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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27 Comments
  • Caroline Ailanthus
    Posted at 16:51h, 02 March Reply

    Like most things, this one depends on definition. If wilderness is “that which has not been influenced by human beings ever,” then wilderness probably stopped existing long before 1821 (I doubt that was the first time a human being set foot on Antarctica, for one thing). But is that a useful definition? What is so special about humans that our presence or absence gets to define “wilderness”? We’re hardly the only animal with an ecological impact!

  • Guy Jones
    Posted at 16:53h, 02 March Reply

    The idea of wilderness (with a lower-case w) is not new. Ever since humans transitioned from a paleolithic way of life to a neolithic way of life, we have seen ourselves as separated from wilderness in an ever-increasing way. Yet not all of humanity has made that transition. There are isolated pockets in which paleolithic cultures still survive. I would argue that those remaining paleolithic cultures view the plants and animals around them both as co-inhabitants of the landscape and as valuable, delicate resources. The idea of Wilderness (with a capital W) came about because modern-day humans (not all, but many) do not view themselves as co-inhabitants nor do they view natural resources as delicate or valuable, at least not beyond the dollar value, and a legal designation of Wilderness was they only thing they would recognize. The idea of “untrammeled” wilderness might serve to protect pockets of pristine or nearly-pristine wilderness, or it might serve to further separate people from the greater-than-human world by limiting their opportunities to experience it firsthand. Another twist in the discussion is the question of global climate change and the alteration (slight though it may by) of the very atmosphere. If humanity changes such basic abiotic ecosystem factors as temperature, precipitation, and atmospheric composition is anywhere within earth’s atmosphere untrammeled? Don’t let the resource extraction industry get a hold of that idea though, because they’d probably use it as justification to do away with Wilderness altogether!

  • Chelsey Woods
    Posted at 23:57h, 02 March Reply

    I believe there is wilderness still left in America, although it be a very small area. Fortunately, there are areas people cannot explore unless they are determined and have a true passion for virgin nature. I personally love seeing places that seem untouched…it gives me an idea of what this country looked like before man commercialized it. It’s a true shame people have lost the attraction to natural beauty.

  • Caroline Ailanthus
    Posted at 00:00h, 03 March Reply

    Actually, I suspect that what we mean when we say “wilderness” is something else, something that most of us assume only exists where human influence is minimal or absent. And perhaps that assumption is wrong. The question then becomes what is wilderness?

  • Thomas Sawyer
    Posted at 12:48h, 03 March Reply

    By the definition given, maybe a “true” wilderness does not exist that many of us are immediately aware of. Unfortunately, so many of us cannot see, touch, feel, smell, or otherwise experience what lies beyond the world of our own existence, thereby making an accurate response all the more difficult and inconclusive. I’m sure there are places in the world which do qualify-some perhaps in Alaska, among other global locations. But the spirit of what we try to preserve as wilderness can best be defined by nothing more than the cessation of man’s worldly influence’s surrounding the never-ending advancement of cities, technologies, and populations into lands and regions that are left as natural, as our current world allows.

