Back to Stories

Wildness Is All Around Us—Savor And Protect Yours

Yet only a certain caliber of landscapes support the wild life found in Greater Yellowstone and few other places on earth

The Wind River Range comes into view.  Photo courtesy Flickr user: Douglas LeMoine
The Wind River Range comes into view. Photo courtesy Flickr user: Douglas LeMoine
:  In this first year of Mountain Journal’s life, we have  featured many stories about “wilderness.” We believe such stories are important for helping readers think about the finite nature of untrammeled country, not only public lands protected under capital “W” wilderness status, but what it means as a society to deliberately say we will limit the kind, scale and number of uses that dominate most of the American landscape. Enjoy this incisive column from Susan Marsh below. She spent most of her career managing wilderness on two of the most heavily-used national forests in Greater Yellowstone—the Custer-Gallatin (around Bozeman) and Bridger-Teton which covers most of the southeastern corner of the ecosystem. 

by Susan Marsh 

Are we seeing the end of wilderness? So says a friend of mine who has been embroiled in a controversial effort to make wilderness recommendations by committee here in Teton County, Wyoming which encompasses Jackson Hole and the mountains rimming it.

“Maybe we’ve reached the end of Wilderness as a politically viable category,” she says. 

All over the West, proposals for new additional parks and protected areas are leaning away from restrictive wilderness in favor of less protective “backcountry” designations. There are efforts afoot to redefine Wilderness to include uses like mountain biking. 

Splitting up what remains of the backcountry to accommodate various and often competing human recreation uses is nothing new, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with setting aside backcountry areas that aren’t suitable for inclusion in the wilderness system. But when we start talking about abandoning wilderness altogether for more politically expedient substitutes, I worry.

Some researchers believe that wilderness is nothing more than a human construct anyway, and we have altered the earth to the point that even in Antarctica the effects of air pollution, a squirrely ozone layer, and climate change have rendered true wilderness obsolete. But like everything else under the sun, wilderness is largely in the eye of the beholder.

 The Wilderness Act provides for this, in its definition of wilderness, which I’ll paraphrase for brevity and emphasis: 

A wilderness stands in contrast with areas where humans and their works dominate the landscape. It’s an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by people and where we are visitors (wildernesses are all in national forests, parks, and other public lands where we already are visitors).

Tellingly, wilderness is also defined as an area of undeveloped federal land managed to preserve its natural conditions so it generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature. The imprint of human developments are substantially unnoticeable.

With this definition in mind, the wild lands of Greater Yellowstone exemplify what Congress had in mind with it passed the Wilderness Act in 1964. 

With the signing of the Act, just over 9 million acres were preserved in 54 wildernesses, many of them already managed as primitive areas. The National Wilderness Preservation Sysytem now includes over 110 million acres, about half of which is in Alaska. In the lower 48 states 2.7% of the land is wilderness. 

Yes, 110 million acres is nothing to sneeze at, but we are rapidly discovering that simple designation is not the only thing needed to protect wilderness. Areas near large urban centers from Salt Lake City to Seattle are overrun with visitors. Popular wilderness destinations near Bozeman (Lava Lake for instance) and Driggs, Idaho (Alaska Basin) are almost as crowded as the trails in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. 

The Forest Service, in an effort to rein in the effects of our numbers, has put in place so many restrictions in such overused spots that a wilderness visit now seems more like a trip to see the Venus de Milo at the Louvre. Plan ahead, get in your request for a permit way in advance, choose a designated campsite and don’t change our mind later.

The growing wilderness use statistics tell us that people still love their Wilderness. But if these and other backcountry areas are only seen as places for human recreation, and if they have no value to us otherwise, I can imagine a future when my friend will be proven right that the time for protecting wilderness as we know it is over.
Wiggins Fork River.  Image courtesy Ecoflight
Wiggins Fork River. Image courtesy Ecoflight
Part of the reason is lack of awareness about what wilderness is and has meant to Americans in the past. When Europeans arrived on this continent they scurried about, destroying wilderness as fast as they could. When it was nearly gone, we started thinking it might be worth preserving a few scraps. Much history intervened between these moments in time, but with it came a gradual awareness that wild places had some mysterious intrinsic value that went beyond our utilitarian needs. 

I met a young botanist the other day who grew up in Jackson Hole and has recently moved back. He says many of his friends, even those who grew up here, have no idea what wilderness is, except that it’s a place where “I can’t ride my bike.” 

For decades wilderness has been defined by what you can’t do. In contrast to the surrounding national forest (Land of Many Uses, as an agency catchphrase once announced on entrance signs), wilderness opponents called it the ‘land of no use’. 

Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, why not look at Wilderness as a realm that is more expansive and humbling for the mind and imagination, not as limiting;  as an expression of its values, dependent on our thoughtful self-restraint and respect for places with their own fundamental worth? 
Cirque Of The Towers from Lizard Head Meadow.  Original photo courtesy Flickr user: Doug Letterman, edited by Mountain Journal
Cirque Of The Towers from Lizard Head Meadow. Original photo courtesy Flickr user: Doug Letterman, edited by Mountain Journal
The Wilderness Act specified that wilderness is precious not only for human recreation, but for its ecologicalgeological, or other features of scientificeducationalscenic, or historical value. [note: clicking on these links will lead the reader to more specific information on each of these wilderness values, as published on the interagency Wilderness Connect website.] Wilderness represents a baseline or a reference landscape where natural processes function with as little influence from people as is possible these days.

When those of us who were part of the movement to protect wilderness are gone, will there be anyone left who cares? It’s frightening to contemplate.

I was a kid with five acres of second-growth forest in my backyard. Every weekday I walked through the woods to school and I couldn’t wait finish my homework so I could go out there and play.

Things have changed. REI, Inc. has recently published a report called The Path Ahead: The Future of Life Outdoors, in which it tells us that kids spend less time outside than prison inmates, with the average child playing freely out of doors for four to seven minutes a day. Some would rather do chores or homework than spend their time outdoors. 
Things have changed. REI, Inc. has recently published a report called The Path Ahead: The Future of Life Outdoors, in which it tells us that kids spend less time outside than prison inmates, with the average child playing freely out of doors for four to seven minutes a day. Some would rather do chores or homework than spend their time outdoors. 
This makes me want to stop writing, turn off the computer and run out into the world. I want to smell the wild plum blossoms and watch bees wallowing in them, listen to the kinglets singing and feel a cool breeze on my face. It makes me want to weep for the children who have no access to open space, and weep for those bits of open space that are seen only as investment opportunities waiting for the right market moment.

People who become conservation-oriented can usually point to a mentor or experience that changed them. A college friend who grew up on the coast became a marine biologist, and this was no surprise: she had been a budding biologist since childhood. But others get their inspiration later, and often it was a wilderness trip or an encounter with wildlife that made all the difference. 

The trails program manager with the local Forest Service ranger district told me he was inspired by handling birds during an undergraduate internship. Another friend cited her group leader who took the youngest Camp Fire Girls (Bluebirds) to an undeveloped beach where they sat on driftwood logs and watched seagulls, telling stories. She went to work as an interpreter for the Park Service.

Exposure to the outdoors at an early age increases one’s capacity for empathy. People who have had experiences like the examples above tend toward service to the land, the resource, and the public. There is an I want to do this moment that comes when you first learn about an actual discipline out there that captures your vague dreams. The young mind says wow: I can band birds? Lay out trails? Teach others about the things I care for?
Quake Lake, created after an earthquake struck in 1959, lies within Gallatin National Forest.  Photo courtesy Flickr user: Phil Price
Quake Lake, created after an earthquake struck in 1959, lies within Gallatin National Forest. Photo courtesy Flickr user: Phil Price
My college mentors included enthusiastic professors, field trip leaders, botanists and the guy who hosted potlucks after the Christmas Bird Count. By necessity I got degrees in specific areas of study – narrowing as you go – but my interests kept expanding. During a two-month geology field course a few of our group of 20 were interested in more than the rocks. We were all webfeet from the Pacific Northwest and the trip opened vistas we had not imagined. Canyons, and canyon wrens. Walking stick insects as long as my hand on which one perched, claret cup cactus in bloom, a chuckwalla that sunned himself on a ledge and shot back into his crevice at our approach. 

Near the end of the field course a classmate shook me awake at dawn to go down to a pond in Grand Teton National Park and watch for beavers. It was magical to stand in the shadows as the day began, still chilly at the end of May, and watch a family of beavers swimming and sitting on the bank to nibble on twigs in their surprisingly delicate hands. Herons stood like statues, one at each end of the pond. Gray shadows turned to green, the sun came up, and we walked silently back to camp. 

That was so cool, is probably all I could think to say. Our early morning foray happened 45 years ago, but it comes back instantly, a vision of the sort you conjure when someone tells you to image being in a totally safe and peaceful place. Beavers, ponds, herons. I wanted them for neighbors.

Most of my conservation mentors are long gone. They contributed to, and I grabbed the trailing end of, a prosperous, hopeful and generous time between the early 1960s (remember when everyone wanted to join the Peace Corps?) and the me-first 1980s. They instilled a sense of hope and possibility for what our country could be – and for a time was – a leader in environmental stewardship. 

We as a nation cleaned up rivers, made the foul urban air fit to breathe, identified species on the brink and took action to bring them back. Many of us volunteered with great enthusiasm, spurred by successes large and small. Now it seems we are determined to undo all that good work.

I recently met a couple of people in their twenties who are serving as interns for a local non-profit this summer. They’re both from Eastern states, which from the point of view of Westerners are all cornfields and cities. But in many ways these states are far ahead of the West, where we still consider ourselves residents of a vast frontier. Their laws protecting wetlands, watersheds and areas important for wildlife impress me with their foresight and wisdom. And people support these efforts with a sense of the common good for all. Here, like true Westerners, we’re still squabbling.

Photo courtesy Flickr user: Douglas LeMoine
Photo courtesy Flickr user: Douglas LeMoine
It strikes me as ironic that The Path Ahead reports that we are becoming an indoor species, yet our near-urban wildernesses are filling up with people. What isn’t increasing is the amount of wild land that can accommodate them and still provide sanctuary for other forms of life. We don’t need wilderness alone; it is one end of a spectrum of places that offer the quiet and beauty of nature. It’s just as important to keep creating new city parks as it is to designate new wilderness and protect what we already have.

The Path Ahead urges us to make cities more nature- and people-friendly. I hope we do, for those cities are where tomorrow’s conservationists will largely come from. Parks and pathways, urban gardens and programs that get inner city kids outdoors may allow our increasing population to keep pumping out the crucial minority who will take conservation the next step and lead the rest of us toward a better future.

These are people who will have fallen asleep under a spreading maple tree or have gone fishing with a grandfather or have had the chance to hold a newly banded bird and feel its heart beat before watching it fly. 

Some of them may come to Greater Yellowstone with hearts that have been opened by small experiences with nature. When they see the magnificence of this wild land, the wildlife species that can still inhabit it, and the scenic vistas of range after range into the far distance, they will recognize this jewel for what it is.

 Instead of asking how they can make a buck off it, they’ll say, Wow. How can we make sure our kids get to experience places like this?  

Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places