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The Wilderness Dilemma: is there a recreation alternative?

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 Roz McClellan

Is there a need for an alternative designation to wilderness?

How could the uses allowed by such a designation be sustainable?

Let me entertain for the moment the possibility that there is in fact a need for an alternative designation to wilderness. This designation should uphold basic American principles of multiple-use and freedom of access, protect traditional American values and embody an appropriate relation between man and nature. The uses allowed under the new designation also should be sustainable. What would such a designation look like?

Allowing Multiple-Use

The new designation should provide for the widest possible range of mutually compatible, sustainable services and outputs. Such outputs might be clean drinking water, erosion control, watershed protection, scientific study, hunting, fishing and recreation opportunities such as climbing, camping, canoeing, horseback riding, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, backpacking, nature study, and wildlife viewing.

To be sustainable, the uses allowed by the new designation would provide the broadest range of outputs and services, while least foreclosing other uses, and without compromising the long term productive capability of the land, water and natural regenerative processes.

As luck would have it, the uses allowed by the Wilderness Act do just that. The list of outputs above shows that wilderness designation provides for a wide array of outputs and services to society with minimal damage to the long-term productivity of the land.

Freedom of Access

The new designation should provide free access to public lands, a freedom that does not lock people away from their desired experience or destroy their rightful ability to enjoy the land. The new designation would protect the birthright of every American to hunt and fish in a natural setting, and to experience nature away from the noise and congestion of the rest of the predominantly urbanized and motorized world. The new designation would guarantee the right of all recreationists---including motorized users when not using their motors---to enjoy silence and solitude, to hear the sounds of nature. In an era when hikers and horseback riders are losing trails every day, the new designation would provide freedom of access to traditional hiking and horse trails and the right to experience nature unmediated by machines.

As we know, the current wilderness designation does just that. It guarantees our rights and freedoms to experience nature away from traffic and urban sprawl. Without wilderness our freedoms are constrained as we are locked irrevocably into an ever more congested, noisy, crowded and motorized landscape.

Protecting American Values

The new designation should serve the needs and desires of a broad range of Americans. Many Americans prefer non-motorized recreation. They are looking for quiet activities such as walking, picnicking, bird watching and fishing. They are seeking peace and quiet and the solace of nature. They prefer to walk into places while hearing the silence and the sounds of nature.

The new designation would respond to Americans' concern over loss of open space and wildlife habitat. For example, in a 1998 poll in Colorado, respondents mentioned open space six times more frequently than trails as the most important statewide need (Great Outdoors Colorado Survey of Public Participation, 1998). Americans passion for open space is shown in the recent open space referenda, 80% of which passed. The referenda show we are willing to spend billions of dollars on open space, whereas wilderness is already there, without having to buy it.

Recent polls in Colorado also show Coloradans consistently support habitat protection over recreational development. For example, a1999 poll conducted by the Colorado State Trails Program showed that 69% of Coloradans would support limits on trail use if natural habitat is being damaged. (ANY NATIONAL POLLS ON THIS?)

Any new designation we might invent would need to protect these values and ensure them for the future. But wilderness already does protect these values. Wilderness designation preserves the values Americans hold most dear, quiet recreation and wildlife protection. Wilderness meets the needs of Americans seeking refuge from an increasingly urbanized world.

An Appropriate Relationship Between Man and Nature

In defining what constitutes a sustainable relationship between man and nature, pre-Columbian Indians are often used as a benchmark. It has been argued that since Indians modified nature by fire and hunting it is justified for modern man to modify nature as well. In this view, the notion that pre-European North America was pristine wilderness is inaccurate. Humans have always been part of nature and so too should modern society, or so it is argued.

This argument is like saying an 800-pound gorilla belongs in a nursery. Certainly humans were a part of nature back when their populations numbered no more than a few million in North America. Back in pre-European times, humans were still smaller than nature. Indians did not have trail machines that could devour 80 miles of landscape in a day. The land that is covered by a single day's ride on a motorbike would have taken an Indian tribe two weeks to traverse. Now, at current levels of population and technology, people are much bigger than nature. Like an 800-pound gorilla in a nursery, current human populations need to be managed so they don't overwhelm nature.

It is argued that Indians did not make a separation between man and nature. But this is a misconception. Indians, like us, used some lands intensively for hunting and habitation, leaving other lands that were set apart, where in the words of our Wilderness Act "man is a visitor and who does not remain."


So, in conclusion, any alternative to wilderness that was truly sustainable would likely include the principles outlined above, principles that are already embodied in the Wilderness Act. Wilderness designation provides a wide range of mutually sustainable outputs and services, freedom to experience nature away from machines and cities, and a peaceful alternative to contemporary urban life. From that I conclude, there is no need to invent a new designation as an alternative to Wilderness.

I would like to end with a quote about Colorado wilderness from the late David Sumner, nature photographer from Crested Butte, Colorado. I believe this statement applies to the country as a whole:

In the end, this state's final decision on its wilderness will be as symbolic as it is real. It will be a decision not just about land preservation, but about the basic design of our civilization: the balance point it has chosen between the wild and the developed. As such Colorado will become the nation's exemplary mix of the open and the regulated, of contrast and sameness, of choice and coercion. And ultimately, Colorado will serve as evidence of the degree to which we, as a people, choose to honor our deepest roots.

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