A Proposal To Create A Civilization Area System


Proposed Florida Coastal Civilization Area. Photo George Wuerthner 

Our current means of protecting wildlands is to set a boundary around the area. Humans do not create wilderness with survey lines. Any more than we create blue skies with a weather report. We can only recognize and sanction what already exists.

San Francisco may well be one of the more beautiful settings for a Civilization Area. Photo George Wuerthner

Our efforts to preserve the remnants of our natural landscapes and wild ecosystems may be more successful if we begin to change our entire approach to protection. Instead of surveying boundaries around wild places and calling them wildernesses, we should instead begin to limit the area influenced and impacted by human activities. These regions would be known as Civilization Areas. Areas outside of Civilization Areas would be wild by default.

By strict definiation of Civilization Areas places like the Brooks Range in Alaska with limited human influence would automatically be left wild. Photo George Wuerthner 

The establishment of Civilization Areas would change the way we view natural systems by putting the focus on restraining human impacts and activities.

With this in mind, I submit language for a federal Civilization Area System.

The abrupt edge of this community in Oregon is due to state-wide zoning which in effect limits communities to well defined urban growth boundaries. Photo George Wuerthner 


Section 1. This act may be cited as the “Civilization Act”.

Civilization System Established State of Policy

Section 2. (a) In order to ensure that an increasing population of wildlife, accompanied by expanding wilderness and growing non-mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within America, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their unnatural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American People of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of civilization. For this purpose there is hereby established a Civilization Area System to be composed of privately owned lands designated by Congress as “Civilization Areas” and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner so as to leave the impaired for future use and enjoyment as civilization; and no private lands shall be designed as Civilization Areas except as provided for by this Act or by subsequent Act

(b) The inclusion of an area in the Civilization Preservation System notwithstanding, the area shall continue to be managed by the Department, Agency, or individuals having jurisdiction there over immediately provided by an Act of Congress. No appropriation shall be available for the payment of expenses or salaries for the administration of the Civilization Preservation System as a separate unit nor shall any appropriation be available for additional personnel state as being required solely because they are included or administering areas solely because they are included in a Civilization Area System.


(c) A civilization area, in contrast with those areas where man and his works do not dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are trammeled by man, where man himself is a resident who remains. An area of civilization is further defined to mean in this Act an area of developed private land retaining its civilized character and influence, with permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its unnatural condition, and which, (1) generally appears to have been affected by forces of man, with the imprint of nature’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has little opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practical its preservation and use in an impaired condition; (4) may also contain social, structural and other features of scientific-educational, non-scenic or historical value


  1. makuye Avatar

    Wonderfully, when one observes former highways slowly cracking and dropping down cliffs toward the sea, the concept of “permanent human landscape changes” can be seen to be illusory.

    Most of you suffer under the delusion that such structures as wrongly placed habitations, on flood plains or near the ocean[s] are not as old or permanent as you imagine. Where I was born, i saw boat hulls lifted by tornadoes into forest treetops. I have also seen harbors and boats following hurricane changed irrevocably, visiting partially to completely sunken ships, and jetties made of huge rocks completely disappeared.

    I was recently contacted by firm demanders of new powerlines for new desert arrays that cover xeric habitat (what you would call “wild” desert, but what I know as delicate living landscapes. I suppose i’ll be fighting THAT for some time, until events and common sense place those arrays entirely on human habitations, and “power grids” become history, as did the thousands of horse feces shovelers once employed in NYC.

    nevertheless, do NOT be so sure about “permanence.” Lassen, Shasta, and on up the Cascades to Baker and Shuksan are not dead, but only sleeping.
    Earthquakes in the subduction zone[s] here are still pushing the plates under the North American, and although most of you forget, small quakes are common every month on several days.
    St.Helens was more remote from human highways than are many of these.
    I have watched rivers change their decisions about where to exit into sea in a season, a year, suddenly deciding to carve into a cliff town for a couple years, before choosing again.
    Interesting storms drop by, from Sydney to Atlantic coasts, moving sliding earth on top of former homes, even in extremely wealthy Montecito, as heavy rains happen to inundate where wildfires have occurred.

    These are not catastrophes, except for the organisms rooted there at the time. (In fact, once we were caught by a cliff mudslide. just another beautifully interesting event on life’s safari. But instructing as to the delusion of “permanent human structures.”

    On a night, windshield wipers flapping fast, still unable to clear the windshield, I was practicing my Spanish with a photographer living in a desert village where, as I asked”I have herd that it sometimes does not rain here for 4 years.” He answered, “once it did not rain for six.” We pulled up from the arroyo, to watch the flash flood taking the graded road below and behind. Another time, I was running for exuberant action in another arroyo a thousand miles further, hearing and suddenly seeing a slow rush of brown mud. Quickly climbing out the slightly overhead embankment, i watched, again. al that had grown there for the decade I had periodically visited, gone.

