Wilderness redefined

Wild Sky in Washington's Cascades is just one of a number of areas designated for protection that are not, in the strictest sense, primeval environment. But they are wild, and in modern times they're worth preserving, say environmentalists — even if unprecedented compromise is necessary.
Crosscut archive image.
Wild Sky in Washington's Cascades is just one of a number of areas designated for protection that are not, in the strictest sense, primeval environment. But they are wild, and in modern times they're worth preserving, say environmentalists — even if unprecedented compromise is necessary.

There is a new wilderness in the West. Not just Wild Sky, the newly designated 106,000 acres of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest that are tucked next to the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, by the South Fork of the Skykomish River and the headwaters of the Sultan River. While Wild Sky's new status is a spectacular accomplishment through an act of Congress this year, it is even more interesting as an example of a new notion of wilderness, of land that is not primeval, not untouched. This new kind of wilderness defies the 1964 Wilderness Act, encompassing areas that are altered by man or even are man-made.

Within Wild Sky's boundaries are foothills covered in second- and even third-growth Douglas firs, hills which had been logging parcels and fed mills in nearby Monroe, Index, Sultan, and Skykomish. Until the official wilderness designation, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles challenged many of the hills. They will still. Advocates for Wild Sky carefully drew boundaries that permitted off-road vehicles to use favorite areas. Within Wild Sky, the imprint of our hands is substantially noticeable. But it is still wild.

New wilderness is about two things unimaginable to wilderness advocates decades ago: It is about wild acreage, not primeval land. And its protection cannot happen without collaboration with people who normally are foes of environmentalists.

Throughout the West, this new ethic is bearing fruit. Late in May, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon proposed an Oregon Badlands wilderness, 30,000 acres of desert shrub land east of Bend, Ore. Nearby residents could not stop shaking their heads in agreement that the wilderness designation would help the economy. A few years ago, such agreement would be unimaginable. Grazers, recreationists, and wilderness advocates would be arguing with each other.

In Idaho, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, responding to Ketchum and Sun Valley constituents, hopes to protect areas of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains. He put together a coalition of wilderness advocates, mountain bikers, off-road-vehicle users, local governments, and sheep and cattle grazers, resulting in the writing of a proposed Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act. CIEDRA would create the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness Area and cede lands to the town of Stanley for affordable housing; it would provide recreation areas for mountain bikers and off road vehicles; and it would confirm grazing allotments for sheep and cattle ranchers. While the legislation has stalled several times, it is significant that a number of interests which generally oppose each other on wilderness designation agree that this compromise can work.

Wild Sky, too, is a designated wilderness because there were significant compromises.

Similar collaborations are happening in Montana, where the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership seeks to designate eight separate parcels in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest as wilderness. The partnership was developed between strong wilderness advocates and several logging companies.

And, of course, there is Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert's proposal to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington to include the Pratt River drainage and acres of previously logged foothill forests.

The idea of a broader concept of wilderness came, perhaps, from academia. In the mid-1990s environmental historians such as William Cronon suggested that wilderness was not biological but rather a figment of our imaginations. Cronon wrote that from James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo to John Muir's rhapsodic writings about his beloved Yosemite, the primeval natural wild was more in our collective minds than on the landscape. Cooper's characters and Muir's poetic essays were representations of a collective national imagination.

This idea that wilderness was not "real" in some biological sense caused enormous discord among wilderness advocates. Part of their sales pitch had been that they were saving something. If the something didn't exist except in our imaginations, how could The Wilderness Society or Washington Wilderness Coalition protect it? And while this idea of wilderness as part of a collective imagination was not necessarily new, the fact it came from a "friend" of wilderness – Cronon was, at the time, a board member of The Wilderness Society – made it even more controversial.

What Cronon was saying is that because wilderness is part of us, within our collective imaginations, the idea of wilderness is actually greater than lines on maps, or ice and rock in distant mountains. While the legal definition of wilderness, codified in the Wilderness Act, sought to protect lands which were "untrammeled by man," wilderness to Cronon was much more than places where we tried to convince ourselves no one had ever "worked" the land. Wilderness, Cronon argued, could be found anywhere and everywhere.

After the initial shock to Cronon's theory, it seemed to seep, without fanfare, into wilderness advocates' discourse.

In Seattle, Discovery Park, a truly man-made landscape – a former Navy facility – is described by the Friends of Discovery Park as an urban wilderness. Robert Kennedy Jr. recently described an abandoned reservoir in the Bronx as wilderness. Neither area would meet a biological definition of wilderness. Even Seattle Public Utilities claims Seattle's drinking water comes from "high in the wilderness" when actually our watersheds are former logging lands.

Wilderness advocates came to realize that new designations of wilderness would never happen unless relationships with opponents evolved. In the two decades since the previous wilderness designations, mountain biking became wildly popular, and the use of off-road vehicles increased. Cattle and sheep grazers have felt attacked, and gateway communities like Index, Wash., have struggled as their economies have transitioned from resource extraction to recreation. Unfurling topographical maps on large tables and drawing lines, hoping to give large acres of lands wilderness designation, was not going to succeed. No politician wanted to offend so many constituencies.

The advocates for Wild Sky probably feel the many years it took to win the designation was a lifetime. Actually, they achieved their goal rather quickly, primarily because they could show U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Rick Larson that they were willing to compromise with vocal critics of the wilderness. While former U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo of California was a temporary roadblock – insisting that wilderness had to be untrammeled by man – the legislation for Wild Sky ultimately gained enormous bipartisan support. Support derived, in part, because of compromises made.

The new wildernesses may increase ecological awareness by enabling land that has been logged, grazed, or used by off-roaders to become restored, providing laboratories for understanding. These lands allow us to understand wild as part of us, rather than lines on a map.

Technology will, of course, continue to force us to examine our ideas of wilderness. Global positioning systems, cell and satellite phones, private helicopters, increasingly beefy mountain bikes, and quieter snowmobiles and ATVs all have constituencies that want access to the forests, mountains, and streams, just as would the lone hiker acting on his inner John Muir. While the one argument to designate wilderness has always been to protect landscapes from development, in reality wilderness designations limit unfettered access. Conflicts over use will continue, and it is up to those seeking to create new wilderness boundaries to use their imaginations. The idea of wilderness is within each of us. For wilderness advocates, Wild Sky can be a trail map showing the way to other new wilderness areas.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors