This post was written by Chad Dawson and published in the April 2005 issue of the International Journal of Wilderness. The full April 2005 issues, as well as full issues from 1995-2007 are available for free download in the IJW Archives.
Whether you take a quick or a thorough review of the history of the human species on this planet, you may arrive at the observation that as humans we seem almost incapable of just letting wilderness be wilderness. We seem to have a nearly insatiable need to “improve” and manipulate everything in our environment. The field of human genetics might suggest that this drive to manage our environment has been genetically selected to ensure that we survive, thrive, and prosper as a species. Some might argue that our “successes” at manipulating the environment might also be sowing the seeds of our own environmental self-destruction.
So how do we change that which is so thoroughly embedded in humans as individuals and in our societies? Although some have mused about making wilderness sacrosanct or a sacred place in a religious sense to create a social agreement to protect wilderness areas, the most successful social experiment to date has been to use legislation that protects those special remnants of wild places and ecosystems. After accomplishing this legislative protection in some countries of the world, the designated land management agencies are left with the task of continuing to hold off the human tendency to incrementally want to “improve” or use what they rationalize as “just some small part of the wilderness.” Such proposals generally argue that these activities have little or no measurable or significant impact (e.g., allowing mountain bike use or commercialized tourism use, collecting fossils for research, permitting cattle grazing). Multiple counterarguments can be made, including the cumulative impacts of such activities, the apparent and real conflicts in use, and others.
The worrisome factor is that, in spite of the legislation, humans will still go on being humans and will attempt to manipulate and use wilderness resources. This tendency and warning to managers was mentioned even by early wilderness preservationists. For example, Howard Zahniser in his essay Wilderness Forever tells us to be prepared to keep our support of wilderness in perpetuity, like the wilderness itself: “We are not slowing down a force that inevitably will destroy all the wilderness there is. We are generating another force, never to be wholly spent, that, renewed generation after generation, will be always effective in preserving wilderness” (in W. Schwartz, ed., Voices for the Wilderness, New York: Ballantine Books, 1969, 106).
In this issue of IJW, Michael Frome outlines a strong and personal case for a wilderness challenge to keep wilderness protection foremost in all designation and legislation discussions about wilderness and to avoid the compromises that can creep into political processes. The concept of environmental stewardship as a national agenda includes wilderness preservation, according to Frome, and he advocates for greater public awareness of the wilderness concept. Cristina Mittermeier articulates the value of photography in making the public aware of conservation and preservation issues. Her argument that powerful photographic imagery saved some areas in Tasmania can be echoed in the United States if one recalls the use of photography by well-known wilderness advocates such as Ansel Adams and David Brower. The use of powerful images can generate public awareness at both the conscious and subconscious levels—a kind of inner inspiration that will “elicit concern and emotion that can direct human behavior,” according to Mittermeier.