Wilderness: Antidote For Society’s Mid Life Crisis

A recent editorial in the New York Times by Christopher Solomon (7-5-14) suggested that America’s Wilderness System  on its 50th birthday was facing a “midlife crisis” as he called it. Solomon suggested that the basic premise of the 1964 Wilderness Act—that we can maintain and protect wild country by leaving it alone–is questionable in an era of climate change and other human-caused intrusions.  What Soloman and others collectively argue is that humans have no choice but to manage the wilderness and by extension the entire planet.

But what Solomon’s perspective demonstrates is a mid-life crisis for human society. In an era of global climate change, species extinction, rapid biodiversity losses, and the conversion of more and more of the Earth’s surface to human ends, wilderness preservation is the antidote to our hubris.  It can remind us of where we have come from, and it may hold the secrets to where we will be.

The spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the goal of wilderness preservation is to allow natural processes to operate to the greatest degree possible without human interference. It is a statement of self-restraint.  It is an act of both love and self-discipline. A willingness to accept that we do not know all the mysteries of the universe and that some places should remain primarily under natural influences is central to the philosophical values incorporated by the Wilderness Act.

The Wilderness Act is an insurance policy for humanity as well as nature. The Act specifically says that its goal is: “to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.”

Wilderness designation is an act of humility and self-restraint–an acknowledgement that we need to maintain and protect natural processes and landscapes. This is not about protecting “pristine” lands as some critics of wilderness and wildlands protection sometimes pose as a strawman. Given the global influence of humanity it is difficult to argue that any place on the Earth is entirely untouched by the human footprint.

However, lack of pristine does not necessarily mean these wildlands are under human control. There are degrees of human influence. The wilds of Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge are decidedly under less human manipulation than the city streets of New York or Los Angeles.

Ultimately what we are saving by leaving wild places alone and self-willed is a piece of our national patrimony. These wildlands are part of our Nation’s heritage, and ultimately part of a global heritage that we are entrusted to preserve.

What we are trying to preserve with Wilderness designation is more than a landscape. We are ultimately preserving a sense of humility and awe in the face of the natural world. Wilderness preservation means accepting the idea that human cleverness has limits.

Given the temptation to tamper and “improve” upon nature, we need the Wilderness Act more than ever. By accepting and preserving lands (seas) where we purposefully and respectfully minimize our collective footprint on at least a portion of the Earth, thus preserve the spiritual and ethical foundation for global conservation.

We cannot improve upon Nature; we can only recognize its integrity.



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  1. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Thank you, and well said. We need a lot more humility in this world.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Christopher Solomon writes in the NYT, “We now know that, thanks to climate change, we’ve left no place unmolested and inadvertently put our fingerprints on even the most unpeopled corners of the planet.”
    “We need to rethink the Wilderness Act. We need to toss out the “hands-off” philosophy that has guided our stewardship for 50 years. We must replace it with a more nuanced, flexible approach — including a willingness to put our hands on America’s wildest places more, not less, if we’re going to help them to adapt and thrive in the diminished future we’ve thrust upon them.”

    I say that some human activities outside of the Wilderness or to the environment in which a Wilderness is located — such as climate change — have always been non-local human “fingerprints.” This is nothing new and does not, and did not, require a hands-on philosophy.

    For example, 2000 years ago pollution from Roman lead workings affected the forests (now gone for other reasons) of all of Europe. This pollution had more than a local impact long before the Wilderness Act was thought of or there was concern about climate change.

    When people advocate a “hands on” approach to Wilderness, they rarely are, as Christopher Solomon suggests, meaning let us plant heat resistant trees. A quick glance tells me they are thinking more about “hands on” to construct something like a tar sands pit.

    Wilderness will change with the climate, but we need places that will change without a multitude of other human changes on top of the changing climate.

    I would estimate that 70% of the Frank Church Wilderness has burned since 1980, and I think this is greater than the background level of natural wildfires. Thus burn, however, does not mean we should go in an log the burned trees or plant new ones, genetically modified pine perhaps, that are fire resistant.

  3. Scott Slocum Avatar

    This is a good response to a good editorial; unfortunately, both the editorial and the response alternately exaggerate or fail to anticipate potential problems of action or inaction in protecting wilderness.

