Wilderness and the American Mind

Wilderness and the American Mind 5th Edition by Roderick Frazier Nash, 412 pages ★★★★
This book will be reviewed in two parts. The first part will contain a review of the book itself but include many of my personal comments, and the second will contain my thoughts and reflections on the Wilderness philosophy.

Part 1: Book review

I read this book on my iPad Kindle app mostly while at work between seeing patients. The Kindle allowed me to make numerous notes, very few of which will be mentioned. Mr. Nash is quite readable, and I enjoyed this text. I appreciated his organization of the book from a historical perspective, and I appreciated that he honestly discussed his own bias regarding wilderness. I learned a tremendous amount from the book and so consider it of great value. I selected this book over others from Amazon based on the volume and high ranking of the reviews that this book received. My opinion concurs that the book is well written and gives a persuasive argument for the preservation of wilderness. The chapters were quite variable in their quality, and I will discuss each chapter individually.


Nash discusses the etymology of the word wilderness, and the challenge of defining exactly what it means. He speaks of the diverse use of the word wilderness and similar words across times and cultures in the recorded history of the world

Chapter 1: Old World Roots of Opinion

Briefly, Nash reviews various descriptions of wild nature, as found in the writings of ancient civilization, including Persia, Greece, Rome, Scandinavians and barbarians of Europe. The wilderness was a mysterious land, dark and dangerous, filled with evil sprites, ogres and demons, not a welcoming place. he also mentions Bible references to wilderness, though Nash fails to see that wilderness (as translated) is used in a totally different sense than we would use it today. Historical descriptions of wilderness are taken up to the end of the middle ages. Nash suggests than in opposition to western thought, many cultures did not fear or abhor wilderness, yet offers no evidence for this claim.

Chapter 2: A wilderness condition

We jump to the early 1800’s in America. Europeans are enchanted that wild lands still exist, as there remained no wild lands in Europe. Again, most descriptions of early settlers and explorers centered on the gloomy, dreary nature of what they were seeing. The ruggedness of the woods tended to tailor the descriptions, and survival and taming the wilderness were considered of utmost importance in the American mindset. The role of settlers was to subdue the wilderness and transform it into useable land. To them, it meant survival, not convenience or ideology.

Chapter 3: The Romantic Wilderness

This chapter shows an awakening of the European mind to the possibility of beauty as found in the wilderness areas. This is in part a reaction to the ugliness and stench that was familiar in the larger cities of Europe, as well as the taming of wilderness, so that, even though it remained “wild”, there was a possibility of venture into the woods while expecting a large chance of coming out alive. Thus, many Europeans formed an attraction for “primitivism”, that is, divesting oneself of many of the comforts of the city to enter into wild areas, with its novelty of danger. While most Americans were using the undeveloped regions as a form of sustenance in activities like hunting, trapping, and foresting, there became a growing fraction that would go into the woods simply to encounter something different.

Chapter 4: The American Wilderness

This chapter historically overlaps much of chapter 3, speaking of attitudes toward wilderness and wild areas in the early 1800’s. The scenery of the American landscape became a topic of conversation on both sides of the Atlantic, with literature honing in on the spectacular beauty of America. I dare say that Europeans found this particular literature quite novel, since there was really no existent wilderness lands throughout Europe, and that all forests and lands have been tamed. Authors such as James Fenimore Cooper who wrote much about attitudes toward wilderness in his novels, was highly mentioned. Paintings and descriptions of the far west including Yellowstone, and the Tetons, became an arena of much public interest.

Chapter 5: Henry David Thoreau: Philosopher

Thoreau in the mid-1800’s became the first philosopher of wilderness, declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World”. Thoreau spiritualized wilderness, developing a philosophy of wilderness which suggested that there is a spiritual truth in wilderness but greater than the observed physical. This of course, led to the thinking that nature itself was a proper source of religion. Though Thoreau survived by commercializing his ideas, he railed on the spirit of commercialism as a virus of the age. Thoreau went on an insatiable quest to discover new wilderness, but he also realized the need to return to the civilized city, and discussed the need for balance between the city and the wilderness. Thoreau’s statement “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” suggests that city living is not or cannot be deliberative? Even Nash admits that much of Thoreau was either inconsistent or trite. Thoreau sought to find a merger between the savage of the woods (the Indians) and the cultured intellectualness of civilized man. This search for a merger, as typified in his book “Walden”, suggests his zeal toward bringing both factions together. As stated by Nash “Thoreau knows wildness (the animal in us) as man’s most valuable quality but only when checked and utilized by his “higher nature”. Yet, such synthesis remains to this day competing realms of the wilderness movement, as we shall see.

Chapter 6: Preserve the Wilderness!

Toward the middle to end of the 19th century, keen observed began to note how pioneers and settlers were wholesale destruction of the land they were settling, and complaints were made. Particularly was it noted how quickly the mass herds of buffalo had disappeared. Arguments for the preservation of wild areas first emerged in the later half of the 19th century, noting that we needed to look at wild areas with more than a utilitarian motive. The devastating effects of clear cut logging were noted and need for restraint on how we treated the earth advocated. The first talk of preserving Yosemite and Yellowstone were described.

Chapter 7: Wilderness Preserved

In 1872, Ulysses Grant formed the first national park, Yellowstone by a stroke of the pen. Thus started the first time in the history of known mankind an act that preserved land in its undeveloped state. Yet, this act did NOT occur secondary to the activities of Thoreau or other Transcendentalists like Catlin, Hammond or Marsh, but simply in order to prevent private acquisition of areas in Yellowstone. The main argument for Yellowstone was not its usefulness as wilderness, but that it was land that was useless to civilization. Only later did its wilderness aspects come to bear. Slowly, arguments for preserving segments of the east, in the Appalachians and Adirondacks, came to focus. Often, the arguments for wilderness preservation had a very utilitarian focus, such as the necessity of preserving watersheds. To preserve wilderness for wilderness’s sake had not yet hit the public consciousness.

