exist as wilderness.

Statements like the one quoted above are misleading because they imply to the lay person that these lands are in some sort of peril, as if developers and amusement park creators are revving up their bulldozers as we speak. The vast majority of Grand Canyon land is currently managed as wilderness. Therefor there is no "surprising gaps in wilderness protection" at this park.

You're absolutely right, HH, that most of these lands are "managed" as wilderness. But that doesn't mean they have the protections of officially designated wilderness, not by a longshot. There's a very big difference.

I disagree with you that there is that much difference.

I worked at the Grand Canyon and watched a few NPS leaders waste time and energy justifying why the rangers' protective firearms (kept hidden away in their backpacks) and rescue helicopters on life-saving missions should be banned from proposed wilderness areas. It was like these folks had to create threats because there weren't any. At the Grand Canyon at least, any threats that are there won't be solved by Wilderness designation.

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