    It’s also good to compare the editorial to the reader’s responses. For example, while the editorial praised the tree-thinning and mulching project at the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, one of the commenters who had been there hiking described it as “looking like a bomb went off, with tree stumps and pieces of wood strewn everywhere.” Another described a trout-stream enhancement that unfortunately rendered the stream less recognizable to trout looking for their home stream. Another pointed out how human-controlled burns, sometimes viewed as intrusions on wilderness, have for ages shaped what we see as wilderness.

    Obviously, there are dangers in “helping” wilderness, and there are dangers in leaving it alone. Concerning the problem of “helping,” it seems to me that, once people are allowed to enter with their civil-engineering and forestry projects, their nuisance-animal removals, etc., they tend to do all sorts of dangerous things, and then they tend to neglect to acknowledge the negative impacts they might have had.

    Last winter, many of us were shocked to see that it’s possible in our current political and legal system–with the Wilderness Act intact–for a state fish & game agency to launch an assault into Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to eradicate wolf packs, it seems to me that it would be better to err on the side of leaving wilderness alone rather than opening up any additional allowances for special interests to undertake what they insist (but don’t have to prove) are “improvements.”

    If we had authentic scientific leadership in government, it would be a different matter. Then I’d say, let’s examine those ideas for civil engineering, forestry, habitat, and wildlife management; and let’s do the good ones. But as things are, I say no, it’s better to leave wilderness alone.

  4. Karen DeBraal Avatar
    Karen DeBraal

    Such thoughtful words from all of the above writers. So rarely does our meddling do much good. Yes, we are a part of nature, but a confused and damaging part. Once in a while our antics can bring in some healing — I am thinking black-footed ferrets, California condors, and the good works of intelligent groups working to rehabilitate damaged areas with sensitivity and care. And the two above mentioned efforts have been rife with all sorts of challenges, as it all is. Glad to read these needed discussions.

  5. Ken Watts Avatar
    Ken Watts

    I sure am glad that we meddled in “human health” and eradicated polio. It is possible to do good.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Ken Watts,

      The question of human management of wilderness areas has no relationship to the advance of medicine and public health measures to improve human health.

      1. Ken Watts Avatar
        Ken Watts

        There is a relationship, if we can save Bighorn Sheep from extinction from disease, should we do it in a wilderness area. I think yes. We can do good.

        1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
          Ralph Maughan

          Ken Watts,

          Yes! Because domestic sheep are the cause of the bighorn’s distress, and because domestic sheep are only in the wilderness due to a political deal, removing the domestic sheep is right, imperative.

          My reply has the same logic as WM’s below.

      2. Mike M Avatar
        Mike M

        On viruses, management, self-interest, and the impropriety of analogies:

        It appears that high saturations of human populations utilising wild species (& thus habitat) may lead to increased disease evolving adaptation to humans. Ebola virus is one such case:
        The virus has jumped to humans from wild species. In our species the disease is far more virulent, and due to population increases, the most recent outbreak affects more than did previous ones.

        Polio was/is a “crowd” disease, just as so many influenzas and others are. They require certain population intensities in order to exist.
        It is fecal-oral transmission, and misuse and infection through waterways is the source. (It does still seem to exist in Pakistan, and possibly Nigeria, two areas of overpopulation.)

        Most wildernesses has been designated in the upper parts of watersheds, leaving unprotected much of the Earth’s vital diversity; permanent protection protects those watersheds from being sources of infection of human communicable disease.

        Thus the value of difficult-access wilderness is statistical: lowering the numbers and access of humans makes it less likely that viruses with genetic characteristics allowing infection and spread will ever be exposed to humans.

        From the point of view of many species, for instance the gray wolf, brown/grizzly bear, and a number of other species, the meddling in human health has indirectly nearly brought about their extinction, which is still a strong possibility unless human populations can be reduced (the subject is immense: only 2% of mature redwoods still exist, and numerous species of this former forest, dependent upon it, have become endangered as well)- it appears that direct human activity will cause their extinction.

        Human management of ecosystems has been and continues to be so simplistic that the continuous resilience of relatively intact ecosystems is damaged by any or every act of human “management.”

        For those who do not understand that self-interest bias is the root of nearly every human action, INCLUDING management, an in-depth study of ecological effects of every intrusive management method will be necessary, before comment or indulging in analogy.