Chapter 8: John Muir: Publicizer

Nash spends much space detailing the life of John Muir, having been born in Scotland, but growing up in the Wisconsin frontier. Nash makes Muir’s development of a love for wilderness as almost a religious conversion from his native Presbyterianism. Muir ended up in California, effected heavily by transcendentalist thinking, and developed a great friendship with Emerson. Thus John Muir took up his mission in life to educate fellow man about the virtues of wilderness. Nash then describes the start of the two competing ideas for wilderness, that of John Muir and that of Gifford Pinchot. We will hear much more of those two in the next few chapters, the difference being that Muir advocated strict preservation of wilderness, which Pinchot advocated the wise use of such lands. Muir’s influence helped to develop the Yosemite act, preserving Yosemite and later much of the Sierra Nevadas from crass development. Muir was influential in the development of vast forest reserves, though the function of those reserves were left undeclared. Muir and Pinchot started as friends working for a mutual end, though Pinchot’s focus was primarily on civilization and forests, and Muir to wilderness and preservation. Sadly (in my estimation), neither side then or today seeks to find ways in which they can work mutually together! Such thinking led to irreparable rifts between the two men, culminating in the Hetch Hetchy controversy, to soon be discussed.

Chapter 9: The Wilderness Cult

Nash starts up in the early 20th century, speaking of a man who went naked for two months into the woods, in order to survive. Interest in primitive living from his published story suddenly swept up public enthusiasm. (Oddly, in order to survive, much damage to the wilderness needed to be done, including killing a bear out of season). Simultaneously, the need arose to escape the city. It was at the turn of the century that Americans began to realize that the frontier no longer existed. Movements such as the Boy Scouts to get city folk out into the woods arose. President Roosevelt toured both Yellowstone and Yosemite, stirring up public sentiment that such parks needed to exist. Many outdoor clubs, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, Sierra Club, Mazamas, and Mountaineers were started at this time. Thus, the scene was set for Hetch Hetchy.

Chapter 10: Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy is a valley that extends up into the Yosemite wilderness, described as having steep canyon walls and immense beauty. It was included in the area of the Yosemite wilderness. Yet, developers desired to dam up the valley for hydroelectric power for San Francisco, the lake of which would have extended well into Yosemite National Park. Thus pitted the preservationists against the utilitarians, Muir vs Pinchot. Sadly, this time, the utilitarians won, and a dam was built. The story of the struggle between factions demonstrated the inability of the utilitarians to think of reasonable alternatives, while the preservationists presented statements that reflected fantasy rather than reality. In one particular statement, Muir noted that the region “be saved from all sorts of commercialism and marks of man’s works”, yet trails, shelters, roads, and other structures mark man’s work, but not to the detriment of the wilderness. He correctly noted that energy and municipal water supply could have been secured outside of “our wild mountain parks”, a definite truism that Pinchot refused to give in to. Sadly, anger reigned on both sides, and mis-representation on both sides existed. The friends of wilderness accused others as guided only by “mammon”, but certainly, economics was NOT the main driving force. Sadly, the arguments turned into ad hominem insults on both sides. Preservationists attempted to make a religion of the wild places, also clearly misjudging the motivations of the utilitarians. Clear vision seems to be lacking in California to this date. It was the Democrats who were in strongest support of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, by the way! This chapter was excellent at identifying the issues that confronted society in making decisions about preserving or utilizing our wild spaces, and lessons are to be learned to this date. While Nash fails to point out the need for clearer thinking on both sides of the issue, he details very nicely the controversies that will not go away.

Chapter 11: Aldo Leopold: Prophet

A chapter on Aldo Leopold is provided to emphasize his role in developing a public policy toward wilderness. He was employed by the United States Forest service, and worked in the SW of Arizona and New Mexico. Leopold’s main focus was on wildlife preservation, but his enthusiasm eventually cost him his job with the Forest service, later rejoining when more favorable attitudes developed in Washington. Oddly, Leopold’s definition of wilderness supports hunting and fishing, but not the development of trails. Leopold was able to see that a balance between preservationists and utilitarians must be sought. He also pointed out that recreation was not the only reason to maintain wilderness. It was Leopold that motivated others to form primeval areas, such as the development of the Appalachian Trail. Toward the end of the chapter, Nash diverts a bit to wax eloquent about the spirituality of the woods, simultaneously horrendously misquoting the Bible. But, Nash describes the development of a wilderness “ethic” that oddly removes man from the situation, that is, that wilderness is to preserved independent of all other considerations of man and beast.

