Managing the Wild Back into the Wilderness


I am a wilderness outlaw. I worry more about meeting a wilderness ranger than about encountering a grizzly bear or an avalanche. I avoid ranger stations. I seldom seek advice about an area I intend to explore. I almost never obtain wilderness permits or file travel itineraries. I frequently leave the trails. I camp in places most people avoid: mountain tops, passes, river gravel bars and thickets along creeks.

In today’s highly managed wildernesses, I am a fugitive. I don’t enjoy being one, but I cannot, in good conscience, abide by the rules that govern many designated wilderness areas. To me, these rules destroy the very essence of what constitutes wilderness.

Land management agencies are increasingly turning to direct management techniques such as permits, time limitations and itineraries, all of which run contrary to the freedom, self-determination and risk associated with genuinely wild places. Such regulation is analogous to channelizing a free-flowing river for use as a concrete irrigation canal. Traveling such “wilderness canals” may allow visitors to view the scenery, but the quality of the personal experience is diminished. Direct regulation eliminates the rapids, straightens the curves, smooths out the flow and destroys unpredictability and self-discovery associated with genuine wilderness travel.

I am not alone in my objections to heavy-handed control of individual freedom. In an article on mandatory wilderness permits, Behan called such action the beginning of a “police state wilderness.” At least a small percentage of users do not bother to obtain the permits required in some wilderness areas. Lucas cautions that apparent visitor acceptance of a permit system may be a false indicator of success because some visitors, like myself, may avoid areas with restrictive regulations. However, the trend toward use of direct management techniques continues to gain acceptance.

Use of backcountry areas has increased rapidly during the past 20 years, while the actual physical amount of roadless, wild country has decreased. The number of float trips down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon exemplifies the increased use problem. In 1952, only 19 people floated the Grand Canyon segment of the Colorado. By 1962, this number had increased to 372. Just ten years later, more than 16,000 people ran the Colorado.

Many agencies implemented highly restrictive wilderness use regulations to control the influx of wilderness users. For example, it is not legal to hike any California wilderness area without a permit. But those regulations are not limited to areas close to large population centers. Many Alaskan wilderness parks now require backcountry permits. Denali National Park not only requires permits but specifies where hikers can go and for how long.

Leitch wrote a vision of backpacking in the year 2078, in which wilderness reservations are required, visitor use is monitored by satellite, and potential users must pass a wilderness skills test before they are allowed to begin a backpack trip. The unfortunate aspect of Leitch’s article is that many of his predictions are becoming reality. Reservations are already required in some national parks and wilderness areas. And individuals who want to climb Denali (Mt. McKinley) must submit to a check of equipment and experience level and pass other Park Service requirements before a permit is issued to climb the mountain.

The use of designated campsites and other direct management techniques is popular among agencies because they work. They definitely influence the amount and location of use. Nevertheless, I believe they pose a genuine threat to the underlying philosophical essence of wilderness. Wilderness is more than a scenic place to hike. Limiting it to this role degrades wilderness from the truly challenging and self-exploratory experience it should be. McAvoy and Dustin suggest that wilderness users have an essential right to the chance of risk or danger. Self-direction and personal responsibility are also underlying philosophical elements of wilderness.

Bob Marshall, one of the early creators of the wilderness ideal, wrote, ”As long as we prize individuality and competence, it is imperative to provide the opportunity for complete self-sufficiency.” Another early wilderness supporter, Aldo Leopold. eloquently expressed this same philosophy in an essay about canoeing on Wisconsin’s Flambeau River:

The elemental simplicities of wilderness travel were thrills not only because of their novelty, but because they represented complete freedom to make mistakes. The wilderness gave them their first taste of those rewards and penalties for wise and foolish acts which every woodsman faces daily, but against which civilization has built a thousand buffers.

The problem remains how to preserve these philosophical elements of wilderness. To do so, I believe we must analyze those factors that contributed to the dramatic increase in wilderness use and then determine which can be altered to better preserve the actual wildness of these areas. Factors often cited include a heightened awareness of the environment, rising personal affluence and time for recreation and an interest in our wilderness heritage. Although these may partially explain the increase in wilderness use, technological innovations have probably brought about much of the increase because they facilitate access.

Technology can be defined as a road that allows access to a remote valley or a bridge over a formerly inaccessible river. Other less broadly defined terms such as freeze-dried food and nylon tents have made wilderness travel easier and more accessible to more and more people. Generally, this has been a positive trend. Wilderness needs support and people are more likely to support a new park or fight to keep a roadless area undeveloped if they are familiar with it.

Nevertheless, technology has modified or made trivial the land’s natural barriers, which used to limit human travel and impact. Roads and trails have diminished what used to be perceived as great distances. Because of guns and traps, people often no longer avoid areas inhabited by dangerous wildlife such as grizzly bears. Guide books, signs and topography maps have made getting lost unlikely. Even when individuals are injured or lose their way, some government agency will usually rescue them — thus protecting them from themselves.

“Development” of the Colorado River again provides an example of a wilderness management problem directly related to increased accessibility. In 1869, John Wesley Powell floated a wooden dory down the river. He was the first person to explore the deep canyons of the lower river where it flows through present-day Grand Canyon National Park. The Colorado’s giant rapids severely tested Powell and his men, but with luck, skill and determination, they got through. For the next half century, few duplicated Powell’s feat. The rapids protected the canyon.

Shortly after World War Two, rubber rafts came into common use. Army surplus rafts were ideal river crafts: Flexible, virtually unsinkable and very forgiving of someone with limited river running skills, rafts gave even relatively inexperienced people a good chance of surviving a river trip. Even the huge rapids of the Colorado could no longer discourage human use. In essence, the. rubber rafts made rapids smaller, safer and hence predictable. More and more people began to float the river, and literally thousands now run it each year. Beaches became garbage dumps, human waste became a smelly problem in the more popular campsites, and too many people took away a measure of the adventure.

Technology has made the running of the Colorado little more than an outdoor roller coaster ride. Rafters hold onto the bucking raft through the fast water, then frequently get drunk as an outboard motor speeds them through the ”boring” quiet sections toward the next set of rapids. The Colorado is now less a sacred, wild place than an outdoor version of Disneyland. Floating the river no longer requires skill, determination or real desire.

In response to growing use of the river, the Park Service began a permit system to limit all river use to 15,000 people a year. Permits work. They limit use on rivers and in the parks and wilderness areas where they are used. But there is another way to both reduce use and maintain the integrity of the land’s wildness.

I suggest that the way to manage the wild back into wilderness is limit the technology which has mitigate the natural elements of the land that made it rugged, inhospitable and inaccessible in the first place. With limited technology, the land once again becomes the selective agent. Rugged topography, giant rapids, harsh climate, vast distances and other characteristics of the natural landscape can be thought of as predators. Like a wolf pack helps regulate a deer herd, these natural features help regulate human use.

Roads that provide access to wild country also help overcome any sense of distance and difficulty. Trails that cut through dense vegetation enhance speed of travel and eliminate another potential check on human numbers. But if we pull out a bridge, some people may choose to tum back rather than ford a stream. If we close an access road, fewer people might choose to walk the extra miles to a particular destination. Ultimately, each wilderness traveler would have to decide whether the eventual destination is worth the effort. In a sense, each person would then earn the degree of solitude and adventure they desire.

The technology to be limited would depend on both the nature of the land itself and an evaluation of management goals. In the case of the Colorado, prohibition of rubber rafts would decrease use of the river and increase the quality of the wilderness experience for those people with enough skill and determination to run the Colorado in kayaks or wooden dories. Human skill and motivation would be substitutes for the technology that overcomes such limitations. The river becomes the regulatory agent.

I propose limiting technology to forms that existed 200 years ago [from 1986]. By using this criteria, we preserve primitive skills and primitive landscapes. Thus, airplanes, snowmobiles, rubber rafts, mountain bikes and outboard motors may be prohibited, while modern equivalents of ancient technology would be acceptable. These could include canoes, kayaks, dogsleds, skis, backpacks and tents. Modern materials such as nylon, fiberglass and aluminum could be allowed in construction of these tools because their basic design — and hence the skill needed to use them — would remain the same.