  • Dennis Williamson
    Posted at 19:13h, 03 March Reply

    Candice – A thought provoking piece, thanks. Different cultures like to think anywhere they have not previously seen or settled are uncivilised wildernesses, open for the taking (e.g. when the British colonised Australia, they declared it ‘Terra Nullus’ despite the evidence of Aboriginal settlement and occupation since shown to have existed from 40,000 to 60,000 years BP). So it might be possible that American sealer really wasn’t the first person to have set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula in 1821. But more importantly, I don’t believe that “Wilderness” is no longer wilderness just because someone has been there before us or even lived in such areas for periods of time. Firstly, “untrammelled” does not mean “untraveled”, but I think that it does mean “untrampled” by humans. Trammelled means subject to restrictions or being shackled or constrained in where and how one might go (of course timber and mining companies might possibly see Wilderness areas as being restricted to their uses). “Wilderness” means a place that stands out or apart from other areas of the world (e.g. Headland or promontory) in which it exhibits the qualities and conditions of being “wilder” than those places around it. I think Wilderness should be places where natural features and processes overwhelmingly predominate over any past or present uses, disturbances or interferences. After years as a Visual Resource specialist, geographer and landscape architect/planner, I find that most landscapes that look natural, wild and ecologically healthy very often are – or at least much more so than other areas. However, we also need objective and independent scientific ecological measurements and assessments of “Wilderness” so that we can monitor and maintain “Wilderness Areas” in the context of absolute wilderness, not just relative wilderness. Otherwise the quality and integrity of our wilder nesses are very likely to diminish over time, possibly to the point of being little more than regional or city parklands. Eric Higgs has written eloquently about the phenomenon of the “Disney-fication” of Americans’ and the World’s perceptions of “Wilderness” and the commodification of “Wilderness” as a concept through such tourism destinations as Disney Corps.’ “Wilderness Lodge” in Florida. He also writes about the successive Canadian Indian occupation and later white European settlement of the Jasper National Park area and how that area has undergone a series of natural and cultural changes, but remains regarded largely as “Wilderness” by most who travel there. Higgs covers these topics, as well as the practice of Landscape Restoration and “Re-wilding”, in his 2003 book Nature by Design (http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/nature-design). Elsewhere, I see a recent discussion about creating “Urban Wilderness” parks and experiences – a further extension of the diminution of “Wilderness” as a concept by a new urbanised generation raised on the Disney view and anthropomorphism of our natural world. Google may be another example of such diminution – but that’s another conversation, along with both the spiritual and biblical concepts of “Wilderness”.

  • Eli Rose
    Posted at 19:15h, 03 March Reply

    If wilderness means an absence of human influence…I’d say it’s long gone (with the mixing of gasses it was probably gone long before 1821). On the other hand, if we don’t even perceive the nature and interactions of the microbe communities on our skin, I am content recognizing that as a wilderness. In my eyes, federally designated Wilderness Areas serve many functions, the most important of which are probably ecological. I would argue that another important function is their capacity to inspire wonder. The sense of something to be explored.

  • Alan E.M.R. Wittbecker
    Posted at 19:17h, 03 March Reply

    Some debates over some definitions become tiresome when they continue for generations. The important reason for setting aside wild areas remains the same: Wilderness areas are necessary for human-intolerant species to thrive (and 50-75% of the planet should be designated so). But, we have learned to anthropomorphize this idea also by arguing that we need wilderness areas for ‘ecosystem services’ to make up for our stunted agricultural and urban ecosystems.

  • Maria Amélia Martins-Loução
    Posted at 19:19h, 03 March Reply

    I don’t think so. Because of this I call the “almost” natural wilderness and the true ones pristine habitats.

  • Boris B
    Posted at 19:34h, 03 March Reply

    Wilderness is purely a anthroprocentric perception. Are humans not wild?

    A good point made earlier however was that maybe making this seperation allows other species to survive.

  • Paul Strome
    Posted at 16:56h, 04 March Reply

    The perception of “Wilderness” determines it’s existence or not. “Wilderness” is not a myth if your perception is that it is a living, breathing entity that is there for: the enjoyment; the exploration; the journey; the discovery; the challenge, or the taking in. The concept of “Wilderness” is what is critical because it exists for the majority of people on the planet.

  • Beverley Shann
    Posted at 16:58h, 04 March Reply

    I’m not sure. When we seek out new wilderness’s as soon as we set foot upon them we have corrupted them in some way. Even ones that have been identified via remote sensing methods have probably been corrupted due to pollutants carried via air, sea and water bodies. Also via the food chain and animal/bird migration ( i.e. The North Pole). None the less, this shouldn’t stop us from trying to create areas of biodiversity containing a mosaic of ecological niches, to ensure species diversity, aready adapted to the current state of the ecosphere, and offering resistance to those various threats. Monocultures and lack of genetic diversity are extremely vunerable to extinction in the face of natural/manmade enviromental assault. That said the ecosphere is a living changing entity and all the time there is genetic and species diversity, able to adapt change and surive, we are one step closer to preventing mass extinction of species.