Chapter 12: Decisions for Permanence

This chapter follows the Hetch Hetchy setback and death of John Muir a year later. This is the story of successes with stopping other public works projects on national parks and monuments. The Echo Park Dam proposed project introduces Robert Marshall as the hero of the moment. Yet, Nash devolves into the trite. An example in arguing for the need for more wilderness, I quote “When asked how many wilderness areas America needed, he replied, “how many Brahms symphonies do we need?””. Unfortunately, the answer is “Four!” because that’s how many Brahms wrote. His response doesn’t really provide quality thought into the question asked. Again, he stated “wilderness furnishes perhaps the best opportunity for… our esthetic rapture”. I’m sure the Donner party was engaged in esthetic rapture in their wilderness experience. Or, statements of political nonsense “A democratic society, he believed, ought to respect the preferences of those who coveted wilderness”. Hogwash! Democracy respects the will of the majority, which is why the USA is not supposed to be a democracy! Marshall asks some pointed questions, like how a society balances the need for irrigation, logging, highways with the need for wilderness. Sadly, he gives no means of answering that question. Marshall helped to found the Wilderness Society, that was actually able to do some good, in spite of the triteness of its founder. The proceedings of the Echo Park rescue continued, but with so many more inane statements expected to win an emotional but thoughtless decision. Examples again… “wild country was the place we rediscover ourselves when troubled, confused or dismayed”. (Really now?) and “no one has ever been able to place a dollar sign on wilderness values”. (So what, countless things, including human life, have no dollar signs). “We should keep some wild places to benefit the human spirit” (Oh yea? Could you really explain that?)The chapter ends in the passage of the Wilderness Act, and in the battle over building dams on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon episode was informative, showing thoughtless thinking on both sides of the argument. Again, the only plea of the conservationists was that the dam was being built for “profit”, but that wasn’t the motive at all, in that the SW needed a better water supply and power. Yet, the argument would never pass muster today, with the conservationist stating “coal-fired thermal plants or nuclear generators could supply the requisite electric power at less cost than the dams”. Conservationists came down strongly that with dams, people would no longer be able to raft the Colorado, an argument which came back on them when later when secretary of the interior James Watt insisted on motorized vehicles on the Colorado so that all people could float the Colorado. Bad arguments lead to even worse responses. Interesting, the Hualapai Indians had a financial stake in the dam venture, and were fighting strongly for one of the dams, going against arguments that the Indians were intrinsically caring to “mother earth”. So, while I thank God that the various dams discussed in this chapter were never built, I only wish that better arguments and better thinking on conservation issues would have prevailed.

Chapter 13: Toward a Philosophy of Wilderness

In this chapter, the wilderness ethic becomes a religion, quoting “Wilderness appreciation was a faith”. Nash presents the extremists on both sides, particularly focusing on those who would totally obliterate wilderness with development. Proposals such as building a restaurant on top of Half Dome (and I presume a tram to take customers up), complaints being raised that most (99%) of people cannot enjoy the distant backwoods (too lazy, old, young, timid, inexperienced, frail, hurried, or out of shape suggested),  or a tram in the Grand Canyon suggested, are all ideas proposed, and thankfully not accomplished. Emphasis remained, like Thoreau suggested, on a balance of life between civilization and wilderness. This chapter labors over the struggle for this balance. It fights for something lost over the face of the earth, in that true “wilderness” doesn’t exist any longer anywhere on earth. Everywhere has been mapped, everywhere is accessible by airplane or other means, no place is truly primitive and inaccessible. Society has abandoned the idea of morals and value, but tries to create morals and value, beauty and excellence, with the concept of wilderness. So, I see in Nash’s presentation of this chapter on wilderness philosophy as a great philosophy without legs or underpinning. Example, I quote “When man obliterates wilderness, he repudiates the evolutionary force that put him on this planet. In a deeply terrifying sense, man is on his own”. Bullshit! If man is purely a product of evolution, his actions are manifestation of evolution, including man’s destructiveness. You can’t have a argument for evolution, and yet exclude man from that argument. Such rubbish arguments continue on for pages. Conservation arguments then try to disengage wilderness from recreation. Really? Then, let’s forbid man from entering wilderness! Or, “to lose wilderness was to risk losing what was characteristically American” is total nonsense, since the entire gist of this book was that it was American to conquer wilderness, and that conservationists were attempting to stop this progression. Further arguments turn worse, such as “In the 1940s the Mormons also found freedom in wilderness”. Really? You can’t be serious, Nash! And quote from Dasmann “wilderness areas (are) reservoirs of freedom”. And “This importance of wilderness preservation transcends mere recreation. Evidence comes from the fact that rebelling guerrilla bands still head for the hills”. Again, “(wilderness is) a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression”. Again “we dreamed of and labored toward an escape from the anxieties of a wilderness condition only to find, when we reached the promised land of supermarkets… that we had forfeited something of great value” (seriously, most people visit the supermarket for supplies before heading out to the woods. I hope one isn’t killing deer for food in the wilderness!). Finally, lest I grow weary, “The concept of wilderness as church, as a place to find and worship God, helped launch the intellectual revolution that led to wilderness appreciation”. This is double talk, as there is no appreciation of God or belief in God, unless one’s god is wilderness. Sadly, it is such muddled thinking which explains why conservationists have had such trouble in arguing their case.

Chapter 14: Alaska

In 1980, Alaska became the focus of conservation, when Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, protecting 104 million acres of the state. Alaska was conceived by conservationists as the final American frontier, and thus the desire to avoid the mistakes made in the greater 48. Some thinkers considered Alaska too big to be spoiled by tourism. Others realized that that was precisely what was said of the American west, and feared its ultimate destruction.  Noting Alaska’s inhospitable climate, the risks for an easy destruction are much greater.  Yet, Alaskans would like to be the determiners of their own fate, and not interfered with by elites of the lower 48. Complicating matters are the role of Alaska natives, with a deal struck allowing them ownership of 44 million acres of lands, and rights for subsistence living on those lands. The eskimo, like Indians of the lower 48, had no concept of land ownership to guide their actions. Also complicating matters is that Eskimos subside on now modern technologies, such as modern rifles and snowmobiles, and no concept of preservation. The permission for subsistence living was a complete break from tradition in the lower 48, forbidding hunting and subsistence living in the lands under the jurisdiction of the forest service. Muir is described as one of the first people to bring attention to Americans as to the need to preserve wilderness in Alaska. Alaska slowly transitioned from being defined as Seward’s folly or a worthless hunk of ice, to being the object of tourism. Regarding the tourists, Muir complained that only if one visited the wilderness in his personal style would one get into the heart of wilderness (a little bit arrogant, in my opinion). Nash then rails against Jack London and Robert Service describing Alaska as an inhospitable place (it was), and differentiates many visitors stay in Alaska as “vacation”, while Muir’s brief stay was “work”, reflecting a personal elitism. Alaska was finally visited by Robert Marshall, a wealthy New York born Harvard educated kid who saved Echo Park, taking delight in his lengthy “vacation” in the wilds of the Alaskan outback. Marshall became a self-acclaimed conservationist, determined to prohibit any development north of the Yukon River. Thus, an attempt for a permanent American “frontier”. Battles began, especially when oil was discovered in northern Alaska. Preserving wilderness became self-defeating, in that hunting, fishing and tourism depended on preserving wilderness. The Sierra Club was hell-bent on preventing Alaska from any further development (though I’m sure they would have been offended if Alaska insisted on no further development in California). Compromises in wilderness designation had to be made in Alaska. Alaska resented the lower 48 states making legislation that the states would never make for themselves. Alaskans seemed bewildered that “there was a rush to lock resources up in a park that only environmentalists with their planes can get to”, and saw the hypocrisy that it was elitist millionaires like Charles Sheldon and Robert Marshall, or paid representatives of wilderness groups like John McPhee, such luxuries were not possible for the average Alaskan. The challenge in congressional debates was to preserve America’s last frontier (even though even environmentalists with their airplanes did not treat it like a real frontier). Like a broken record, again it was argued that Americans “needed places where we can learn how to live in close harmony with the earth, and Alaska was such a place (rather WEAK argument for preserving wilderness!!!!). Continuing the argument, I quote “Arizona…supplies the world with much of its copper…Alska can supply… vast and pristine wilderness” (yea sure, export a little of this wilderness to Europe, why don’t you?). I don’t mean to be critical of the environmentalists and delighted that efforts had been made to keep industry from running rampant in Alaska. I’m very disappointed that such flimsy, weak and silly arguments are made to preserve “wilderness” in Alaska.

Chapter 15: The Irony of Victory

Wilderness preservation has developed a “Catch 22”. To promote wilderness preservation, interest in wilderness had to be promoted. By promoting an interest in wilderness, the wilderness has suffered “intolerable” visitation, and because of excess visitation, diminishes its consideration of being wilderness. Thus, the topic of this chapter. How does one maintain an interest in preserving wilderness, while keeping the hoi polloi and riffraff away, whose support you desperately need? Improved access and technologies for wilderness visitation has created a glut of visitors to the wilderness. Yet, the conservationists offer major wilderness outings, for instance, the Sierra Club offers over 300 outings a year. Strong arguments are to maintain “primitive simplicity…as a guideline in managing wilderness because the areas were intended for people who seek almost absolute detachment for the evidences of civilization”. (Yet, in my opinion, such an attitude denies reality, and only compounds the problem by not instituting simple measures to protect wilderness from even worse destruction by its visitors). Marshall’s solution was for “no constructed trails or trail signs, no established campgrounds and, most importantly, the feeling on the part of the visitor of being where no one has ever been before” (sadly, it is guaranteed that others have been there before, so, get over the fantasy, and offer real protection to the wilderness). Nash offered discussion of limiting wilderness access as a solution to overcrowded. Finally, he notes that the debate over anthropocentrism versus biocentrism. (In my opinion, this is total rubbish! Virtually every argument Muir and so many conservationists give for the wilderness is anthropocentric (The mountains are calling and I must obey, Climb the mountains and get their glad tidings). Even the definition of wilderness is anthropocentric!). Nash discusses the proposal to place dams on the Colorado in Grand Canyon NP. While conservationists (against their own principles) argued against dams because people needed the experience of rafting the Colorado (you dare suggest that wilderness might also be for recreation????), others, led by Secretary of the Interior James Watt suggested that the boats MUST be allowed to be motorized, since it allowed access to the river to those incapable of doing the float trip in rowed vehicles (total nonsense, one might as well argue that all trails must allow motorized vehicles to allow equal opportunity access to the wilderness of the crippled, blind or incapacitated!). Sadly, motorized boats are (I believe) still allowed on the Colorado (and the river is a commercial zoo). Strangely, Nash keeps reiterating the mantra “by etymology and by tradition, wilderness is uncontrolled”, yet desperately wants control of its commercialization, over-utilization, and destruction by careless visitors.

Chapter 16: The International Perspective

Review of this chapter will be kept short. This chapter focuses of the lands outside of America, mostly in Africa, and mostly related to preservation of game from hunters and commercial interests. Thus, the statement “as a rule the nations that have wilderness do not want it, and those that want it do not have it. Economy drives wilderness preservation, since it allows for the commercialization of wilderness (strange thought, isn’t it????). While Nash bemoans “the chronic problem is that national sovereignty is left unchallenged”, he remains absolutely blind to the even greater dangers of international sovereignty. But, the chapter has some great discussion of international problems confronting the various nations in preserving wild lands and wild life.

Epilogue: Island Civilization

In this final chapter, Nash breaks loose at exposing what he considers to be an ideal goal. For him, mostly wild-ness, with occasional pockets of civilization exist. This is perhaps the worst chapter of the book, because Nash breaks into Fantasyland, assuming that islands of civilization can maintain the technologies that we so dearly depend on. He fails to realize that civilization used to be nothing but islands, and when that happens, there becomes a great desire to tame the woods around you, for a very good reason. Nash should have left out this chapter and the book would have been a stronger read.

Part 2: Thoughts and Reflections on the wilderness philosophy

My heart is in the wilderness. I love being in the woods, and away from civilization. I volunteer to help maintain trails into the more remote places in our state. In retirement, I long to spend a huge proportion of my time either on my bicycle or in the woods. Because there are strict laws that govern the manner in which wilderness is managed, I became quite curious as to how these laws were developed, and to how the current thinking among wilderness advocates was proceeding. Thus, my read of this book. I disagree in many ways with the thinking of Mr. Nash, and in the course of this discussion as well as my preceding book review, will point out our agreements and disagreements.

No definition of wilderness

It is strange that such an important concept as wilderness lacks a definition. Many of the definitions are somewhat meaningless. The national park service defines wilderness as  “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But, what do they mean by “untrammeled”? Surely there are trails into the wilderness, making it “trammeled”. Does this mean that all trails should be removed from the wilderness? And “man himself is a visitor who does not remain” is an equally strange notion. I presume it means not “mankind” but “a particular person”. Remain? For how long? Are there episodes in a wilderness where no man shall be present at that time within the wilderness? If there is a shack, shelter or lodge for the temporary stay of people, does that exclude its definition of wilderness? Nash never is willing to offer a hard definition of wilderness, but will assumes a definition that adjusts itself to the topic in question. It is a fuzzy concept that cannot be defined, which is problematic, because the solutions also end up fuzzy. Thus, we see very well meaning people at total odds with each other as to how to manage our undeveloped lands.

Elitism reigns

Nash approaches the wilderness philosophy from an extreme elitist viewpoint, and finds no problem with that. I must have added footnotes complaining of “elitism” at least 50 times throughout the book. Nash probably represents the thinking of many environmentalists speaking of wilderness philosophy. To this, I take extreme objection. It reminds me of the era in British history when if one was caught hunting or loitering on the kings’ land, there was a high probability of being beheaded. Kings aren’t an issue any more, but there are sections of land that will only permit certain people, such as “scientists” (i.e., environmentalists and politicians) on the land. Nash finds no problem with that. I do not have a problem with limitations on the number of visitors to certain overused areas, but to exclude all but a small faction of people from a place is blatant elitism and arrogance, which is uncalled for. Nash is willing to admit that most wilderness policy was created by rich kids born with silver spoons in their mouths, like Marshall. Not that that is all bad, but it gives the reflection that these “elites” wish to form their own playground, not especially thinking that the playground will be desired my many more than themselves. Thus, their wilderness policies did not account for the possibility of heavy use.

Controlling the crowds

Nash is effective at pointing out a serious problem on public lands, which is that they are being overrun by people. Many of the state and national societies that promote wilderness have a schizophrenic attitude. The Sierra Club wishes less visitors to overrun wildernesses in the state, yet conducts outings to those areas. Wilderness is promoted as a wonderful place of unspeakable beauty, yet their attitude is “please don’t come visit it, because we will photograph it for you, and that’s all you get”. They work feverishly to build and maintain trails, yet in their hearts they hope that they are rarely if ever used. They need a very pro-wilderness public in order to pass laws that strengthen and expand the protection of wilderness, yet hope in their hearts of hearts that that love for wilderness doesn’t mean visitation to the wilderness. The environmentalists were hypocrites. They condemned forestation, yet lived in large wooden structures. They objected to drilling for oil, yet required their fueled vehicles to take them to the mountains to hear its glad tidings.

Wistfulness for the past

Nash mentions toward the end of the book that he longs for a definition of wilderness similar to that which early explorers experienced when first setting foot in the west. This meant that an adventure into the wilderness placed you not 10’s of miles from the nearest roads, but 100’s to 1000’s of miles from the nearest roads. Such is the dream for portions of Alaska. Nash even longs in the book epilogue that most of humanity would die out, though its major industries and technologies be preserved and freely available for the few humans remaining. This would leave vast portions of wilderness free to be enjoyed as wild. Such is a fantasy. Take away most human beings, and you lose the industry and technology to enjoy wilderness. You will have to kill animals to have clothing to wear out in the cold, and food to eat. You will have to cultivate food, and be in competition with the insect and mammalian world for that food, as well as the extreme possibility of blight, starvation or attack by animals. You must forgo the use of modern weaponry. You will have to saw down trees for housing, firewood, boats and other structures. Truly, Nash’s utopia is simply setting the clock back 2-3,000 years. He forgets that the historical tales of dangers in the woods were based on fact. There was a great fear of being attacked and eaten by wolves, bear and other animals. It is similar to areas of India and Bangladesh today, where the danger of tiger or elephant attack is so great, that there is no wistful longing that tigers and elephants could grow in number. The large animal population was one that needed control.

Meaningless aphorisms don’t help

So often, the environmental movement bases itself on totally meaningless statements, if not statements that animate the hills and forests. Here are a few examples… “climb the mountains and get their good tidings” (as though the mountains were physically speaking to you?), and similarly “the mountains are calling, and I must go” (yea, right!), “wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit” (say’s who? What do you mean by wilderness or human spirit?), “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (as though normal existence is NOT living deliberately or facing the essentials of life?), “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” (yea, right, just tell that to a park ranger!). Enough for quotes. I quoted Muir, Abbey, Emerson, and Thoreau with often quoted statements made by them. Don’t get me wrong, all four people also muttered very nice aphorisms, but I quoted their specific comments regarding the wilderness, and not their comments about being nice people. Such quotes stir sentimental emotions about the woods, but don’t really help at coming up with policies that can protect our wild areas.


