Taming the Wilderness

LAST WINTER, as if to flip its middle finger at the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the state of Idaho dispatched a hunter-trapper on horseback to track and slaughter two packs of wolves in the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the contiguous United States. Ragged with mountains and cut by chutes of whitewater, the Frank Church is a forbidding and trackless place. Here the cougars slip through the forests. The wolverines show their claws. And the wolves howl and hunt and take down elk for dinner, which was the behavior that prompted the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to hire its mercenary. Elk bring in wholesome revenues for the state in the form of hunting licenses and fees, and large herds of elk—preferably unnaturally large herds, fat and lazy and without threat from native predators—provide local guiding concerns a major source of profit. A total of nine wolves in the Frank Church wilderness were killed last January in contravention of the spirit and letter of the Act, which was passed by Congress in 1964 to protect those tracts of land “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” where the land retains “its primeval character and influence” and is “managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

What is meant by primeval character is not up for debate. Wilderness is intended, among its other purposes, to be a refuge for wild animals and plants, where the processes of evolution, so far as we humans have observed them, are to remain unmolested and unhampered. There is a practical argument here—the preservation of certain genetic pools as the human race busily wipes out genetic diversity elsewhere—and a transcendent one, related to the not-so-transcendent fact that our species evolved out of such primeval places, and our character was substantially shaped by them. Howard Zahniser, executive director of The Wilderness Society for two decades and the primary author and principal advocate of the Wilderness Act, wrote in 1956—the year the bill first arrived to the floor of Congress—that we need “to know ourselves as the dependent members of a great community of life, and this can indeed be one of the spiritual benefits of a wilderness experience. Without the gadgets, the inventions, the contrivances whereby men have seemed to establish among themselves an independence of nature, without these distractions, to know the wilderness is to know a profound humility, to recognize one’s littleness, to sense dependence and interdependence, indebtedness, and responsibility.”

We have neither been humble nor responsible. Federally designated wilderness in the lower 48 adds up to a pitiably small figure, less than 3 percent of the total landmass. In a country that has historically spent its energies on the crushing of the wild for exploitation and gain, this minor achievement is nonetheless admirable. These acres have been given the highest form of protection for public lands: no mechanized transport (not even bicycles), no manmade structures (but for the occasional sign), no commercial activity (except for outfitters whose work is “necessary,” in the words of the law, for certain members of the public to realize the benefits of wilderness).

When the Act passed in 1964, Congress opted to immediately place 9 million acres into the nascent National Wilderness Preservation System. The requisites for designation are formidable. Wilderness must be “of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition” (Congress suggested “at least 5,000 acres” would be a start); it must have no functioning roads (old wagon trails and boulder-strewn four-wheel-drive tracks don’t count as roads); and it should provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” We should laud the relatively good run of the last fifty years, during which time Congress expanded our wilderness more than tenfold. A tally of current federally protected wilderness comes to roughly 110 million acres, which is 5 million more acres than the area of California. Over half of this wilderness, some 57 million acres, is in Alaska, our last frontier. Just 4.5 million acres sits east of the Rockies, where human populations, our roads and cities, have spread amok. Some states have added to the wilderness total with their own land-use designations based on the language of the Act (with state-managed wilderness at roughly 2.7 million acres). Thus, New York, for example, has the High Peaks Wilderness in the Adirondack Mountains and the Slide Mountain Wilderness in the Catskill Park, both welcome and needed respites from the man-swarm, and home to herds of deer, big black bears, singing coyotes, and rumored cougars.

Most federally designated wilderness in the contiguous U.S. is in the handsomest part of the country—Idaho, California, Utah, Arizona, Washington—and almost all of the potential wilderness, what might still qualify for protection, is in the sparsely populated intermountain region, what remains of our wildest West. No one knows how much land has been—and I use the word deliberately—trammeled across the West since 1964. Consider the original meaning of that word, for the authors of the Act certainly did: it means to shackle, to hinder, to chain, to make un-free. “We do not know how much potential wilderness existed in 1964,” Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy for The Wilderness Society, tells me. The Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service hadn’t completed inventories at that time. We can make guesses. We know that, according to the Forest Service, the miles of roads in national forests more than doubled from 175,000 in 1964 to 385,000 in 2000. We know the Forest Service estimates that over the last thirty-five years at least 2.8 million roadless acres—probably an extremely low estimate—have been sliced through with four-wheel-drive and all-terrain-vehicle tracks and logging roads.