    The barrancas so covered in high chaparral, long shady oases – right now, we live in a moment when there are few of what the Aztec call Ocelotl, eh Spanish call tigre, and we name jaguars, do not live there. But they will return,highways or dams or 4×4 offroaders all believing they own or control the landscape. But run there, alone. Or in the Yellowstone lodgepole forest. You will constantly feel the presence of the owners.

    Some, like the Ainu kamui of fire, rumble softly like a snoring bull. But from time to time, they awaken. This 100-130 years of machinery, the 100 years of asphalt roads – even humans have lived longer than this.

    Cities that you believe permanent, have sometimes risen within the last 20 to 40 years. How arrogant is it to believe that the illusion granted by newness is mistaken for permanence.

    here and there along the ring of fire, are volcanoes known to have awakened, causing year[s] without a summer. Some storms I’ve noted in the Gulf of Alaska whip up winds higher than all but the highest category hurricanes. No strong solar ionic storms have occurred since the recent onset of wireless phones and internet. Some of the random gaps are regarded by scientists as anomalous, less common than the longer historical norms.

    In this century alone – 22 years two major pandemics with much higher mortality rates were narrowly avoided. You saw with this one so far only taking the lives of about 1 in 1000, how medievally humans refuse to take reasonable precaution, instead blaming hating, doing violence to one another. WHAT make s you BELIEVE that some minor random pairing or tripling of such events will not change your delusions of “permanent” human structures?

    It is NOT a “catastrophe, again, for a human structure to be reabsorbed by the earth, whether it be miles of Interstates – which BY THE WAY did NOT exist 65 years ago – or resort cities built below theprojected level of teh sea in 50 years.
    The Pacific crustal plate runs up the gulf of California, presently dissipating southwest of the Hoover dam (only there for the last 85 years, with two more major dams 30 years younger. The Columbia river dams are also only 65 or so years old, some built right in view of large lava flows), with fault lines spreading into the Great basin – the transverse San Andreas is not the subductino zone, which is restored only just south of Cape mMendocino. TEhAfrican plate which thrust up Alps and Apennines and turkish mountains. Interesting volcanoes exist, from one whose caldera caused the very ground where I slept for years to rise three feet in a day, and I’ve skied over hot vents slogging snow into clumps on the running surface, with steam rising around.

    While we are in our way as ephemeral as butterflies, I suggest that “permanence” measured at all, is facile fantasy. A man I kew, from the east coast finally got his dream, moving to Hawaii. There his place,and many others, along with the road to them, were covered and burnt within three years.
    I’ve been blown in southern ocean storm in sight of a resting volcano, in the most active area of earth, where you recently heard of a “big bang” eruption taking back a new island connection.

    Animals, whether ourselves, or Bison crossing roads to Hebgen, are evolved NOT for “permanence”, but for motion, response, agility.. When offered work in hubrisland- DC enviorns a few years back, I refused, because there is no wildness, only fat people armed with their toy popgunsand [temporarily] unceasing light pollution. There is, you see, no REAL motion, no agility, no nature visible to tehnarcissistic there. Stopping by teh horseshoe crabs, a beautiful ancient species, making me think of the trilobites who lived for around 270 MILLION years. My childhood, included both wolves and horseshoe crabs- both exploited by an arrogant species which has lived only 1/4 of one million years, so much so that both are in danger of death by the most dimwitted among us, and OUR brains are measured to have diminished 15 to 20% in the last ten thousand, as we become ever-more subservient, and violently fractious over nothing important, ourselves.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Yes – you said it all – we think ourselves to be so very important – but all we are is a minor blip – some of those among us are less than minor, it appears! Hopefully, nature and all those animal species that we look down upon & consider ourselves to be “dominant” over will continue on & flourish without us.

  2. Kevin Bixby Avatar

    Brilliant! If you squint, you can see this idea leading to an authentic version of 30×30/50×50.

  3. Michael Lewis Avatar

    Brilliant idea and interesting language in the proposal.

    However (Dang! There’s always a however.), this underscores and codifies the separation between humans and nature, which is the ultimate cause of human destruction of the natural world.

    Santa Cruz County has strictly defined Urban Growth Boundaries, beyond which zoning does not allow housing and industrial development. Nevertheless, people live outside the UGB and demand services from the county, such as building permits, fire protection and road maintenance.

    Recently forested areas in the county suffered intense forest fires that destroyed many homes. The owners of those building sites are now demanding special consideration and streamlined permitting processes to rebuild their homes on the same lots, despite the threats of mudslides during the rainy season and more fires in the dry season.