Nash portrays the wilderness movement as anti-humanity, i.e., that humans, or the large number of them, are the problem. The solution mentioned in his epilogue is that people would just go away. For Nash, they don’t go away completely. For others, they do go away completely, but then, evolution will produce a MUCH more intelligent sentient being that will preserve the environment. The arguments fail for this. For Nash and others, wishful thinking doesn’t provide a solution. War or a nuclear catastrophe might make mankind disappear, but at an unacceptable price in that all life will probably disappear.  No environmentalist is willing to lead by example and terminate themselves first. The closest to unintentional self-termination to save the environment is Charles Manson, who is not being used by the movement as a poster child.  Anti-humanity thinking is anti-productive towards forming a realistic solution for saving wild lands. Sorry, but humans are NOT just going to go away, so clearer thinking must be had. Besides, without humans, there would be no concept of wilderness, since humans are intrinsic to the definition.

Self-styled picture of the wilderness

This is the one-size-fits-all mentality, and is true of both environmentalists and “anti-environmentalists”. Nash spends some time in the book condemning the weekend woods wanderer, especially those who happen to do it by car camping, or staying in wilderness huts and chalets and doing day hikes, or using mechanized motorboats, four-wheel drive vehicles, snow mobiles, motorcycles or bicycles, airplanes, or other means to venture into “wilderness”.  I certainly agree with Nash’s style of wilderness, but would be hesitant to make it public policy. I don’t think that there is a place for motorized machinery in the wilderness, save for maintenance of that wilderness. So, I’d be more than happy to see motorized boats removed from the Grand Canyon. Mr. Watt’s argument that to exclude motorized vehicles excludes less abled folk is faulty, since most of life has its exclusions. In Mr. Watts’ thinking, we would ban movies and tv since the blind cannot enjoy them, and we would force all back country trails to be negotiable and paved to allow wheelchairs, and perhaps even stretchers up the trail. Such thinking of Mr. Watts is crazy. yet, the one size fits all mentality of Mr. Nash is equally crazy, and public policy must accommodate all types. Perhaps public policy has gone overboard at promoting and supporting the use of recreational vehicles, which are nothing but gigantic portable life support units, and really diminish any outdoor experience. Yet, there are large number of state parks that have innumerable RV slots. Car camping is a compromise option that often familiarizes people to the outdoors. If we were to conduct ourselves in a democratic fashion, we would find that while most people would want some truly wild areas preserved (which, as I’ll discuss next, really doesn’t exist anywhere on earth any longer), most would vote strongly to allow some taming of the wilderness to permit safe and somewhat convenient access.

Wilderness made wild

Contrary to the past, no matter how much we insist on keeping the wilderness wild as wild places, most wilderness ethic folk are unwilling to go the distance to actually restore the dangers of the past, and in this regard, they are hypocritical. First, getting to wilderness, one needs roads. Should these roads be destroyed? If so, one has to journey on foot (not horse! or bicycle!) Once one reaches the wilderness, the presence of man-made trails reduces the wild-ness quotient. We won’t belabor how those who walk off of the trails tend to destroy the wild and are the nemesis of park rangers, but since wildness is the sumum bonum, who cares? Our clothes shall not be high tech miracles, but fig leaves, since we don’t dare kill animals for their skins. Or, perhaps, we won’t bother wearing clothes at all? The clothing problem definitely limits the seasons for our adventures. What about equipment? Our tents, our stoves, our food all need to be totally natural. And since we operate under the LNT (leave no trace) philosophy, anything that leaves a footprint, injures a tree, or kills, harms or molests an animal is forbidden. Under these conditions, not even the Alaska backwoods is negotiable. For Nash to argue the desire to preserve wild areas equivalent to what the pioneers might have seen, he is living in fantasy land.
Dynamite would be considered antithetical to the wilderness concept, yet the blessings of dynamite are shared by many, and even in wilderness areas. Along the PCT, the Kendall Katwalk in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was created by dynamite, and it is appreciated by visitors as a most beautiful stretch of trail. Even more stunning is the alternate stretch of the PCT along Eagle Creek in Oregon, considered by many to be a highlight of the PCT adventure, even though Tunnel Falls and much of the Eagle Creek trail required dynamite to make, as well as helicopters to install High and Low Bridge. Both spots disprove the hard-core wilderness advocates that any deformation of the land denigrates the wilderness experience, but as we see, judicious use of dynamite and other trail creation techniques might greatly enhance the entire experience. My very first backpacking experience as a teenager was up Eagle Creek, and dynamite cemented my love for wilderness and things wild. Most of the beauty of Eagle Creek would never be able to be seen except through the most extreme measures were it not for dynamite.

Renewability of natural resources?

Nash completely omits the concept of the renewability of natural lands, even after having been destroyed by man or natural phenomena. This is no excuse for careless behaviors. I woke up one morning in Portland, only to find a portion of Mt. St. Helens covering everything outside. The surface of the land around Mt. St. Helens appeared as though a nuclear bomb had hit; it was a total wasteland. The prediction was that it would take hundreds of years before we see the start of life returning to this area. In fact, it only took several years before plants and trees were again growing,  and animals surviving in the area. All predictions were wrong. Recently, I was volunteering on some trail clearing with the Washington Trails, and we were working in a portion of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness which was just re-designated and added to the larger body of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Yet, we could find logging paraphernalia strewn everywhere, from heavy cables, to tackle, and other items. These items are becoming increasingly unnoticeable as wild-ness returns to the land, and traces of man (except for our excellent trails!) disappear. To some extent, there is a renewability of nature. I discover that to my dismay every time I go to work in my yard, which all too quickly becomes overgrown and wild again. I would surmise that should a dam be removed, we would quickly find that nature would restore what we had lost. To this end, I don’t give up hope. Lands can be reclaimed and restored to their original beauty. As technology finds better solutions for matters such as energy, water and food supply, we will no longer need to rely on dams and other structures.

 Back to planet earth, folk!

Unless the discussion regarding preservation of wild lands is grounded on reality, progress cannot expect to happen. Factors that must be included are as follows. 1) We must realize that a broad spectrum of people need to be accommodated, and favors not played to an elitist few.
2) We must realize that ever larger volumes of people will be seeking a visit to wilderness areas
3) With increased mobs attacking the wilderness, safety for them must be an increased item.
4) Accessibility should not be considered an evil.
5) Beauty, not wild-ness, needs to be our top priority.

Better alternatives…

Rather than pontificate over the poor thinking of others, I wish to offer my own thinking on how to approach wilderness. Please realize that I change my thinking from time to time, and so might write something much different in 10 years.

graded wilderness systems

There is a huge advantage of having a graded wilderness system. First, it would better fit the large diversity of people with a mind toward wilderness. Those that wish no human access, those that wish preservation of the current system, and those that wish better accessibility to wilderness would all have their way. Secondly, there would be less reluctance for many to allow non-designated land to be designated wilderness if there was not the stiff definition. The several lands in Utah that have been politically redefined several times in the recent past would be better served. Thirdly, lands that never would make it to wilderness designation would be designated wilderness, and allow the closer and firmer protections that are granted to wilderness lands.
Grade 0-No access by any human being to human object to this wilderness. Not only will it be off limits to the foot of man, but drones, low-flying airplanes, boats and other watercraft will be forbidden
Grade 1-Subsistence existence only. Only primitive means of subsistence will be allowed. This will only exist on lands that are already used for subsistence. No motorized machinery, guns or other modern hunting or fishing means shall be used
Grade 2-Scientific access allowed only. This grade shall have a maximum time span of 5 years, and then revert back to Grade 3 wilderness
Grade 3- Wilderness as currently defined. I would hope that most wilderness lands actually be labeled grade 4 wilderness.
Grade 4-Wilderness with the ability of caretakers to use modern means such as powered chainsaws, trimmers, etc. to provide trail care. (Do you honestly think that most people give a rip about whether a tree lying across the trail was hand sawed or chain sawed a day after the event in order to remove it from the trail? They will give a rip if a tree is NOT cleared, but the destructive paths formed to get around the fallen tree only make matters worse, not better for the wilderness experience!) The occasional use of other means such as helicopter assistance in trail maintenance or camp maintenance shall be allowed. The use of modern means for construction of bridges and other trail/camp structures will be allowed. No powered equipment will be allowed by visitors.
Grade 5-Limited commercial access wilderness. This does not include destructive mining, but may include very limited and highly supervised grazing rights. Horses may used allowed access but motorized vehicles will not be allowed.
Grade 6-Highly supervised, but with limited access by motorized vehicles. Limited roads allowed, and the building of roads would be discouraged. Some limited dwellings would be allowed for visitors. Caretakers would be allowed lengthier stays. This wilderness status would reflect that as found in National Parks, and each National Park would then be able to have various regions with differing grades of wilderness. This would also prevent grotesque shapes drawn to current wilderness boundaries to account for the presence of existing roads.

merging extremes between preservation and utility

Irrational management is too often the case. As an example, a 4 mile stretch of the PCT in the Angeles National forest has been indefinitely closed in order to try to save the mountain yellow-legged frog. I do find this challenging idea to grasp, to think that environmentalists have the hubris to think that the tread of man disturbs the sex life of a yellow-legged frog, and that closing four miles of trail will save the frog? Really now! Why not just warning signs and prohibition with camping in that area? Like, 4 miles of trail closure will save a frog? Such actions by environmentalists cause serious thinking folk to question whether anything an environmentalist suggests should be taken seriously. I truly wonder what the real goals of the environmentalists are? Why don’t they just close down the entire PCT and save all of us the pain of struggling with dealing with their overarching stupidity?

safer means of wilderness access

Nash might accuse me of taming the wild-ness of wilderness by seeking better means of making wilderness safe, yet it would also have the effect of actually protecting wilderness. Installing bridges across perilous stream and river trail crossings would protect the lands from hikers willing to remodel the land to create a temporary safe crossing, and protect the land from the innumerable accessory trails creating in seeking a river crossing. It would allow faster transit of visitors in order to diminish the total impact of each individual. Of course, this would also have to entail restriction of access for visitors.

limited access at a cost

It is reasonable to limit access to wilderness areas, including our national parks. Why National parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mt. Rainier and others that are being visited to death do not prohibit automobiles and utilize bus shuttle systems for access is a mystery to me. Denali restricts inner access to bus service, and most do not find this to be a serious problem! This can control the swarms of visitors each day to the parks. There is a great cry that charging increased fees for access to parks and wildernesses will restrict access to the poorest is simply not true. Where there is a will there is a way, as is seen by the mass swarms of people hiking the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trail each year, with an average expense account of about $6K. If the AT or PCT permit holders charged a modest cost ($500-1000) for those permits, I’m quite sure very few people will find it unaffordable. Improved revenues will allow improved care of the trails. This could include the development and care of designated camp sites, and, at least for the PCT, water drops at important stretches of the trail. Among many thru-hikers, stealth camping is a way of life which can be quite destructive, yet few people complain that many national parks, including Mt. Rainier, demand the use of designated campsites. Such access charges would help fund bear protection systems for food, and also allow for outside toilets. Toilets? I’m sure Mr. Nash has not spent a second in cleaning up the shit and toilet paper of trail hikers, yet I’ve seen National Park rangers carrying out large bags of this stuff from careless hikers. It’s a reality, and the wildness quotient is diminished more from trudging through human waste and toilet paper than occasionally encountering an outhouse in the back woods. Mt. Rainier currently has a program that prospective climbers of the mountain need to demonstrate that they will not require rescue assistance by proving that they know what they’re doing, and showing that they have the adequate equipment to provide for personal safety. Is this asking too much for others visiting the outbacks of our wilderness system?
I am continually amazed by what people get away with in the wilderness and parks of the USA. I’ve seen numerous examples of people hiking on trails with pets off of leash when pets are strictly forbidden, garbage thrown willy-nilly, people walking off the trail on fragile vegetation, tents set up in luscious meadows precisely where it would do the most damage to the plants, wild animals being fed, wild animals being teased, and careless disregard for the fragile surroundings. Yet, most often, even if the offenders are caught, they get away with nothing but a gentle slap on the wrist. It is no wonder that people abuse our wilderness. If we really value our natural lands, then wanton acts should have at least a significant penalty or fine. The $25 fee for breaking the rules in Mt. Rainier NP is a joke. Perhaps it should be at least quadruple with forbidden access to all national parks for a period?
One major objection to structures like trails, bridges, and perhaps shelters, is that they often are constructed cheaply out of unnatural materials. Constructions should have a natural appearance to them that blends into or contributes to the scenery. Nobody seems to complaint a beautifully constructed stone bridge across a stream, or stone railings on the roads that go through national parks. Such an idea should be the norm. Shelters in wilderness should be out of stone and natural materials, and wilderness laws should not prohibit tactfully placed structures for the safety of its occasional inhabitants. There already are such structures in many wilderness lands. I am quite sure John Muir would not have  been offended by the stone shelter built atop Muir Pass, even though such a shelter goes against wilderness philosophy.


Insufficient funds have been spent research seeking to minimize the destructiveness of wilderness access. Simple things, like trail building technology hasn’t changed much over the last 30-50 years. Can we use better technologies to limit the destructiveness of heavy access? Are there better ways of crowd control that would enhance a visit to the park or wilderness for everybody? Are there better means of controlling garbage and human waste in the woods? Is the LNT admonition really working, or are there better ways of minimizing human impact in the woods? Have we optimized trail surfaces, bridge construction, water control and culvert construction, and other aspects of trail construction? I have already suggested several ways to lessen the human impact, with providing things like backwoods toilets, building bridges across dangerous streams, and enforcing designated campsites. Surely modern technologies could be used to disguise the unnaturalness of the human alteration of the environment. To resist the assistance of technology only prolongs the problem.

Personal Perspective and Random Thoughts

It was roughly 45-46 years ago when I did my first backpack trip up Eagle Creek on the Oregon side of the Columbia River gorge. The trip was a near disaster, though we survived quite nicely with the aide of a senior “guide” who grew up as a boy scout. The adventure seemed grueling at the time. We carried in excess supplies, including hatchets and saws, which we used plentifully to cut down trees, all according to the boy scout manual. We fished, catching 4 inch trout which when cooked, provided no essential nutrition to ourselves. We had no sense of nurturing the forests and streams which we were visiting. Much has changed in my thinking since then. The first admonitions came from fellow hikers from school and outdoor clubs which I belonged to. A book by Francis Schaeffer, “Pollution and the Death of Man”, was seminal at reforming my thinking regarding wilderness and all of our environment. Schaeffer presented that God created the world as a beautiful place, and we must reflect that beauty in all of our actions. So, we might cut a tree down to build a house, but we don’t cut down the tree just for fun, and when we cut the tree down, we take an interest that we are not destroying beauty, or that we are restoring that beauty by subsequent actions. The key word for me is “beauty”, rather than “wild-ness” for R. Nash. Many of Nash’s and my conclusions would result in the same actions, regardless of our difference in philosophy, but our actions would be for very different reasons. I would not have supported the dam at Hetch Hetchy since it destroys a natural beauty, and since there are alternatives of a kinder nature to our earth. Unlike those fighting the proposed dams on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, I do not oppose the dams because they destroy the ability to raft the river, but because they destroy a particularly beautiful part of creation. I don’t value “wild-ness” per se, so see no problem in taming the wilds, so long as it is done in a way that preserves a natural beauty to the situation. Thus, I would limit road building, but I would encourage trail building, since beauty is only beautiful when there is a beholder to admire it as beautiful. Trees will make noise when they fall in the woods without a listener, but beauty is a subjective phenomenon that demands a sensate subject to appreciate. I find it troublesome that the same Christians that have love magnificent art, music, and cathedrals mercilessly attack and destroy the artistry of God as we find in nature. To that end, they are totally inconsistent with their beliefs. It is no wonder that many will regard people of western faiths to be the enemies of nature. As for me, whether on my bicycle, on foot or on skis, I will persist as long as I have strength, to enjoy this big beautiful earth that God created for us. While enjoying this earth, I will give thanks to Him for giving us such a beautiful world to enjoy, and strive to care for it and to defend its preservation, to the best of my ability.