In the red rock country of southern Utah, where I live, with its enormity of stone and sky, its arches and mesas and canyon glens, its awesome evidence of geological time, we can guess, with the help of the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, that about half of the federally owned land was rendered unsuitable for wilderness designation during the period from 1964 to present. This was due to oil and gas exploration, the damming and diverting of rivers and streams, the creation of huge reservoirs (Lake Powell foremost, called by some the Blue Death), the construction of power and rail lines, the mining of coal and potash and uranium, the disposition of public land into private ownership, the building of roads to facilitate extraction and possession, and the development of industrial tourism infrastructure so that every American can drive at high speed, burger and fries in mouth, Navajo dream catcher in hand, across land that has been shackled. Which is to say that it took 300 million years to form one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes, the canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau, and our species required only fifty years to subjugate a good part of it.

IT’S OBVIOUS THAT OIL, gas, mining, dams, utility corridors, roads—the brute stuff of industrial man—are the most lethal threats to wilderness. My interest moves to the quieter, more insidious dangers. We hear much less, for example, about the ecological devastation in wilderness wrought by our beloved and iconic ranching industries, the sheep and cattle that John Muir described as “hoofed locusts” in the California Sierra. (Stunningly, no one who should be tracking such things, not even The Wilderness Society, knows how much wilderness is grazed today.) Grazing was established as a “special provision” to be allowed in wilderness areas under the Act, a political concession deemed necessary in the wrangling over the bill to secure its passage. No way in hell—hell being the congressional delegations from the public land ranching states—that the Wilderness Act could have passed while barring the cowboy from his perceived entitlement to cheap forage.

But the simple reality is that livestock significantly undermine wilderness qualities, particularly in the arid West. Cows and sheep devour the grass, decimate the wildflowers, eat the saplings of trees, befoul the water and soil with copious streams of piss and mounds of shit, producing in some regions massive desertification and extreme losses in biodiversity. To add to this devastation, livestock baron operations demand taxpayer-subsidized “range improvements” that include the slaughter of predators (wolves, cougars, bears), the planting of invasive grasses for better forage, and the taming of water courses (blow up the beaver dams, kill the beaver).

A particular concern for the stockman in wilderness is the law’s prohibition against the use of motorized vehicles, especially the off-road vehicles preferred by the modern cowboy. Ranchers assert that without the aid of their petroleum steeds, they can’t effectively manage cattle in such vast and rugged terrain. The livestock lobby, not content with this state of affairs, has sought and won from Congress unprecedented exceptions to the strictures set forth in the Wilderness Act. The erosion began with the establishment of the Congressional Grazing Guidelines, as attached to the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1980, which amended the law to relax the prohibition on the use of motor vehicles and the construction of livestock-related “improvements” by ranchers in wilderness. Those same guidelines have been incorporated into almost every wilderness bill passed since 1980 for areas where grazing takes place, and have been cited in federal court to justify, among other offenses, the mass slaughter of predators that threaten livestock in wilderness areas.

Similar exceptions have been made for the sake of bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and every other huntable ungulate in wilderness, so that state fish and game agencies are free to harass, trap, poison, and shoot wolves, coyotes, and cougars, construct artificial water sources, stock non-native fish, and use motorized transport for accomplishing these tasks, with the overarching goal of maximizing numbers of game species and the revenue from hunters and anglers. This is management not to preserve primeval character and natural conditions, but to ensure the steady flow of cash out of the wild.

ONE COMPROMISE OF COURSE leads to more compromises, and the slow accretion of these “nonconforming uses” produces a new type of wilderness, one that is suffering death by a thousand cuts. George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch in Missoula, Montana, believes that conservation is facing a wilderness protection crisis. This view is increasingly common among wilderness activists who work with what we might call the Little Greens, groups that have neither the funding, the connections on Capitol Hill, or the lobbying finesse of the large national groups like The Wilderness Society. “Big Green—and I’m talking here mostly about The Wilderness Society—has perversely helped chip away at wilderness protections by pushing bad wilderness bills,” says Nickas.

Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project in Seattle, which fights public lands privatization, tells me that the Big Greens have fallen into the strategy of so-called “compromise wilderness,” legislation crafted to win the support of anti-wilderness “stakeholders” in the West, primarily ranchers, developers, loggers, off-road-vehicle interests, and the local and state-elected officials who tend to support the unregulated use of public lands.

Compromise wilderness is a profound departure from history’s great conservation successes. No one was willing to compromise in 1872, when Congress established our first national park, Yellowstone, prompting Montana’s congressional delegation for the next twenty years to sponsor bills to undesignate the park and reopen it to logging and ranching; or in 1907, when Teddy Roosevelt created the Olympic National Monument in Washington State over the hysterical objections of big timber; or in 1908, when Roosevelt deployed the Antiquities Act to carve out the one-million-acre Grand Canyon National Monument, outraging Arizonans to the point that they sued in a case that went to the Supreme Court, which upheld Roosevelt’s designation; or in 1943, when Franklin Roosevelt established the Grand Teton National Monument, and Wyoming’s representatives prevailed in Congress with a bill to abolish the monument, which FDR had the courage to veto. Major public lands protections have always been passed over the violent disapproval of the local interests that stand to gain by continued exploitation—which is to say abuse—of the land.

“We do not want those whose first impulse is to compromise,” said Bob Marshall, the legendary wilderness activist who, along with ecologist Aldo Leopold and Benton MacKaye, the father of the Appalachian Trail, presided over the founding of The Wilderness Society. Sadly, over the last fifteen years, many wilderness groups, The Wilderness Society foremost among them, have pushed for the passage of what are known derisively as “quid pro quo” wilderness bills. Wilderness designation became “just one component of bills that also exchanged, sold off, or gave away public land and facilitated major water and land development projects,” explains Janine Blaeloch. The shift in tactics arose in part due to unprecedented hostility to wilderness in Congress (the 2011 Congress was the first since 1966 to designate not a single new acre of wilderness). Congressmembers who dared to sponsor wilderness bills, Blaeloch writes, “made clear their position that wilderness protection was strictly contingent on other, pro-development and privatization provisions.”

The first of the big quid-pro-quo bills, the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, passed in 2000, handed off 104,000 acres of public lands to local ranchers, along with $5.2 million in taxpayer subsidies for ranching businesses, in exchange for 18,000 acres of private land to be included in the newly established Steens Mountain Wilderness in Oregon—a massive net loss of public domain (though, to be fair, the Steens Wilderness did include a mandate to kick the cattle off the land, creating the first cow-free wilderness in the lower 48). Since 2000, at least seven similar wilderness bills introduced in Congress have included huge giveaways of public lands to private interests. Six of them passed. “The moral,” as David Brower wrote in 1969, “may be that polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars on the land that could have been prevented.”

WILDERNESS IS BY DEFINITION difficult to reach and explore, sometimes dangerous to life and limb. It is not there for convenience. In wilderness you hike into the hills, climb the mountains, wander the canyons—preferably alone, away from the madding crowd—on foot or on horseback; you run the whitewater in rafts with paddles; you camp, gathering wood for fire or food from the forest; you’re even free to go armed and kill your own meat. Yet the human benefits provided by wilderness were meant to be secondary to the needs of the ecosystems themselves. “Recreation is not necessarily the dominant use of an area of wilderness,” declared Zahniser, testifying before Congress in 1962. “The purpose of the Wilderness Act is to preserve the wilderness character of the areas to be included in the wilderness system, not to establish any particular use.”

Nevertheless, recreation is driving the newest frontier of wilderness compromise, particularly recreation that helps the local economy. The Oregon Badlands Wilderness, 30,000 acres carved out in 2009 near the town of Bend, serves as a case study of how wilderness is marketed as a recreational commodity. Among the groups that lobbied for the Badlands Wilderness was the Conservation Alliance, which represents the interests of the outdoor gear manufacturer and retail industries. Based in Bend, the Conservation Alliance funds grassroots wilderness campaigns with money it draws from its 185 member corporations, including Patagonia, REI, Columbia, Kelty, Keen, Eastern Mountain Sports, Clif Bar, and The North Face, whose collective goal, of course, is to sell more gadgets to lovers of the outdoors. “It makes good economic sense to protect wild places,” alliance president John Sterling told the Bend Bulletin last February. “Protected wild places are important to the outdoor industry. This is the infrastructure of outdoor recreation. Their customers need these places to use the products they make and sell.”

There you have it: wilderness as “infrastructure” for profit generation. The marketing of the Badlands Wilderness also touted the benefits to Bend’s restaurateurs and hoteliers and guide services, and the attraction of the new “playground” for newcomers who might settle in Bend and drive up the price of real estate. Wilderness has come to be seen as an economic engine, with smiling approval from the local chamber of commerce. Wilderness advocates have stopped talking about wildness, because wildness is not commercially viable. The wild, a realm of human experience outside the confines of the commercial mindset, has no burgers and fries.