    In addition, a large area of the north coast of the county has been declared a National Monument, managed by the BLM (nudge nudge, wink wink), which is now being carved up with hiking and mountain biking trails, with large parking lots proposed to encourage human visitation.

    This “non-civilization” area will soon be overrun by civilization to the point of destruction of natural habitat and significantly increased reduction in biodiversity.

    Another consideration of defined civilization areas is Native American identification with landscapes considered sacred in aboriginal tradition, and occupied by living native peoples. We must not define away remaining aboriginal rights to traditional lands that have been sorely limited and eliminated through “civilization’s” history of ethnocide.

    There must be some way to codify the human realtionship to the natural world, in such a way that recognizes the intrinsic connection between human and non-human, and brings humans back into the world as it is.

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      Good article George, definitely a ‘modest proposal’. I’m curious why 5000 acres in (c)(3). I’d argue much smaller areas connect distant wild areas together and may not be contiguous to other wild areas that have smaller size. Think island biogeography here. And wouldn’t just limiting roads (both gravel and asphalt) and aircraft landing areas do a large part to reduce civilization? We are mostly a lazy species, and we demand easy access to almost everything unique and wild (see Everest). If we are pushing civilization, it’s through convenience. Start by making wild areas deliberately inconvenient

  4. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    I guess I dont see the logic in re-building a home in an area that has been decimated by wildfire. I realize how difficult it is for entire communities to be destroyed. But seems safety would be more important and, in the case of many individuals who are under the impression they are owed “special” consideration – in order to re-build in an area that obviously is going to be vulnerable in the next wildfire season. Putting firefighters lives in danger as well as their own. It seems far past time for municipalities to step up & do their jobs – rather than look for tax benefits or whatever other reasons they have to allowing this kind of residential spread into areas where areas where they dont belong. The picture of the Oregon city certainly is one of the few that are thinking of the future – not just their tax base!
    I get emails from an organization called FUSEE: I get the impression this group does not agree with the current FS strategy!

    The Forest Service’s Not So ‘New’ Strategy
    Dispatch from the Executive Director

    To our FUSEE supporters,

    We are living in the Pyrocene, and the increasing frequency of megafires and urban conflagrations demands smart strategy and bold action to get us out of our failing crisis-management mode. Unfortunately, what we are getting from the U.S. Forest Service is its “Wildfire Crisis Strategy.” The agency proclaims its new strategy represents a “paradigm shift,” but sadly it represents a continuation of its obsolete fire exclusion paradigm, framing a “forest health crisis” as the primary culprit of megafires, and mechanical fuels treatments as its preferred cure. This is neither new nor strategic, and its only claim to a paradigm shift is its promise to use vaster sums of taxpayer money on a grander landscape scale.

    The USFS’ Wildfire Crisis Strategy does pay some lip-service to the desire to do more prescribed burning, allow more Indigenous cultural burning, and eventually manage some wildfires to maintain fire-adapted ecosystems after they’ve first been mechanically treated. But most revealing is the propagandistic image on the cover of the document: a small American flag bravely standing in the ash mound of an incinerated home. Reminiscent of images of ground zero from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the meaning of this image conveys that wildfire is our ‘enemy’ that must be feared and fought in a total ‘war on terra.’

    There is not a word about wildfire response or any hint of a shift away from a suppression-centric policy of aggressive initial attack on all fires. And in press conferences and community round-tables promoting the agency’s strategy, USFS Chief Randy Moore refuses to rule out another ‘attack-all-fires’ and ‘ban-all-burns’ decree if and when PL-5 is reached this coming fire season. The agency’s flickr photo page promoting its wildfire crisis strategy does not even showcase firefighters, but instead, features images of fellerbunchers piling up ginormous decks of sawlogs. In essence, the agency has crafted a fuels strategy, not a fire strategy. Funded by billions of infrastructure bucks, the agency opportunistically if not arrogantly believes it can get-the-cut-out to put-the-fire-out, and can do its own thing without the collaboration or consent of other federal and state agencies, Tribes, nonprofits, and community groups.

    FUSEE pledges to watchdog the rollout of the USFS’ flawed Wildfire Crisis Strategy, along with opposing all reactionary political or policy efforts to formalize a return to the 10am Policy of yesteryear. We will continue to advocate for safe, ethical, ecological management of fire at every opportunity. We will articulate a real paradigm shift that sees firefighter, community, and land safety as holistically interconnected. And we will work for a forward-thinking wildfire management strategy that is part of the solution to the ultimate crisis of all: human-caused climate change. We welcome your support in this epic battle between the future and the past that, true to the double-meaning of the word ‘crisis,’ makes the present a moment of both great peril and great opportunity.


    Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D.
    Executive Director, FUSEE


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George Wuerthner