  • Brian Bastarache
    Posted at 17:00h, 04 March Reply

    Thank you for posting. The definition of wilderness is a very interesting question. I was happy to see that the author discussed “management” by native peoples. The first people to enter North America had a tremendous and devastating affect on the continent. (See the works of Paul Marting.) Evidence suggest that the exterminated many large herbivores which kicked off trophic cascades that rippled through the ecosystems from the Yukon to Patagonia.

    I am still not sure how to define wilderness, but I am happy that we are protecting it or at least the next closest things left.

  • Vimmi Deshpande
    Posted at 17:01h, 04 March Reply

    Yes Candice i believe wilderness places still exists without human habitation. There are several unexplored places in India which have absolutely no human habitation . The sunderbans as you go in deeper have a unique mystery attached to it and it gets really dangerous beyond a certain point to explore the place. Himalayas are another example , though there are lot of hikers and adventure seeking tourists , some sections are yet unexplored due to extreme weather conditions. Our earth is like a beautiful woman- mysterious and unexplored.

  • Chris Clyde
    Posted at 22:49h, 04 March Reply

    What a thoughtful and thought provoking piece. Wonderful work!!

  • Manuel (Alberto) Medina
    Posted at 15:01h, 06 March Reply

    In The Eye Of The Beholder!!!!

  • Rachel Gibeault
    Posted at 19:02h, 06 March Reply

    It seems that many states are grappling with the concept of wilderness and what it can accomplish for their state. I live and love Idaho whose total population is less than some major cities. We have many wonderful wilderness areas and we are trying to create more. However, the current state lawmakers are trying to take these areas away from being federally owned and managed to being state owned and managed (http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/legislation/2015/SCR108.pdf). In theory it works. In actuality it hasn’t been vetted as that great of an idea (http://www.idahoconservation.org/blog/wilderness-on-the-chopping-block). Dennis, in his commentary, wrote it well that our definitions of wilderness vary from person to person and that the very concept has turned into semantics. What would it take for wilderness to remain just that? Would it be different in each state?

  • Leif Lende
    Posted at 12:09h, 07 March Reply

    Wilderness, as areas free of human culture, are actually distincted in some countries, but exist i a few, like Norway. The interesting thing to observe, is when wilderness i distincted, our perception of the terms nature and natural changes. In Denmark people relate to and perceive cultural landscapes, formed by centuries of farming and forestry, as nature. Whilst in Norway it is something else, wildernes, or remains of it. So the representation of nature changes and manifests in different ways, in different environments and countries.

  • Wally Elton
    Posted at 11:54h, 09 March Reply

    No more of a myth than it ever was. Small “w” wilderness is in the mind of the beholder. For me, there is indeed wilderness out there (though not enough). We always have pretty much ignored the fact that there were people living here before Europeans arrived, and that they did modify the land. And in the east, particularly, people have left their marks should about everywhere. But the Wilderness Act has never required that big “W” Wilderness be untouched by humans, just that it be untrammeled. That basically means uncontrolled, not unaffected. Sadly, some mainstream conservation groups today seem more than willing to ignore or undermine the letter and spirit of the Act in order to get more designations. Wilderness Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity are exceptions. Even the federal agencies charged with protecting Wilderness often bend/break the law for their own convenience. A high standard should be maintained for designated Wilderness; if we want something else, call it something else. Otherwise we risk losing both “w” and “W” through ongoing erosion.