The thinking follows the deranged principles of growthmania: two recreationists, properly accoutered with Keen sandals and a Columbia jacket and a Kelty pack full of Clif Bars, will always be better than one, and three better than two, and three hundred, three thousand, three hundred thousand better still. Scott Silver, executive director of the nonprofit Wild Wilderness, in Bend, notes the irony that the “wilderness” of the Badlands now conforms less to the vision of the Act than when the land was unprotected. It has degenerated into a tourist draw.

RECENTLY I HIKED into the Sawtooth Wilderness of central Idaho looking for wolves in the rain. At around seven thousand feet along a lonely trail, the sign at the wilderness boundary laid out the rules, simple enough to comprehend: CLOSED TO MOTOR VEHICLES, MOTORIZED EQUIPMENT, BICYCLES, AND HANG GLIDERS. VIOLATIONS PUNISHABLE!

It was June, but the rain was cold, and fog poured from the stony peaks beyond the treeline. The weather seemed to know I’d crossed into wilderness, for it doubled its action as the trail climbed higher, the rain turning to sleet then snow, the wind kicking in the pines, the fog now a mad-dashing thing alive. Plodding along, eyes cast downward, I noticed that the trail had been cut with tire tracks, evidence that mountain bikers had violated the wilderness regulations. When the fog cleared, I looked out over a landscape laced with bike trails, the hundreds of thousands of acres of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, all of it—except for the 217,000 acres of the Sawtooth Wilderness—open to the spandex’d horde. Apparently it’s not enough. On I tramped, farther into the wilderness, wet and cold, howling as I went, to see if a wolf might answer. None did.

The trouble for wilderness, I found myself thinking, is that the Wilderness Act expresses values fundamentally antithetical to the American Way and the American Dream. This means that protecting wilderness will always be an uphill fight. Consider the opening words of the legislation, which I submit is the most radically anti-American language that lawmakers in the United States have ever approved:


In order 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 . . .

By god it’s an insult to the dictates of Manifest Destiny, an assault on the rightness of our manic metric, the GDP, a slap in the face to the American Dream. Our civilization has always held fast to the delusion of limitless expansion: more settlement in every corner, more mechanization, more technology to catalyze more growth, more profit. Such a civilization, taken to its logical extreme, cannot have wilderness, because wilderness represents a limit: you shall go so far with the trammeling machine, and no further. Zahniser was communicating to the growth-obsessed business community that wilderness values repudiated its arrogance, its presumption, its totalizing self-regard. There’s no ambiguity in his language, no hint of compromise. Today’s wilderness advocates would do well to embrace the clarity of the message.

Christopher Ketcham writes for Vanity Fair, Harper’s, and GQ. Ketcham has also contributed to Rolling Stone and other magazines. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and Moab, Utah, and is currently writing a book about secession movements in the Northeast.


  1. Abbey would be proud, Chris.

    I love your final thought about the nature of the American spirit. This observation that it is somehow anti-American to want to preserve wilderness has deeply troubled me since I was a boy. I think it stems from our having been a young nation – compared to those in Europe and Asia – and now, when we should be learning the hard won lessons from our elders (they don’t suffer this kind of bedrock spiritual resistance to wilderness because they have so very little left that is untrammeled) and taking wisdom from them, we instead cling to an outdated “youthful” (read dumb ass) attitude. We refuse to mature as a nation. For to really appreciate our last vestiges of untrammeled wilderness would be to admit that our youthful abundance of yet-to-be-conquered frontier was a thing of our past.

    I think, deep down, America still clings to it’s arrogant delusion of Manifest Destiny. We’re like the high school jock, twenty years past graduation, unable to let go of the past, and therefore, completely unable to adjust to the realities of the present.

  2. Avarice and ignorance spread unevenly across the minds of today’s Americans offer little protection or even appreciation for wilderness. As a people, we don’t know the lives in our wilderness or how their sacrifice for profit could possibly affect us. Happy to distribute your excellent article to my social contacts.

  3. Ketcham’s poignant challenge to wilderness as “infrastructure for profit generation” is refreshing. His assertion that, “The thinking follows the deranged principles of growth mania…” highlights the absurdity of trying to justify wilderness with economics as usual. Economics as usual is not working. Wilderness is not about economic growth. It’s something entirely different. To push the argument further, I’d posit that the argument should be turned on its head. That wilderness might serve as the catalyst for correcting the “deranged growth mania.” More and more research shows that economic growth is not “buying” us what we assume it is. Rather it leads to greater inequality, is unsustainable, and does not increase human well-being. (See Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy for more support for these assertions.) Materialism, the social norm in a society in search of economic growth, is also pernicious. Richins and Dawson, marketing professors at the University of Missouri and Portland State respectively, report that materialistic people are acquisitive, self-centered, less satisfied with life, and are less concerned about the environment. Focus on material well-being is a recipe for individual unhappiness that bleeds beyond the individual to the community. So what might break the hold of materialism and economic growth on our societal norms? Wilderness is the catalyst for change. Wilderness is that place that reminds of us both the material and immaterial. It brings us to our spiritual core and our biological reality, and then awakens us to the value of rejecting our materialist society and the economists’ arguments that economic growth is the answer to our problems. The magic of being visitors in a natural world where we are not dominant reminds us of the wonder of childhood, the value of humility, and the vast reality beyond our own personal existence. As Lyndon Johnson intimated when he signed the Wilderness Act, technology and human achievements pale in the long future. This is not an idea lost on someone with even a single experience in nature. Here’s a reflection from a Regis College student majoring in Business who was in a Global Environmental Awareness course focused on wilderness: “The general public lives a life of stress, shackled by text messages and traffic lights. … The day that I spent near the Boulder foothills reminded me that our plural spirits need more than what we tend to give them. Companies lead us to believe that we need the newest iPhone, that we need the biggest television, but we don’t. What we need is appreciation;” Wilderness is a powerful antidote to short-sighted, haughty, misplaced confidence in an idea whose time is over.

  4. I fear that in the not too distant future we humans will realize that we have destroyed all that we have come from and all that soothes the soul. The death grip of the greedy seems overwhelming.

  5. Supply Shock by Brian Czech does a thorough job of debunking western society’s most sacred cow: economic growth. A nice short version by Rick Ridgeway appeared in the Patagonia catalog, and Yvon promises to publish more like it.
    EB, Mazama,WA Ski Trails author

  6. Thanks, Eric. Another good book on the dead-end of economic growth is Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson. He also has an excellent TED talk. I’d like to get a longer version of these ideas as they relate to widlerness published. Any suggestions?
    Suez (Economics professor at Regis College)

  7. Leopold lit up the truth about our perseveration on the GDP:

    “Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays.” [The Ecological Conscience, 1947]

    Thanks for this great article and razor-sharp analysis. It served to reset my compass away from all the rhetoric about the necessity of compromise. Thanks, Chris

  8. Deep Economy by Bill McKIBBEN, Legacy by David Suzuki, Force of Nature the DVD about David Suzuki,
    Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are reshaping the Word by B.R. Barber, (also Consumed by Barber) – from the bibliography of my book: Ski Trails and Wildlife- Toward Snow Country Restoration, which also includes: Securing Protected Areas in the Face of Global Change-Issues and Strategies by Kenton Miller with Victor Barbor and Melisa Boness -from the IUCN

  9. The concept of wilderness has always had spiritual overtones in our society. The Puritans saw it as the devil’s stomping ground where witches met and did their unholy deeds. To conquer nature was to overcome everything primitive and uncivilized in us. It was to desacrilize wilderness thereby distinguishing us up from the savages who believed nature was sacred. If you believe there is no spirit that moves in all things, wilderness to you is just another infrastructure for your enjoyment.

  10. Very good article. I am troubled by the current idea that wilderness is irrelevant. It is true that indigenous communities need to have a strong voice in determining how areas will be preserved be managed. This does not mean that wild places should be seen as profit generating enterprises, whether for hunters, ranchers, miners, or camping equipment companies. Humility is a virtue, and wild places promote it.

  11. “Most federally designated wilderness in the contiguous U.S. is in the handsomest part of the country—Idaho, California, Utah, Arizona, Washington—”.

    Oversight I guess?? Quite an oversight!

    “Gila Wilderness was designated the world’s first wilderness area on June 3, 1924.[1] Along with Aldo Leopold Wilderness and Blue Range Wilderness, the 558,014 acres (225,820 ha) (872 sq. mi.) wilderness is part of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.”

Commenting on this item is closed.