Should we protect the wilderness?
A recent op-ed in The New York Times about wilderness areas raises important questions about the ethics of public access and environmental preservation in the national park system. Its author sharply criticizes what he feels is overzealous enforcement of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Citing cases of deaths caused by lack of signage and vast expanses of wilderness, the article suggests that the laws once intended to preserve areas of natural beauty and promote easy access to them have instead needlessly endangered lives. Further preservation efforts, enacted as recently as 2009, only exacerbate the problem:
“… agencies have made these supposedly open recreational areas inaccessible and even dangerous, putting themselves in opposition to healthy and environmentally sound human-powered activities, the very thing Congress intended the Wilderness Act to promote.”
There is significant ideological tension between encouraging access to wilderness and the efforts to preserve it. Activists talk about the vital importance of the wilderness experience, but realistically, the only way to preserve that experience is through limiting access to it. But how much space do we really need?
A conflict inevitably arises. On one side, there is a kind of wilderness elitism. Its goal is to maintain the purity of large swaths of the natural environment for the privilege of a select few. It is, on a basic level, impossible to sustain for everyone. Its counterpart is wilderness populism, which maintains that these natural areas should be easily accessible for everyone. This idea of mass access, while egalitarian, threatens to destroy the qualities that make the wilderness so precious to enthusiasts.
So far, the government has struck a good balance, and accomplished great things with wilderness preservation. Refusing to put up signs, however, needlessly endangers people. More than that, it isn’t helping anyone to more fully experience the solitude of the woods.
Image used under a Creative Commons Attribution License from Flickr user Jagger