Can Wilderness Include Humans?

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Can Wilderness Include Humans?

Viewing 14 posts - 1 through 14 (of 14 total)
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    Backpacking Light


    Locale: Rocky Mountains

    Am I willing to temper my desire for the pristine with an awareness that the pristine is a cultural construct?

    Kurt Odendahl
    BPL Member


    Locale: Tallgrass prairie

    Ben, thanks for another great thought-provoking article. BackpackingLight, more like this.

    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    Skirting the edge of death? Is that really how you see wilderness?

    It’s an escape from the city/suburbs, much like a very large city park. Only larger, and farther from the city. I would suggest it is more like traveling back in time–away from machines, rather than escaping any trace of humankind. After all, the vast majority of trips to the wilderness involve following man-made trails…

    And while there are certainly many wilderness areas that were heavily used/lived in/and affected by Native Americans, many of the areas above 9,000 feet were not so affected–mainly because there is little in the way of food sources so high. The only reason to go is for recreation.

    Now I’ll go get a container of popcorn…



    Locale: The Cascades

    “The only reason to go is for recreation.”

    I don’t have much of an issue with most of your post, but can’t agree with this. Some folks do find a spirituality in the wilderness and I won’t discount that. There are other reasons people seek solitude in the less-travelled places, the wilder places, beyond recreation, and I don’t discount any of that as well.

    I never thought popcorn went that well with wine… :-)

    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    I appreciate this essay’s thoughtful approach to the concept of wilderness. Up here in Alaska the word wilderness isn’t one that most Alaska Natives use because it refers to their home, and implies they shouldn’t be there. They still live there, and take food from the land. They weren’t removed to reservations, so although there has been a history of attack on their culture and traditions (as well as the removal of children to institutions), they’ve always been connected with their ancestral lands. They know the reality; that some white folks would still like them to go away, so the land can be taken over and used for …. whatever. It’s not an idle threat.

    Rural lifestyles up here have changed, but not all that much; mostly it’s the tools that have changed. When us city backpacker types use the word wilderness, it implies we don’t want anyone else out there, ruining our fantasy. We’re offended when we see signs of other humans living out there and want them to adopt our motto of LNT. But Alaska Native peoples are more than a trace! Since it’s their home first, and my recreation only a remote second, I try not to use that word, and instead describe the specific land I’m thinking about – Minto flats, ANWR or whatever. I pick up trash but can’t criticize what’s left behind by people who were here first. (happy to criticize rafters though, who leave most of the trash!)

    Wilderness can be a spiritual refuge and a recreation place, but it also includes people, always.

    matt B


    Well written. This focal point has been something I’ve turned over again and again for year. When I was a spry 24, I took a course at UCSC centered on the philosophy of the wilderness. The course was taught outside, rain or shine. Many of these points were raised. I specifically enjoy the human context and your reexamination of our history and all it touches by those of who are privileged. Thank you for dedicating the time to craft this and for sharing it.

    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    I am not sure I disassociate recreation from spirituality. At least to me, they both have the goal of refreshing or renewing one’s spirit…and we all choose to worship in our own way.

    Bubbly with truffle oil popcorn. Heaven.

    Tjaard Breeuwer
    BPL Member


    Locale: Minnesota, USA

    Well written. Unlike so many quick hits we see, this article acknowledges that there is more than one side, that there are no absolutes.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    surprised the author didn’t mention portable electronics…

    Strictly speaking, I suppose there is no pristine wilderness anywhere. See those planes overhead?

    I’m bothered much less than many the presence of other backpackers on my trips. Of course, there are limits–the JMT is more crowded than I like. But I usually hike solo, so I have hours on end to hike in quiet and near solitude. I don’t think other people having viewed the mountains and rivers I’m strolling through detracts from them one bit. And I’m not devastated by the sight of another tent or two near me. I think it’s all a matter of degree. In any case, I’ve learned where and how to avoid crowds and often see very few others on trips in the Sierra.

    I’m more likely to see wildlife in less traveled areas–except maybe fewer bears, since they like more hikers! And then there are remote areas–really remote, which effectively are wilderness, I think, despite their history. Many value remoteness above all, or nearly. I understand.

    J David Sullivan
    BPL Member


    Locale: Deep South

    Interesting considerations, Ben. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Anne Flueckiger
    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern Minnesota

    The first time I read not-so-nice quotes from John Muir (re: removing “savage Indians” from Yosemite Valley so it would be “pristine” for tourists) was in this book:

    Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks

    To create Shenandoah National Park, small communities of “mountain folk” were forcibly removed. The park now includes this part of its history in its interpretive materials.

    The relationship of long-time inhabitants/indigenous people to protected areas and conservation is a global issue:



    BPL Member


    Locale: SLC

    I really like this article. It clearly states the obvious conflicts that shape our modern definition of wilderness. Wilderness is all impacted in one way or another by our actions. The idea of untrammeled wilderness is mostly a fantasy any more. It’s also one that I am guilty of entertaining.

    I spend a lot of time on reservations. In fact I consider many of the western reservations to be some of the continents wildest jewels. Spend enough time on the Navajo or Shoshone/Arapaho in the Winds and I find the relationship even more rich. Want to learn some wild stuff? Read about the NPS treatment of the Havasupai and Hualapai in one of humanity’s most cherished “preserves” the Grand Canyon. Hell, ask the Hopi old timers the stories of the Navajo invaders from the north that have been handed down through the generations.

    Alas, our history is as complex as the landscape. We use it as an “escape” but is it really an escape when what we are as a society is not the normal state of things? Is the wilderness the “anomoly” or is this alien disaster we live in day to day the anomoly?

    I personally don’t feel at home until I am in the wilds, whatever definition you choose. Is that me being naive or is that really human nature? The industrial revolution was 150 years ago. The computer revolution really started cooking about 25 years ago. Our bodies, our society, our patterns are hundreds of thousands, millions of years old. We live in the anomoly now. That makes the wilderness the last refuge of what we really are.


    Eli Simmer


    Very happy to see this perspective articulated on BPL – in addition to positive replies. Honestly, I feared accusations of the author trying to ‘cancel the wilderness’ or something…

    I spend plenty of time in federally designated wilderness areas myself and, along with the author, see how learning the histories of others (and frankly an honest history of white settlers too) can enrich the experience.

    If you pursue this line of investigation further, you’ll find talk of genocide, cultural erasure, land theft, and ecological destruction. These things aren’t flattering to this country nor to the ancestors of most it’s inhabitants, to say the very least, but it’s worth absorbing. Personally I believe some form of decolonization (a complicated and politically loaded term) is absolutely necessary in order to honor the first peoples of this land, to stave of ecological collapse, and to save the souls of the settler population given the horrors we’ve committed in building this country.

    I’ve never understood the knee-jerk defensiveness of most people when the settler-colonial nature of this country is pointed out. The insistence that atrocities were necessary, the denial of any personal implication, on and on…  Most decolonization talk is about human dignity and respect, not taking anything away from anyone apart from the myth of euro-settler supremacy.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Humans are part of the biosphere, but some of their activities are questionable.  My friend’s late father was part of the generation that fought in WW2 as young men; his words when I told him I’d started backpacking in the mountains were “.. did you lose something up there?”.

    Think we forget for many civilizations until recently, the “wilds” were where people went to snag natural resources before returning home (or hut, native tent, etc..).   In southwestern areas, a hiker can still find electrical parts that were used to light up old mines before they went bust by the late 1890s/early 1900s.  Mogollon NM on the Gilas western entrance used to be a bustling municipality until economics closed the mine and thousands abandoned their homes.  The forest has pretty much taken over except for the cemetery which requires real 4WD to get to.

    Think if backpackers and other temporary visitors use LNT and follow other regulations (like endangered species closures), the good outweighs whatever harm.

    Also there’s a concept of wilderness services, such as many western water supplies come in via wilderness areas.    In light of importing exotic species, think we need to actually increase most wild areas to increase natural biodiversity (though I think some places are “done – put a fork in ‘em”, maybe concentrate development in there?   Take southern Florida with its Burmese Python problem, and the “brain surgeons” who keep releasing African vipers around Houston.)


    Add that many of our public lands are “multiuse” for economic activities.

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