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Back-Country Recreation Area Designation: A Positive Alternative to Wilderness

This presentation from The Wilderness Dilemma: Is There a Recreation Alternative?

Moderator: Gene W. Wood, Professor of Forest Wildlife Ecology, and Extension Trails Specialist, Clemson University, Clemson, SC
Panelists: Clark Collins, Executive Director, BlueRibbon Coalition, Pocatello, Idaho Jim Hasenauer, Board Member, International Mountain Biking Association, Woodland Hills, California Rosalind McClellan, Director, Rocky Mountain Recreation Initiative, Nederlands, Colorado

By Gene W. Wood

The Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act (P.L. 86-517; 16 U.S.C. 528-531) was the first federal legislative step towards the creation of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (P.L. 88-577; 16 U.S.C. 1131-1136). In Section 2 of the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act, Congress stated: "The establishment and maintenance of areas of wilderness are consistent with the purposes and provisions of this Act."

On September 3, 1964, Congress established what the term "Wilderness" meant, why Wilderness areas were and would be important to American society, the nature of uses that would be accommodated, and the nature of those that would be prohibited. Even in 1964, when Congress instructed the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to review the lands under their jurisdiction for potential Wilderness designation (sections 3(b) and 3(c)), it was clearly cautious about the secondary effects of setting aside large expanses of land for a highly specific use. Evidence for this concern is demonstrated in Section 3(d)(1) of the Act requiring public involvement in the establishment and any subsequent changes in boundaries of wilderness areas.

As Americans enter the 21st Century, they find themselves owning more than 100 million acres of designated Wilderness— fully four percent of the entire national landscape. Very strong Wilderness advocates propose doubling that amount. As a society, we are undeniably in love with the idea of wilderness, perhaps because our culture has not been long outside of it. The idea of preserving something that is "unmodernized," pristine, natural, devoid of or largely lacking human influence is highly appealing to our ecological conscience. It also likely has strong emotional appeal to our sense that wilderness is where we came from and we would like to preserve the opportunity to go back. The questions then become: Can we go back? Should we go back? And, if so, how should we go back?

Deeply embedded in these arguments over Wilderness, how much, and what constitutes appropriate use is the fundamental philosophical question: "What is an appropriate relationship between man and nature?" Are humans a part of nature? Spence (1999) made compelling arguments that the American wilderness was dispossessed of its human component with the "civilizing" of the Native Americans. At what level of development does the term "primitive" cease to apply? Can humans travel through Wilderness, even for a few days, and leave it "untrammeled"? Or are there degrees of acceptability in trammeling, and how are they determined?

Finally, is it possible to provide lands for a backcountry, or wildlands, recreational experience without designating those lands as Wilderness under the provisions of the Wilderness Act? Would such opportunities be sustainable? What are the ethics, government regulations, and laws that will be needed to insure sustainability?

The panelists in this session come from three perspectives:

1) continued increase in Wilderness designation is the right thing to do;

2) a recreation friendly alternative to Wilderness should be considered, and

3) change selected constraints on the use of Wilderness.

We shall not find the final answers to the Wilderness dilemma, but perhaps we shall find ways to think about the questions, and then ways to proceed in formulating answers that reflect collective values. That we shall argue what is right and what is wrong is inherent to conservation in a democracy.

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