        Yes, in many areas of North America, humans long practiced changing ecological succession through use of fire, but subsistence hunting/gathering use of interrupted successional growth was not as intrusive, nor as intensive, as exploitation associated with an intensive growth economy.
        Explosive projectile weapons are another aberration, too, too technological in effectiveness to be a part of subsistence or management.

        Since I seem unable to limit my comment to the succinct, I leave you to contemplate the concept of human self-interest, and its entanglement with efficiency, in compromise, and in “management.”

        Wilderness is by definition unmanaged by humans; it is mere inaccurate rhetoric indulged in by those who desire to exploit without limit to claim that these remaining small reservoirs of life should be managed by humans.

        Reintroduction of species to recreate functioning ecosystems seems appropriate; yet the constant compromise engaged in by “stakeholders”, is precisely human self-interest, antithetical to wilderness.

        Modern humans evolved as alien species (in the ecological use of the adjective), psychosocially fragmenting to send small groups wandering (see Dunbar’s Number in Anthropological and sociological studies)into unoccupied ecosystems.

        Wilderness existed for most of our dispersal, and most animal species, older than us, have no place to survive without wilderness.
        Although a number of mesopredators and other smaller species have and can adapt, most keystone species cannot; neither can intact ecosystems retain proper long-term health when dominant species are inhibited by human exploitation or management.

        1. Ida Lupines Avatar
          Ida Lupines

          Thank you, great post!

  6. WM Avatar

    The idea of federal agencies (FS, NPS, BLM, FWS) meddling in the ecological processes and managing Wilderness for which they are responsible is preserved in the Act, in Section 4. The extent to which an agency is restrained in its mission statement as long as it doesn’t go afoul of the Act. What are the limits to meddling with “wilderness character” and undefined term. Here is a very good (though somewhat dated from 2000), analysis of the underlying questions, and a case study of the juniper thinning proposal for the Bandelier National Monument Wilderness, which was later conducted.

    The starting point is that this wilderness has been trammeled by man, thus giving the justification to reverse the trammeling from over-grazing or other man-caused uses. I don’t think it is that big a step to say climate change/global warming, IF IT CAN BE TRACED TO CAUSES FOR WHICH MAN IS RESPONSIBLE, can give the rationale for “hands-on” management to mitigate effects within Designated Wilderness.


    I expect some Wilderness advocates don’t like this meddling, but it would seem a good amount is permissible under the Act. And, by the way, it should be noted that there is consistent logic in allowing agencies to “meddle with ecosystems in Wilderness,” and still prohibiting new uses such as mountain biking, which employ mechanized transport, specifically prohibited by the Act.

    1. WM Avatar

      Sorry. First paragraph should read…

      WHAT is the extent to which an agency is restrained in its mission statement as long as it doesn’t go afoul of the Act? What are the limits to meddling with “wilderness character” AN (not and) undefined term.

    2. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      To me, fixing what we’ve done wrong in the past (and hopefully learned from – wolf and bison eradication, Dust Bowl, DDT, etc.) is different than trying to ‘improve’ a landscape or wildlife population (meddling) – or adding more and more activities with the potential to degrade the landscape that are only going to cause problems.

      1. Joanne Favazza Avatar
        Joanne Favazza

        Agreed, Ida.

        1. Ida Lupines Avatar
          Ida Lupines

          Thank you. I see a loophole, where I said ‘improving’. Improving a landscape that doesn’t need it is what I should have said. The Juniper/Pinon Pine forest article by the Forest Service illustrates it well – it has been exploited by humans, period – no matter what their cultural background.

          Reforesting here would be a good thing, and with very little help, Nature will come back quite quickly, if we stay out after it does. Noone expects wilderness to be like it was 10,000 years ago, but we don’t want what is left to deteriorate further.

          1. Ida Lupines Avatar
            Ida Lupines

            For example, I consider my little corner of the world’s backyard ‘wilderness’. My neighbor is constantly fencing off, pruning, chainsawing, mowing and spraying to keep Nature at bay.

            I let mine go wild at the extreme edges, and I no longer use chemicals on my lawn. A few fallen trees too (way out there). This year I have been rewarded with tons of bird and other wildlife to view.

    3. MJ Avatar

      There are two assumptions, firstly is that the Wilderness Act is absolutely correct as is and does not need to give room to new information and science, and secondly that people are better than nature in correcting imbalances.

