The Wilderness Paradox

IN THE END of June 2011, Roderick Nash and I were rowing a worn inflatable raft piled with camping gear and equipped with only a roll of duct tape in the event of a puncture through sharp metamorphic boulders and tumbling froth on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

Nash and I were having a bit of a disagreement over who got to row the best rapids—a strange argument to have with a seventy-two-year-old man with an artificial hip. But Nash is no normal septuagenarian. He is a wiry, athletic, white-haired intellectual with piercing blue eyes and a nineteenth-century schooner captain’s photographic memory for serpentine routes through deadly rocks, and by this time of the afternoon he was quaffing little bottles of 5-Hour Energy and tossing the empties in the bilge. I had to admit I might die someday without ever having achieved his skill as a boatman. But still, I clinched my argument, if I was going to split the cost of the trip, including the beer and the rental fee for this questionable scow with the roll of duct tape for a patch kit, I wanted half the bad (meaning good) rapids. And Nash, friend that he was, acquiesced.

I had come to the Salmon River with Nash to look at how wilderness areas were being managed, a subject I’ve spent much time pondering, as a lover of wild places and a former park ranger. The Middle Fork flows through Idaho’s Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, the largest unbroken wildland preserved under the Wilderness Act of 1964 in the United States, south of Alaska. In wilderness, size matters. The reason for this is not just graduate-level conservation biology but high school geometry: the bigger a preserved place is, the greater its volume in relation to its perimeter. Therefore, less of it is impacted by edge effects—hunters on all-terrain vehicles, feral housecats from rural suburbs preying on birds, grizzly bears and wolves getting shot for stepping outside the lines, and the necessity of putting out fires when they run from wilderness toward inhabited areas. Also, wild nature has certain critical minima. As wildlands shrink, biological diversity goes down. The larger they are, the more plants and animals have a chance of living out their lives inside them. This is particularly true of conservation-reliant species like grizzly bears and wolves. It is no accident that by 1964, the last grizzly bears in the lower 48 states were holed up in national parks and wilderness areas in the Northern Rockies. A half-ton carnivore with claws the size of hunting knives that sees a cabin wall or a barn door as mere inconveniences is at risk of being shot anywhere there are cabins and barns.

Conservationists long hoped that the 2.3-million-acre “Frank” might be large enough to function as a refuge for natural processes unmediated by human beings. So might the 9-million-acre Wrangell–St. Elias and the 12.9-million-acre Noatak–Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem contains 6.6 million acres of designated wilderness and national parks within 18 million acres of public and private land. In the southern Sierra Nevada of California, three national parks and nineteen wilderness areas form an over-230-mile-long wildland along the Pacific Crest Trail. Airplanes have vanished from radar there, to be found months or years later, or, every once in a while, never. In 2005, the first of two frozen airmen lost in the 1942 crash of a military flight melted out of a glacier in the Kings Canyon Wilderness, still dressed in an antique uniform, the pockets of which contained buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, and young women’s phone numbers.

In these places, along with others of similar size—the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota, where wolves survived a national eradication effort until reintroductions in Idaho and Wyoming—it has long been assumed that nature has been left to work out her own mysterious destiny without the kind of human interventions that characterize land management everywhere else. That is the point of wilderness, isn’t it?

THAT, IT TURNS OUT, has never been so. The term “wilderness management” itself is steeped in irony—a point Roderick Nash makes in an essay he contributed to Wilderness Management, the first textbook on the subject, published by the Forest Service in 1978:


A designated, managed wilderness is, in a very important sense, a contradiction in terms. It could even be said that any area that is proclaimed wilderness and managed as such is not wilderness by these very acts! The problem is that the traditional meaning of wilderness is an environment that man does not influence, a place he does not control.

Nash’s most famous book, Wilderness and the American Mind, completed as a doctoral thesis the year the Wilderness Act became law, has been continually in print since 1967. Winner of the 2001 National Outdoor Book Award in the Outdoor Classic category, it remains the definitive history of wilderness as an idea and an institution.

“There are two main roots of the word wilderness,” Nash told me, pulling on the oars. “In the old Teutonic and Norse languages, will, or willd meant willful, self-willed, or uncontrollable. Deor in Old English, was a general term for an animal or beast—the word deer probably derives from that. So, a will-deor is a wild animal, as opposed to a domestic animal; an animal that has its own will. We talk about ‘self-willed,’ and we mean uncontrolled by the will of someone else. Thus, will-deor-ness: self-willed land, the place of self-willed animals. It’s the one place we honor the self-willed, autonomous condition that distinguishes it from everywhere else.”

Back in the seventies, Nash was seen as a tastemaker about wilderness. His thought was everyone’s thought. That is no longer true. As the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act drew near, interventions in wilderness and proposed wilderness areas—which are required to be managed as wilderness—were common. I talked to an ecologist who’d been backpacking into the Sierra Nevada to dip hundreds of endangered yellow-legged frogs in a bacterial solution intended to protect them from a worldwide epidemic of amphibian fungus. In Glacier National Park, I listened to a scientist explain the replanting of fifteen thousand whitebark pines cultivated for resistance to pine blister rust, an Asian fungus that wiped out the wild trees. In the Grand Canyon, I interviewed hydrologists studying how to regulate the flow of the Colorado River to create naturally shaped beaches. At Big Cypress Preserve in Florida and Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, I inspected insects intentionally introduced from other continents to harass plants previously introduced from other continents by accident.

In truth, these sorts of interventions are not a recent development. The nation’s first wilderness areas, which predated the 1964 Act by three to four decades, were regulated and altered as administrators saw fit. In the years following the Act’s passage, wilderness management became people management. The 1960s saw a massive uptick in outdoor recreation. Better highways and growing leisure time made wilderness easier to get to. Down sleeping bags, aluminum-framed backpacks, lightweight synthetic fabrics, and inflatable rafts for whitewater made the wilds easier to travel through, once you arrived. Traffic jams, pollution, the threat of nuclear war, and the environmental movement whetted civilized appetites for resiny campfire smoke, the sigh of wind, and the call of a loon on a fog-shrouded lake. However, with thousands of wilderness pilgrims came crowded lakeshores, litter, piles of human excrement, and trees hacked up for firewood.

In 1968, Robert Lucas, a Forest Service geographer doing research on outdoor recreation, joined with two other social scientists, George Stankey and John Hendee, to assemble a framework for administration of wilderness, which they collected in that 1978 Wilderness Management handbook. Just as Forest Service timberlands produced lumber for civilization, what wilderness produced was a quality “wilderness experience” for the visitor. Lucas, Hendee, and Stankey’s system surveyed wilderness users to evaluate levels of acceptable or unacceptable change (damage) in the appearance of trails and campsites. Rangers were trained to count the number of suitable campsites in a given lake basin and evaluate how many could be occupied without visitors hearing each other snoring at night. From these measurements were derived “carrying capacities,” or the number of users that could be allowed into an area at one time. Rationing systems—wilderness permits—were used to control visitation, and educational outreach and law enforcement were used to regulate visitors’ behavior under a set of principles that came to be called “Leave No Trace.”

As wilderness staff focused on people management, the Forest Service and Park Service continued to manipulate nature inside and outside wilderness areas. In the 1960s, the Salmon River country Nash and I inspected was aerially sprayed with pesticide to control a native insect, the spruce budworm. Sheep herders grazing under permit (which the Wilderness Act allows to this day) called upon government trappers to kill grizzly bears, cougars, and coyotes. Non-native trout were planted to enhance fishing. In New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, smokejumpers were so effective at controlling lightning fires that Whitewater Baldy and Mogollon Baldy, two peaks that had been raked by electrical storms since time immemorial, grew over with trees and were no longer bald.

PRESENT-DAY MANIPULATIONS of wilderness generally involve restoring something that was extirpated under previous, faulty logic or removing something that was added but didn’t belong. Wildfire, for example, is allowed to shape wilderness landscapes again after more than six decades of attempted exclusion. However, this is not accomplished without considerable intervention. Lightning fires are selected to burn or be extinguished based on where and under what conditions they occur, and it’s not uncommon for the same blaze to be fought on one flank and allowed to run on another to meet “management objectives” set by “fire management officers.”

Also in the category of putting something back are wolves, which were eradicated in the 1920s and reintroduced in 1995 to the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park. Restoration of predators is often cited as an ideal manipulation, since it seems to repair a widely reported outcome of their absence: unchecked growth of herbivore populations, followed by overgrazing of plants they depend on, leading to mass starvation. Other tinkering with animal species has yielded more mixed results, even abject failures. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, California Department of Fish and Game biologists poisoned lakes and streams in the Golden Trout Wilderness, where previously introduced exotic fish were threatening native golden trout. Then the biologists reintroduced what they thought was a pure strain of the goldens. Later, improvements in genetic technology revealed that the introduced trout were hybrids, and that the effort may have inadvertently killed the last pure natives.

Taking out something that doesn’t belong is not without hazards either, notably the widespread use of biocides. At one of our campsites on the Middle Fork, Nash and I noticed what looked like patches of green spray paint on the dry grass around us. A Forest Service crew had floated the river ahead of us, spraying herbicide mixed with dye to control spotted knapweed and rush skeletonweed, Eurasian plants introduced decades ago by cattle grazing. Like many weeds, these thrive on disturbed ground, spreading rapidly into areas blackened by the larger, more intense fires driven by climate change.

The battle against alien organisms is being waged at various scales nearly everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more intensely than at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness, which comprises most of the interior of Everglades National Park. There, the Park Service sprays herbicide from helicopters to control melaleuca trees, Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, and European climbing fern, which form impenetrable thickets where little else can live. Park rangers go out on search-and-destroy missions, trying to stop seven-foot-long African monitor lizards and four-foot South American tegu lizards, introduced in the exotic pet trade, from taking up residence in the wilderness. Burmese pythons up to eighteen feet long are now so widespread in the Everglades that park rangers admit they are probably a permanent feature of the landscape, if a highly unnatural one.

EVERYONE PRETTY MUCH KNOWS what natural means as long as you don’t think about it too much. In 1964, the authors of the Wilderness Act used it both to define wilderness and to prescribe how it would be managed: “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions . . . [italics mine].”

However, by 2007 I had begun to notice a low-level panic among scientists and wilderness managers as they came to understand that the word had become obsolete as a management objective. What is more natural—spotted knapweed, rush skeletonweed, and cheat grass crowding out native plants, or the Transline, 2,4-D, Roundup, and Plateau rangers in the Frank Church–River of No Return spray to control them?

That November, when the long-awaited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment solidly connected global warming with human activity, I was the only journalist at a meeting of scientists and wilderness managers from the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The group convened to discuss how wilderness management might need to evolve in light of dire conditions in the global ecosystem. Should the Park Service and Forest Service start moving groups of organisms north to preserve them? Should sprinkler lines be installed in the giant Sequoia groves, for the inevitable heat and drought that could kill the two-thousand-year-old trees? These sorts of things were discussed. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that the goals set forth in the legislation creating wilderness and national parks were no longer attainable.

“What has replaced naturalness as a guiding philosophy of what to do or not do?” I asked David Graber, chief scientist for the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region, who had invited me to the meeting.

“We have nothing,” he answered, his voice flat.

In general, there is a strong appetite for even greater manipulation of nature. As wilderness comes to be seen as less “natural,” the moral injunctions against tinkering with it are further reduced. At the Saint Mary’s Wilderness in Virginia, where acid precipitation was causing a die-off of aquatic life, wilderness managers dropped helicopter loads of limestone to buffer the acid. Life bloomed again. In the Bandelier Wilderness in New Mexico, grazing and fire suppression had caused conversion of grasslands into piñon-juniper woodlands with bare ground in between, leading to rapid soil erosion. Crews were sent out to cut down junipers with chainsaws, windrowing the brush to hold soil and shelter new ground vegetation. In California’s Sequoia–Kings Canyon Wilderness, a major program is under environmental review to poison lakes and streams in order to remove previously planted trout that compete with an endangered frog.

As many lose their resistance to manipulation, Roderick Nash is left on the fringes, adamant as ever in his rejection of all this mucking about with wilderness.

“What distinguishes these areas is not that they have the exact biological features we want them to have under current theories, but that we choose to leave them alone. They are the only place we do,” says Nash.

“What about spotted knapweed?” I ask him. “What about rush skeletonweed?”

“Wilderness is a place we leave alone,” Nash answers. “Let evolution work. Evolution takes a long time, longer than our horizon. Let nature find her way.”

“But even when we don’t intervene intentionally,” I protest, “our accidental effects like climate change still act on a place, so you get all the unintended damage without the deliberate efforts to mitigate it.”

“Fine,” says Nash. “But a place you change on purpose isn’t wilderness.”

Park Service scientist David Graber comes down on the other side. The Wilderness Act “is a prisoner of its time,” wrote Graber in 2003. “It is limited to an understanding of the world that existed in 1964.” Some wildernesses, Graber maintains, are wildernesses in name only. They require urgent intervention and long-term maintenance simply to preserve what remains of their biota. And yet, he argues, what remains of their biota is considerably more valuable than some high-minded philosophy of noninterference. Graber is unimpressed with the philosophical distinction between doing things by accident, such as changing Earth’s climate, and doing things on purpose, such as saving endangered species. Restricting ourselves to only those grand strokes we make accidentally, and not the better ones we make on purpose, seems like a terrible mistake to Graber.

“In the present setting, doing nothing is still doing something,” he says.

Jordan Fisher Smith spent 21 years as a park and wilderness ranger for the Forest Service, National Park Service, and California State parks in California, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska. He is the author of the ranger memoir Nature Noir, which was a Wall Street Journal summer reading selection, San Francisco Chronicle Best Books of 2005 pick, and an Audubon Magazine Editor’s Choice. His second book Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight Over Controlling Nature, won the Silver Medal for nonfiction in the 2017 California Book Awards and was longlisted for the 2016 PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing. Jordan has also written for The New YorkerMen’s JournalAeon, Discover, and Orion, and his magazine work hasbeen nominated for awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors and the American Association for the Advancement of ScienceJordan is a principal cast member and narrator of the film “Under Our Skin,” which was shortlisted for the 2010 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. He lectures, teaches writing workshops, and coaches writers on their projects from his base in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains.


  1. Akin to “management,” the term “stewardship” is usually seen as a positive policy, as if mankind knows better than Mother Nature. Stewardship to often turns into micromanagement and the inevitable invitation to the goddess of unforeseen consequences.

    The best rule of thumb is “When in doubt, don’t.”

  2. “Stewardship” in my mind is a recognition that we must “use” some of Nature to survive, but do so with a near reverence for taking only what we need (like most of the original inhabitants). For the lands we must use to provide food and living materials, let’s offer conscious stewardship. All other lands need a hands-off approach. After all, we generated the Wilderness act with what we knew of Nature in 1964. From 2014 we can see not only how much we didn’t know then, but we should also see that we still don’t know what nature knows (or what we will know by 2064)–and probably never will. So let’s leave some “Wilderness” areas completely human manipulation free.

  3. If the idea of leaving wilderness alone is outdated, so is the idea that there is some hard boundary between the wilderness and the rest of the world ‘outside’. To use this idea to justify highly intrusive gardening of wilderness reserves distracts from a more vital need of fostering positive change in human land use and behaviour outside. It is more crucial to buffer harmful impacts to wilderness areas by greatly expanding the space for conservation outward into surrounding countryside and city. That, too, can ease the disturbance footprint, allowing wilderness areas to recover along their own trajectory with less and less intervention, until land and life are free, which ultimately, is what ‘wild’ really means. And it is in bringing down that boundary, looking outward from the wilderness, that we will perhaps find the way to rewild ourselves. As Robert Frost wrote in ‘Mending Wall’:
    “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
    That wants it down.”
    I think he means this.

  4. If anything is uncontrolled, it is human behavior and impacts outside of designated wilderness areas. Wilderness is actually our ancestral home and can be again, if we humans can come home, again, to the wild–or bring it home outside our designated wilderness areas. This will entail the rewilding of the entire Earth and truly sustainable practices whatever that means(and we need to really work out what it means in practice!). Having reintroduced endangered species to their former homes (eg., wolves) is it not now time to begin the human reintroduction effort? Is that not the truly unfinished work if we can have any hope of preserving “wilderness”?

  5. An elegantly written piece, but am I the only one to whom this sounds a little outdated? I kept waiting for Jordan Fisher Smith to address the biggest blind spot in the 1970s concept of wilderness: that these natural areas were actually shaped by the cultural practices of indigenous peoples who lived here for millennia before Europeans set eyes on these areas that were supposedly untouched by human influence.

    At the frontiers of land management, scientists and local inhabitants are grappling with how to incorporate “traditional ecological knowledge” into their renewed relationship with wild places. While the climate and other circumstances have changed since European contact, much remains that is instructive and thought-provoking.

  6. The first good news is the rubber rafters weren’t with the great white and the two ladies kayaking off the west Coast.

    The second is man can’t kill that which he can’t manage. In this case, the land and it oceans.

    (Carlan said it best:

    Oh, he might starve himself to death or rot his lungs out for a couple or three generations, but he isn’t going to destroy the land. Not by land time. Bar ditches and old cemeteries tell us this. The ground-zero bamboo they found growing at Nagasaki and Hiroshima tells us this. The foliage we hack through at the Mayan and Aztec ruins tells us this. The Northern Ground Gopher they found living beneath the surface in Mount St. Helen’s blow-down zone tells us this. The weeds and grass shoots we find inching their way through the asphalt and concrete in the abandoned and slum sections of our cities tell us this.

    It don’t grow no more in our concrete jungles? Come back in a thousand years. Okay, make it a hundred thousand. Hell, go for a million. Understand what I mean by land time? One of our fallacies is that we humans measure things by human time and human selves. Another is we think we’re important to the scheme of things. S–t. We’re closer to the universe jesters. Did you know the ancients put up stones along Japan’s coasts hundreds of years ago that say “. . .don’t build your houses any closer to the sea than this stone?” Why? Because if you do, a tsunami will wash your human ass away. Fact. But along comes selves with our seawalls and we tell people “. . .you can forget about them stones now.”

    Which is why we may irradiate ourselves this go-round with what’s left of our tsunamied Fukushima egos sitting atop an earthquake fault leaking radiation directly into the Pacific Ocean and the selves can’t stop it. But even that won’t affect the land. Not by land time. We may all be gone. But the land will come back ’round when the charades are finished.

    The Army, bless their little OD hearts, had a saying that got right at the heart of this man-land thing “. . . crap in your own mess kit and you’ll wind up having to eat out of it.”

  7. It’s really sad what’s going on with the environment, most people aren’t aware, most people don’t want to believe. I use to fish on a daily basis, now I don’t due to Lyme disease. Which some say is the result of also global warming or some type of man-made accident. Do we have hope for the world, I think we do, but we need to show that we can make change in order to achieve a healthier planet for the future.

  8. The idea of “leaving wilderness alone” is not just outdated, as one commentator rightly remarks, it’s also utterly ignorant of the historical record on wilderness in North America. Read “Dispossessing the Wilderness”, by Mark David Spense, for just a small idea of the degree to which American wilderness was managed and stewarded for millenia. Read Cronon’s “Changes in the Land” for a similarly revealing account of the US northeast.

    Roderick Nash, bless his soul for all he has done, has a very naive, dare I say, view of wilderness and of evolution, something which he clearly thinks has a purpose or goal or telos. (He thinks nature is a woman, as well, something which causes some cognitive discomfort when one considers this in light of his personal machismo, which I only mention because it’s part of his public persona and thus part of his whole vision of the wilderness as a place to explore with his famous friends and to report upon in his many slide shows.) The constant pretense that nature simply be left alone to do “her” thing is a symbolic perpetuation of the ‘dispossessing of the wilderness’ that occurred in the 16th to 20th centuries at a literal level.

    Of course I’m not arguing as some do — as the article rightly points out– that if nature has been managed all along or is no longer natural, then we are justified to keep messing with it all the more. I think the natural world should, for the most part, be left alone.

    But the battles over nature and wilderness are really battles over something else: they are battles against corporate, that is private, profit-oriented, control of our world. In other words, the battle for wilderness is part of class struggle.

  9. NPR’s Living on Earth interview with Jordan Fisher Smith, this week, did a better job of presenting his ideas, and answering some of Orion’s commenters concerns. I’ll send you an excerpt from my book: Ski Trails and Wildlife, which also deals with these issues.
    EB-retired national park ranger

  10. Any expression with wild in it is flawed. There is only the cultural and the natural landscape. There can be a mix, however if the native species are in control then it is the species’ forest. A species’ forest is of, by and for all the other native plants, animals, fungi and soil microbes that occupy or have occupied that forest. Old guard foresters know what I mean when I say species’ forest. They practically have a fit. They want to be in control.

  11. It seems to be very sad that our environment is loosing it’s property simutaneously. This is all beacuase of mostly people are careless about the nature or they are not aware. Everybody should love the nature and care for it.

  12. The label “wilderness” does not indicate who owns the forest. It simply means a place without people. It is more than that. It is the species’ wilderness. They own it. We must ask all the other native species for permission to enter the species’ forest. But whom do you ask? In good faith ask yourself as if you are the species’ true representative. You cannot think of money, job, resources or property nor can you represent the human community in any way. An attorney can only represent one side. Do this and your ambivalence will fade like the morning dew. Don’t worry about people. They can pretty much take care of themselves.

  13. it is a decision that is truly difficult. each choice has great benefits, but they both have their significant downsides. nevertheless i think it would be best if we did let mother nature do her work in her way and let her be. a “wilderness” that requires micromanagement is not wilderness at all. and to the issue of introduced exotic invasive species, i think we have to learn to live with our mistakes and let it fix itself, its part of moving on. the more we try to change the past the worse it will get.

  14. I have seen expanses of gouged earth in the Everglades; monochrome landscapes where bulldozers had attempted to scrape clean all traces of Brazilian pepper. What a wilderness to behold!

    When will places like these truly be wild again? And by whose decree will they attain that status? Is wilderness merely a sentimental snapshot of a collectively-favored point in time?

    It’s a thorny issue. Reintroduction of species is one thing – putting something back that once belonged. Eradication is quite another and our high-tech efforts at accomplishing it are often as harmful as they are insane. Does wilderness really need bulldozers and synthetic poisons?

    Most of my sympathy lies with Mr. Nash – better to let it be. Organisms and ecosystems have never ceased evolving and they will continue to do so. We cannot recover the past, but we can learn from past transgressions.

  15. The unexamined assumption that human beings hold a special status within the natural world is linked to deeply-held beliefs about separation with nature: hence, the wilderness paradox. Theodore Roszak once asked, “when human beings unilaterally declare their superiority to all other species, who do they think is paying attention?”
    Humans are wild. The human mind is wild and language and culture are wild as well: a posteriori. Our thoughts are wild thoughts, our machines are wild machines, and our cities are wild cities. Civilization is not distinct from wildness, it is an aspect of wildness.
    We may look to wilderness for the preservation of the world and for other aesthetic or spiritual needs, but when one sees that separation from nature is not actually possible—except as mental abstraction—one sees that indulging in such abstraction only exacerbates our alienation within the sanctity of nature.
    What protects and maintains the “sanctity” of nature (sanctity of nature rather than the misnomer “wilderness”) is personal responsibility, living in a balanced manner, and assuming responsibility for the use and sharing of life and earth.
    Chris correctly pointed out on Sept 15, “…the battles over nature and wilderness are really battles over something else: they are battles against corporate, that is private, profit-oriented, control of our world. In other words, the battle for wilderness is part of class struggle.”

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