Such limitations would no doubt bring forth howls of protest from rafters, cyclists, hikers and people accustomed to flying into remote wilderness areas in Alaska and the lower 48 states. It would discriminate against some present wilderness users. But wilderness does not exist merely for the sake of human recreational use. It serves a philosophical and psychological use. It is part of what author Wallace Stegner eloquently called the “geography of hope.” The very idea that there are rivers with rapids so huge that few people, without the help of special technology, will be able to run them is important. Just as helicopter flights to Mt. Everest’s summit would destroy some sense of human accomplishment, the use of rafts dims the adventure and skill to run that river in a kayak or dory. But I would gain in knowing that the Colorado is still a wild place where few people venture.

The very act of creating designated wilderness discriminates against some people. Those who feel they can experience a wild place only from a car or motorcycle are already legally prohibited from wilderness areas. Wilderness designation also already limits some forms of technology, and the limitation or prohibition of rafts, airplanes and other technological innovations is merely an extension of the principle.

Technological limitations are needed only where the goal is restriction of visitor use. Thus, it would be foolish to completely prohibit rubber rafts. Rafts are appropriate on streams where overuse is not a problem or where protection of wilderness values is not a priority. Most rivers fit into these categories.

But at least some of our wilderness areas should remain a challenge to even the most seasoned and experienced travelers. These areas would be similar to ski areas where some slopes are rated for experts only. It would be foolish to bulldoze a mountain to make it gentle, safe and accessible to all skiers; by doing so, we lose the quality of the summit.

We will be losing a great deal if we make all wilderness equally available to all people. Reinhold Messner, the first person to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen tanks, exemplifies this attitude:

I want to experience the mountain as it is, and truly understand how my own body and psyche relate to its natural forces. By using an artificial oxygen supply, I feel I would no longer be climbing the mountain towering aver me. I would simply be bringing its summit down to me.

My prescription will not work in every wilderness area. Many designated wilderness areas are simply too small to limit use, even if access and travel were made more difficult. Some types of topography, such as the narrow canyons in the Southwest, funnel use into a very small area. Permits and designated campsites may be the only reasonable alternatives in such places. But they should be the last alternative. In many areas, impact and overuse are limited to specific sites. Managers could then use permits for those sites, rather than implementing a permit system for the entire park or wilderness area.

But even use of such “sacrifice” areas could be discouraged by eliminating trails, bridges, signs and guidebooks. Dangerous wildlife species such as wolves and bears could then be reintroduced into areas where they once freely roamed. Such policies could reduce human use and heighten the quality of the experience for those who chose to explore these areas.

Another minor benefit of letting the land select who can or cannot experience a particular wilderness is the reduced administrative cost. A recently implemented backcountry use plan for the Grand Canyon requires computerized reservations and a $10 fee to cover the costs of the permit system. As more wilderness managers opt for computer-controlled reservations and lotteries, we can expect more and higher administrative fees. In addition, if rangers are freed from the ever-increasing amount of time needed for paperwork, they can spend more time in the field, educating users instead of regulating them.

There are precedents for technological restrictions in other forms of outdoor recreation. Heavy fishing pressure on some rivers has decreased the size of fish and the quality of the fishing experience. One management technique used to improve the quality of the experience and reduce fishing pressure is to restrict an area to flyfishing only. Fewer people have the desire or skill t0 flyfish, thus decreasing fishing pressure and improving the quality of the experience for those who do. This is an alternative to a permit system with a quota limitation.

I believe we can recreate a dwindling resource which is every bit as endangered as the black-footed ferret or the California condor — the resource of wildness. In the end we would gain greater self-determination, self-discovery and the satisfaction of knowing that there are still areas and experiences that challenge the highest levels of human skill and courage. We begin by managing the wild back into wilderness.

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