What is wilderness and why do we need it?

By Candace Oathout
for Eco-Logic


I was recently heartened to learn that Bill McKibbon is wrong. In his book The End of Nature he informed us that there are no natural wildlands left. All the earth has been affected by the presence of humankind to its utmost distress and degradation. David Suzuki, in his essay, Unwilling stewards of the planet reports with dismay on the findings of a group of scientists from Columbia University and the Wildlife Conservation Society that 98% of the earth is now directly under the influence of human beings.

Fortunately, according to the latest data compiled over a period of two years by a team of more than 200 international scientists and researchers, wilderness areas still cover close to half of the earth's land and contain only a tiny percentage of the earth's population.

Their findings have been compiled in a book entitled, Wilderness: Earth's Last Wild Places. The sky isn't falling after all, at least not as fast as many environmental doomsayers would have us believe. "We must however rush to protect these undisturbed wilderness areas because of their importance for any global strategy of protecting biodiversity," says Peter Seligmann, Conservation International's Chair and CEO.

I find it very interesting that since the environmental community is having trouble maintaining the catastrophic collapse of biodiversity due to human overpopulation, they need now to switch gears and proclaim that these wilderness areas are critical to the survival of the planet. Keep in mind that these areas encompass landmass equivalent to the six largest countries on earth combined - Russia, Canada, China, the United States, Brazil and Australia - and have, for the most part, less than five people per square kilometer (per .39 square miles).

Also keep in mind the Wildlands Project in the United States that seeks to return 50% of the landmass of the United States to pre-Columbian conditions, with humankind safely sequestered in urban islands.

After a little web research, I discovered that 37.4% of the United States landmass is now encompassed in National Forests, Roadless Areas and Wilderness Areas. This equates to 356,272,197 acres of United States public lands or 556,675.31 square miles.

The vast majority of these lands are located in the western states and Alaska. In fact, 56% of Alaska is designated wilderness. While the acreage in Alaska is probably figured into Conservation International's wilderness, that still leaves 298,089,981 acres or 465,765.6 square miles of existing wilderness within the contiguous United States, in addition to the 46% of the earth that Conservation International has declared wilderness.

How much is enough?

One of the goals of the Wildlands Project, as stated on their website, includes viable self-reproducing populations of all natural species, including top predators. My first thought when I read this, was what constitutes a "natural" species? Who gets to define a "natural" species? What criteria and timeline is, or should be, used?

E. O. Wilson, the author of The Diversity of Life states, "How species are classified determines the number recognized; the bottom line is that only a very rough estimate can be made of the number of recognized species in the world." So, if I understand this correctly, we can only guess at the number of species there are, and we can only estimate the rate of extinction based on our guess regarding the number of species, but we better save all there are, because we don't know what will happen next. How is that for exact scientific reasoning?

The so-called non-native parasitic cowbird was originally spotted following the vast herds of buffalo (American bison) across the central plains region of the United States. When did it lose its native status? Who determined that this species had changed so drastically that it was no longer native?

If species such as raccoons, coyotes, skunks, and crows have adapted to sharing habitats with humans, are they no longer "natural"? If the goal is to maintain viable reproducing populations of natural species why are so many wildlife biologists so determined to remove wild horses from wildlands and wilderness areas? Do we need to re-introduce camels to the central plains?

The second part of the Wildlands Project goal, as stated above, is to include large predators in these natural self-reproducing populations. If media reports are to be believed, black bears range throughout the Western and upper Midwestern states, from Washington and California to New Mexico, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. There have been confirmed reports of mountain lion sightings throughout the Western states, the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota and the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This appears to be a pretty broad range for large predators. My point is that these species are much more resilient and capable of natural dispersion than we choose to give them credit for. If there is a food source available, they will follow it.

I recently received a solicitation from the Mineral Policy Center telling me that only five small populations of grizzly bears are alive today in the lower 48 states. It urgently implores me to donate to help save one of the lower 48's five remaining grizzly bear populations from an enormous copper and silver mine in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area.

So I did a little research on the grizzly bear populations. There are currently about 1,000 to 1,100 individuals scattered across Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming. The Wildlands Project proposes that to maintain a viable reproducible population of 1,000 grizzly bears roughly 242,000,000 acres or 378,125 squares miles of wilderness is needed. In other words, although much of the currently designated wilderness acres are not suitable grizzly bear habitat, we have an excess of 87,640.6 square miles of it set aside. Again, I ask, how much is enough?

The Wildlands Project says, on its website, "We live for the day when grizzlies in Chihuahua have an unbroken connection to grizzlies in Alaska; when wolf populations are restored from Mexico to the Yukon" On the basis of my research, I'd say we have a pretty good start. Wolf populations are naturally dispersing throughout the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest. Just a few weeks ago a deer hunter just outside the suburbs of Minneapolis shot a 115 pound female wolf. I'd be surprised to learn that she was traveling alone.

The mission of the Wildlands Project goes on to state; "when humans dwell with respect, harmony, and affection for the land" This is a lofty goal, that I see being met by foresters, farmers, and ranchers every single day.

I, as president of an equestrian association for seven years, worked with literally thousands of individuals whose love and respect for the land was immense. They simply wanted to be able to enjoy it from horseback. They quickly embraced and internalized the concepts of "Gentle Use" and "Leave No Trace" camping. I have worked with thousands of multiple use group members who live the very essence of respect and affection for the land. They have this respect and affection for the land because they are able to experience first-hand, the beauty and majesty of it.

The idea that we must confine humans to urban islands and never let them experience the majesty of the land will never lead them "to be respectful citizens in the land community". Those who most demonstrate "respect, harmony and affection for the land" are those who have first-hand experience with it.

I have seen the wonder in the faces of fifth-grade and sixth-grade inner-city children who are taking part for the first time, in activities at a Nature Center. Children who are helping to survey and count the number of different birds that are visiting an old sewage pond in an estuary. These children never looked at this area in quite the same way after their experiences.

I have seen the wonder on the faces of a group of adults, who for the first time, took a horseback ride through a willow forest and out to the beach along the southern California coast. They were astounded at the diverse plant and animal life to be found so close to their respective homes.

They respectfully chose to ride only those sections of beach that had no nesting birds on them. They respectfully took only pictures and left only hoof prints on their ride. They learned just how valuable and wonderful this often-maligned corner of the world truly is. I somehow doubt that looking only at photographs or standing on the sidewalk outside the estuary boundary would have produced the same experience.

If wilderness is, in fact, the vast expanses of wildlands where no human ever visits, how will our children, and their children, who have never seen it, and are more connected to television, mall shopping and video games, than the outdoors, ever learn to respect the land community?

It is my humble opinion that creating vast wilderness areas while taking away opportunities for people to personally experience the majesty of a boreal forest, or the grandeur of a trek up the mountains above the tree line, or the simple beauty of waking up to sunrise in a meadow by a mountain stream, is a mistake. The way to inspire respect, harmony and affection for the land community is through first-hand experience with it.


Candace Oathout is Chair of Citizens Against Recreational Eviction of Minnesota, and a Member of Backcountry Horsemen of California, Caballeros del Sol Unit.


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