      My understanding of law from others for whom this is their area of expertise, is that our laws were designed to be flexible so that our system of justice would last over time. What makes perfect sense in one situation may be inappropriate in another. This is critical when we continue to make it harder and harder for our wildlife and ecosystem to recover from our past acts.

      The assumption that we are superior to nature in correcting imbalance seems to be based on the assumption that since we “messed it up so badly” that we need to use more drastic measures, as opposed to letting nature recover in her own time. I suggest that we use our technology over nature very cautiously, humanely, and work with nature.

      Example, if we allow the present momentum to continue, we will have trophy hunters taking pictures of the feral cats and dogs that they bow-hunted. As opposed to doing something about breeding and abandonment of pets.

  7. JB Avatar

    Not long ago, there were a pair of discussions on this blog regarding human interventions to ‘manage’ wolves in the wilderness. The first example dealt with wolves on Isle Royale, where it was argued that, because of climate change and human-introduced disease, wolf populations were jeopardized; many posters concluded that people should right this wrong by ‘genetic rescue’ (i.e., reintroducing wolves). The second example was already mentioned (by Scott) above. In that case, many posters here were outraged that a state management agency would enter a federally-designated wilderness to kill/remove wolves in order to bolster other wildlife populations. In contrast to the Isle Royale case, human intervention in the wilderness was strongly denounced.

    I think it would be easy to label people ‘hypocrits’ and call it a day. However, what these examples illustrate is that how agencies justify human intervention in the wilderness matters. As Ida’s post (above) concisely illustrates (“…fixing what we’ve done wrong in the past …is different than trying to ‘improve’ a landscape or wildlife population (meddling)”).

    Indeed. So the principle seems to be: Interventions justified as ‘righting human induced wrongs’ are acceptable; while interventions justified as improving nature for society’s (or some segment of society’s) benefit, are not. Of course, the wolf issue is often framed by opponents of wolves as human-intervention gone wrong. Therefore, proponents of wolf removals in the wilderness might–no they absolutely would argue that removing wolves from the wilderness is ‘righting a human-induced [reintroduction] wrong’.

    I’m not trying to legitimize their argument; rather, just pointing out the problem inherent in reliance upon this type of principle (i.e., people disagree about what human impacts are, whether interventions will result in benefits or additional risks, and even what constitutes ‘right’ or ‘wrong’).

    In this case, I agree with Scott (and George)–the better course here is not to meddle.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Um, no. I don’t think anyone said drawing the line was going to be easy – but here it is very clear-cut: the human-induced wrong is killing them all off in such huge numbers in the first place, a government policy. There is no justification for it. I think most people would agree, especially when land for human use dominates the country. Why do we need more? Reintroducing wolves and bison is righting a tragic wrong, perhaps cutting down trees is meddling.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        Humans never introduced the wolf – it was already here. Righting the wrong is putting them back where they belong. If some kind of human intervention human intervention is needed for livestock predation, certainly a government approved policy of total eradication is wrong. Noone would argue with that, including people who would like to see wolves managed. I think that’s the difference.

        “Improving” the landscape for recreational activities, when we have so many already, isn’t necessary. Building homes out in the wilderness becomes a fire hazard and danger.

    2. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Oh, you agreed with me! *Sorry* 🙂

  8. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    The second example was already mentioned (by Scott) above. In that case, many posters here were outraged that a state management agency would enter a federally-designated wilderness to kill/remove wolves in order to bolster other wildlife populations.

    This is a terrible example of human meddling. And it may not even work, or only work in the short term.

    On Isle Royale, I waiver between letting nature take its course and genetic rescue. The ice froze over quite well this year in the Great Lakes; but someone shot one of the wolves making her way over.

    1. rork Avatar

      In case some readers don’t know “making her way over” means leaving Isle Royale for Ontario. Other residents of MI think about that form of rescue. Helps if you look like the locals.

  9. Mike Avatar

    The NYT editorial was nonsense.

    No one is taking it seriously except for pro-privatization groups.

  10. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    “We cannot improve upon Nature; we can only recognize its integrity.” Right on, George.

    1. Yvette Avatar

      Yep, I caught that line too, and meant to post and tell George he needs to stamp it! It’s a great one.

  11. Warren Piec Avatar
    Warren Piec

    yup, the (W)ilderness Machine needs an overhaul?!


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner