The complexity of Harvey Manning

The wilderness champion tried to find a middle course between pristine preservation and getting more boots (and votes) on trails.
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A classic Harvey Manning book, "Walking the Beach to Bellingham"

The wilderness champion tried to find a middle course between pristine preservation and getting more boots (and votes) on trails.

Editor's note: The following thoughtful letter arrived from Paul Manning, son of Harvey Manning, who was for many years a leading advocate of wilderness protection in the Northwest. Paul Manning is taking issue with the characterization of his father as an advocate of "wilderness celibacy," which was in the blog item by Pete Jackson a few days ago, called "Climate change comes to our National Parks."

I actually have no complaint about the substance of the article. The argument is sound, and the dilemmas very real. My complaint is that you attribute a very simplistic view of the wilderness to my late father, and I would respectfully like to set the record straight.

You attribute a kind of "wilderness celibacy" to my father, and it is true, anyone who is honest will have to admit to themselves that this is the unachievable ideal, because it is the very definition of "wilderness": true wilderness, by definition of what we mean when we say "wild," would be the sort of thing that the moment humans go there, would cease to exist. So, anyone who wants to protect wilderness will have that sort of idea lurking at the back of their head, because otherwise they really don't know what the word means, in English, it seems to me.

But this is an unachievable daydream, a utopia. But utopias are very necessary for practical politics, too. Daydreams which help create real changes. But humans are ambivalent, and my father no less so. Any political program must be divided into its utopian moment, the ideal case which you cannot achieve, but which serves as the measurement of the practical program, what you can achieve. Call it a negotiating position.

The position of [historian] William Cronon is in fact my father's position; it formed the raison d'etre of writing trail guides as a form of political action. He always said that every new hiker that was brought into the mountains by his trail guides was a potential voter. Boots on trails leads to votes in the polling box. Every last stage of his writing was aimed at this goal, to bring them into the wilderness, starting with edge wildernesses, with day hikers and campers, to places where they could see the true wilderness from afar, and then get them in deeper and deeper.

It is true, as more hikers hit the wilderness, the other ideal, of saving the wilderness from those who love it too much, becomes a goal that all who love the wilderness must regretfully embrace. The practical way to do this, my father argued, was to provide alternative wildernesses, closer to home, to diffuse the impact away from those, like Mount Rainier, that were being loved too much.

It's not like it is possible to set up straw men who embrace either position completely, because this ambivalence is the only intellectual honest position. The other two positions [Pete Jackson} sets up are both half right, and therefore all wrong. If I had to ask which was worse as a position, I would have to conclude that they are both worse.

If you want to see this ambivalent, and to my mind, deeply honest struggle of a man who committed his life to steering between these two mutually contradictory, and yet equally valid, positions, see the documentary recently made about my father's thinking about wilderness "The Irate Birdwatcher," for news about which see this website..

While [Jackson's] article is useful and valuable, it sets up straw man oppositions which are too narrow to capture the real ambivalence of my father's thinking, and I would submit, anyone's thinking who has confronted the fact that with respect to the wilderness, we have met the enemy, he is us. We who love the wilderness are also those who are most dangerous to it. That's just being honest. Anyone who has been in the wilderness would admit that there is no sense that wilderness, as wilderness, is improved by human presence. The human presence there is what produces votes here that help protect it to some extent, so there is a trade off. But let's face it, if we were all to die tomorrow it wouldn't need our protection anymore. That's pretty straightforward home truth. After all, we are the agents of global warming.

The real problem is that we can no longer accept a paradigm of wilderness that it can be protected locally, with parks and wilderness areas. I think your article draws attention to that, and it is an important thing, which is that wilderness conservation needs to be part of a broad, global environmental program that includes pristine wilderness and the most sullied of all possible cityscapes, as part of a single thing we need to protect, Earth.


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