Is “Wilderness” Today Just a Myth?

Snowy mountains

02 Mar Is “Wilderness” Today Just a Myth?

Snowy mountains

Despite the naming of new ones, do any true wilderness areas remain in the world? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Recently, on February 19, 2015, President Obama signed an executive order declaring 22,000 acres in central Colorado as the Brown’s Canyon National Monument and Wilderness. Supporters and friends of Brown’s Canyon describe the place as one filled with peaceful riparian corridors, stunning granite outcroppings, fantastical rock spires, rare subalpine grasslands and upland forests replete with Douglas firs, ponderosa pines and Rocky Mountain bristlecone pines.

For those of us who don’t live anywhere near Brown’s Canyon, it’s easy to applaud this new national monument and wilderness creation. Now, one more parcel of land is saved from development, fracking, mining and other human intrusions. Here, at least, we can say with a sigh of relief, is a bit of backcountry where bighorn sheep, black bears, bobcats, elk, mountain lions, peregrine falcons and other wildlife can find a safe haven in a natural setting.

But some area Colorado ranchers now worry that their grazing and water rights won’t be upheld. Obviously, the pristine “wilderness” that most of us who have never been to Brown’s Canyon picture in our minds is in reality a land that has already been heavily used by humans. In fact, Brown’s Canyon has been a home for Homo sapiens for more than 10,000 years.

In light of this, it could be argued that it is naïve to think that there are any, true wildernesses left; that such a notion is an antiquated idea, a myth.

Is it? Or is wilderness more than just an absence of human influence?

What is really wild?

For some, “wilderness” means a place where animals, such as elk, can find a safe haven. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness in the following way:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Given this definition, then, even though we may not regularly populate a place now, if it has a history of human habitation, can it truthfully and rightfully be called a wilderness when people move away?

Any fan of Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea knows about John Muir’s tireless fight in the 1870s to keep his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley a wilderness, free from a dam. But Hetch Hetchy had been managed by California Indians long before Muir or any other Euro-American ever set eyes on it.

In our own times, if Google has anything to say about it, more and more of what we may have previously thought of as wilderness will be “trammeled by man”—or men and women with big cameras. Google is currently working on building the world’s most comprehensive map. To do this, the company is employing hundreds of “Trekkers” from around the world to film previously little-seen landscapes. A Trekker, who may have experience working on a trail management crew, at a tourism bureau or at a university, wears a 40-pound backpack version of the cameras Google uses on its Street-View vehicles.

Soon, will any place be free of Google’s—and thus our own—eyes?

Finding a new definition for what’s wild

It might be tempting to blame Google for taking away the world’s secret, wild places; leaving no corner of the planet untouched, no stone unturned. On the other hand, perhaps being able to see the world by way of Google map will make traveling to such places less compelling because it’s cheaper and faster to go there virtually. Many people who would have traveled to a place may scratch that itch with an HD journey. Wildernesses will stay untrammeled.

Now the site of a huge dam, John Muir’s “wild” Hetch Hetchy Valley has had a long history of human management. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In the end, maybe wilderness is just a wild-looking place that we can gaze upon, when city life becomes too much, a place to rest the eyes. In what later would come to be known as the “Wilderness Letter,” environmentalist and book author Wallace Stegner wrote:

“We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds—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 10 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. … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

What’s the best definition of wilderness you’ve ever come across? Does true wilderness still exist?

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,

Candy

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Candice Gaukel Andrews
A multiple award-winning and five-time book author and writer specializing in environmental issues and nature-exploration topics, Candice Gaukel Andrews has traveled around the world—from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica and from Greenland’s coasts to Patagonia’s steppes—searching for and telling the stories that express the essence of a place. To read her articles and see samples of her nature photography, visit her website at www.candiceandrews.com and like her Nature Traveler Facebook page at www.facebook.com/naturetraveler.
Candice Gaukel Andrews

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