  • Alan Thomas Weir
    Posted at 15:54h, 09 March Reply

    In the guiding industry, the term “perceived wilderness” is a word used to describe environments that are determined by the distance they are from support or aid. When a situation occurs where aid is needed there are steps that are used to contact support (i.e Spot devices, GPS, SAT phones, predetermined phone Logs to closest junctions, and evac points. The term “wilderness” is used loosely as it describes an area where aid is close to impossible if not possible at all. The fact that we head into the “wilderness” with technology, and premeditated plans for emergency recovery makes the term wilderness into a perceived context. It is only the client that might truly believe they are experiencing a wilderness context. This perceived wilderness, just like perceived risk , is utilized in businesses that offer adventure travel. It is not uncommon for the client to believe they are experience risk, when in reality they are experiencing a suitably safe activity. Adventure sport has been around for centuries and there are pre – meditated plans built up from years of assessing data to mitigate these risks that are perceived as risk. When these theories are in place, they do a great job at making adventure travel a reasonably safe activity, like whitewater rafting!

  • Victoria Marie Lees
    Posted at 16:25h, 10 March Reply

    A virtual visit can never compare with actually being in the splendor of wilderness, the freshness, the exhilaration of the hike, the smells, the sounds. Perhaps the google maps can entice would-be adventurers to take an exploration into the untrammeled wilds of the world. Wilderness, like many present-day terms, will need to be redefined to include a place of sanctuary for many creatures, including man. Thanks for sharing this, Candice.

  • Peter Aniello
    Posted at 18:04h, 10 March Reply

    Wilderness is where you are not at the top of the food chain. HD will never replace that.

  • Todd Winter
    Posted at 18:07h, 10 March Reply

    In the Pacific Northwest I think you will find true wilderness. Many places untouched for decades.

  • Thomas Sawyer
    Posted at 18:08h, 10 March Reply

    At least, so we think………..

  • Thomas Gyalokay
    Posted at 18:11h, 11 March Reply

    Interesting to discuss a case, that challenge our definitions of “Nature”. Books have been written about that subject. Like Leif Lende wrote Denmark has a pattern of cultural landskabes of which danes define some as naturesites (i.ex. forests). It indicates that time and amount of human impact are important in our definition. In this thinking I find the definition of wilderness suggested by Daniel Williamson, who commented on the blog, appropriate: “I think Wilderness should be places where natural features and processes overwhelmingly predominate over any past or present uses, disturbances or interferences”. I will suggest that we look at “Nature” as a pattern of ASPECTS of selfgrown, ecological processes, original physical parameters and ressources etc AND aspects of human impact. (cultural aspects). In an area left alone, natureaspects will over time predominate more and more over cultural aspects (but you might always be apple to point out impact of airpollution or climatechanges). In the context of outdoor learning it is interesting to discuss with pupils or participants the history of the area – what could be seen as cultural aspects and what are natural aspects. The definition allows us furthermore to discuss if parks in cities or rural areas should have more natural aspects. Thus wilderness is near the end of a continuum between natureaspects and cultureaspects. What do you think of that?

  • Leif Lende
    Posted at 18:12h, 11 March Reply

    I agree to that as a practical stand Thomas G. But since I study how peoples views of nature are represented and different perspectives of that, I tend to not be political, but empirical. If wildernis is but a myth? I’d say its very real to some people. Some fear it, some love it, some live with it, and some long for it and dream fof it. We all got some kind of representation of it, vage or concrete. Maybe even the most urbanized people? The more actual question now, is how to live with nature, without destroying it. We are urbanized, but got new wolves in the nabourhood. How do we react? They are not yet a big threat, because theres enough to eat for them, and we hardly got any sheep farmers left. Can we live with nature? Or does it have to be domnesticated for us to adapt?

  • John Sanders
    Posted at 21:00h, 23 May Reply

    Wilderness as a concept first began in the mid 1800’s when men like John Muir and Madison Grant and others began romanticizing about the vast so-called uninhabited regions of our country; which of course had been home tot Native Americans for thousands of years. In fact, establishing these so-called nature preserves (National Parks) required the forced removal of many native inhabitants. who considered these places as ancestral homelands.

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