Wilderness. It's where the wild things are. It's a place where the stress of everyday life in the "real" world can be swept away.
Since the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, nearly 109.5 million acres of America's landscape has been set aside as officially designated wilderness. These are places left to be "untrammeled" by humans, where natural processes are supposed to reign supreme. Most of these places, though, are hard to reach for most travelers, as all but 2.5 percent of official U.S. wilderness is found in Alaska, according to the National Park Service. That found in the lower 48, or coterminous, states, is salted here and there across the landscape.
Official wilderness areas in the United States range in size from as few as 6 acres at Pelican Island near North Beach, Florida, to more than 9 million acres in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. In the lower 48, the largest contiguous expanse of wilderness can be found in Idaho, where the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Gospel Hump Wilderness comprise more than 2.5 million acres.
Do we need more wilderness? That question can easily elicit a range of answers, from a resounding "Yes!" from those who believe there's a human need for an unfettered connection to wild lands, one that you don't necessarily need to experience to appreciate, to a determined "No!" from those who find the constraints that come with official wilderness designation -- no mechanized travel, whether your definition of that is a four-wheeler or a mountain bike, usually no livestock grazing, mining, or logging -- too onerous.
Of late there's been quite a bit of chatter about wilderness. President Obama designated September as National Wilderness Month, proponents of a Maine North Woods National Park and Preserve have said there's a need for officially designated wilderness in the Northeast, and the superintendent of Glacier National Park last week called for official wilderness designation for much of his park.
While it is true that much of the rugged, backcountry landscapes that can be found in the National Park System are managed as wilderness, that's a big difference from being officially designated as wilderness. The National Park Service points that out on its web pages, noting that "the wild, undeveloped areas of national parks (often called backcountry) are subject to development, road building, and off-road mechanized vehicular use. National park backcountry is protected only by administrative regulations that agency officials can change. The Wilderness Act protects designated wilderness areas by law 'for the permanent good of the whole people.' With the Wilderness Act, Congress secures 'for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.'
Jon Jarvis, the recently confirmed director of the National Park Service, agrees there's a need for more wilderness in the National Park System.
“I’m a big proponent and supporter of wilderness designation in national parks. I think it raises our standards, it sets the very highest of land protection within national parks as well," he told the Traveler last week. "I was early in my career very active in helping draft the legislation and drawing the boundaries for North Cascades (National Park) when the Washington parks wilderness bill was passed in 1988, designating wilderness in (Mount) Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades. I also rewrote the original 1970s wilderness proposal at Crater Lake when I was the park biologist there.
“So some of these things (national park wilderness designations) have just languished for many years. I have a deep and abiding affection for wilderness, not only wilderness designation, but wilderness management as well," added the director. "And I think sometimes we expend too much of our energy on the designation and not enough on the management side of wilderness as well. It is going to be an area of emphasis of mine as director.”
Some no doubt would be surprised to learn that Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park, has no officially designated wilderness. Or that while Glacier's superintendent, Chas Cartwright, was just talking about the need for official wilderness in his backyard, he pointed out that it was back when President Nixon occupied the White House that the park's managers were first asked to compile maps for use in setting aside official wilderness in the park.
Designating wilderness is not easily done. That's evidenced not only by the long-running chapter in Glacier but also in Utah, where the Red Rocks Wilderness Act has been circulated (some would say languishing) in Congress since the late 1980s. The problem, of course, is that without congressional support, wilderness does not gain official designation. As a result, it can take many conversations, and much time, to reach consensus on such designations.
“I think it varies from state to state. We’ve been very successful here in California with wilderness designations," Director Jarvis said. "I think we can be successful in the Northwest pretty easily. Tougher in some other parts of the country. It's just a matter of developing the relationship and working with the delegations regardless of their party affiliations. In general, they like parks. That’s certainly been my experience. I’ve worked in the arid West, I’ve worked in Alaska. I've found that part of the solution is just sitting down earlier, getting out the maps and talking about what they want to protect. Just talking about their own personal experiences in many of these places as well.”
Bonus coverage: For more facts and information on official wilderness, check out these sites: