The Wilderness Act (Public Law 88-577) turned 50 years this Fall. Celebrations of the act have been held around the country, including in Idaho, where there have been conferences, group hikes and many new conversations. While there is much to celebrate, we also need understand some key history surrounding the Act, as well as think about where the Act, and the on-the-ground management of legal Wilderness — or, as some might say, “the wild” — may be 50 years from now.


It is often forgotten that the Wilderness Act was a compromise, a concept treated with increasing contempt in Washington, D.C. today. The Act allowed grazing and mining in wilderness; existing mining claims or leases with valid and current rights can be developed, but this is very uncommon.

The Act also reflects its time. Key language in the Act states that wilderness is to be “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions. Language also states that candidate land, “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

Today, advances in ecology, archeology and cultural sensitivity have rendered some of these concepts more problematic. To put it bluntly, as did one Native American, “the West wasn’t wild until the white man got here.” This observation asks us to recognize several things. First, “wilderness” or “the wild” are human constructs; to that Native American there wasn’t a concept such as wilderness. It was his home. We wrote Native Americans out of the history of the North American continent. It was wild untouched, pristine… except for those people we didn’t talk about who had lived on and changed the landscape for millennia.

We are slowly adapting scholarship and management practices to fit these latter-day observations about Native Americans and other human impacts on the continent. But in fact, legal Wilderness remains anything Congress proclaims it to be, whether it has been inhabited or affected or not.

The “natural conditions” clause presents more of a problem. A good deal of work has challenged our understanding of the term “natural.” Much of that work owes a debt to the writing of noted environmental historian William Cronon, who has reminded us, for almost two decades now, that man has always acted in nature and that we are not “apart” from nature.

A crew on the 2011 Rogers Fire in the Coleville National Forest.

U.S. Forest Service
A crew on the 2011 Rogers Fire in the Coleville National Forest.

Cronon helped us rediscover the role Native Americans played in living and “managing” the landscapes of the New World. Others, myself included, have explored the use of nature and the natural as metaphors for the type of society we ought to desire for ourselves, from “wildness” being the preservation of the world (Thoreau) to the numerous “lessons of nature” we are supposed to learn any time there is a natural disaster. Those lessons often entail prescriptions about how we ought to live and behave. We often construct a “nature” that represents the physical world but is used to support a predetermined and prescribed political order as in the old debates on the state of nature from Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The use of “nature” and “naturalness” for policy, managing and governing purposes has deep historical roots.


The rise of the science of ecology, and its changing conceptions of natural processes has accelerated the decline of naturalness as a guide to management. To put it simply and a bit crudely, we have moved from thinking in terms of the “balance of nature” with man as interloper, to thinking of nature as being in flux, constantly changing, with man a needed component. Managers, scientists and others who deal with “protected areas” (wilderness and national parks, primarily) are struggling with new approaches. They categorize these four approaches as autonomous nature or “hands off” management, managing for ecological integrity, managing for historical fidelity and managing for resilience.

Autonomous nature is unmanaged nature. Interventions are discouraged and we foster scientific humility. This approach is presented as an experiment to be contrasted with other areas where more active management occurs. Many wonder if this approach has been left behind; we appear to moving in the direction of active management.

Managing for ecological integrity is active management, though it is not mandated in every circumstance. There is an element of subjectivity here, as integrity appears to depend on how we define an ecosystem. No matter the definition, humans are integral to the system, and having integrity means that the ecosystem persists over time. This approach demands the clear setting of ecological goals and outcomes that are measurable.

Managing for historical fidelity introduces human values and emotive responses into the mix. National parks, for example are places given “grace” through human experiences, activities and stories. The geysers of Yellowstone are ecological and geophysical features, but they are also cultural features. Management intervention is clearly prescribed and often desirable, and it can constrain actions done for ecological integrity or resilience reasons.

The fourth management perspective is managing for resilience, articulating clearly what should be resilient. Key terms here are adaptability and long term functioning of ecosystems, even if those systems change from the familiar. Importantly, managing for resilience allows managers to speak of social resilience, as community, cultural and economic resilience are considered important as well.


This part of the discussion may raise some hackles. Young people seem less interested in wilderness than generations before. Sure they like open and undeveloped country for mountain biking, GPS hiking, thrill adventuring, expensive gear-head geeking fun. They don’t need wilderness; they may not even want it. The Idaho Conservation League’s willingness to include mountain bike trails in any Boulder White Clouds National Monument reflects a pragmatic approach to this future. If the mountain bike community decides it is opposed to wilderness (because the Act prohibits “mechanized travel”), that is a major stumbling block to new wilderness. That’s pragmatic, but ironically the “gotta do it-thrill-bucket list” approach to public lands spawned by magazines like Outside may be a bigger threat to wilderness and interest in it than people realize. That remains to be seen.

Rambunctious GardenEcosystems change too, as noted above. But so do ideas. Recently a young writer named Emma Marris introduced an idea that has spawned a large backlash among older, traditional wilderness supporters. Her book, Rambunctious Garden, argues that humans have so affected the planet that we need to manage a wild and rambunctious garden while reclaiming our place in nature.

The backlash is coming together in the soon to be published Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth, with essays from Dave Foreman, Roderick Nash, Terry Tempest Williams and others. Most of the authors of this book are leading thinkers and passionate advocates of traditional wilderness, and they aren’t happy with Marris and her fellow thinkers. They are in a sense the ultimate conservatives when it comes to wilderness as they think it was, is and ought to remain forever. Change is not good.

But there is irony here. They would have probably agreed with Charles Wilkinson, that resource users like ranchers, loggers, miners, industrial captains and so on were “the lords of yesterday,” keepers of a resource extractive past that was doomed and should fail in an ecologically oriented newer American West. Yet unless the keepers of the wild can persuade the young and somehow divert the intellectual momentum created by Marris and others, they might be on the path to becoming their own “lords of yesterday” when it comes to wilderness.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Gary Sprung

    I led a 13-year, successful campaign to get Fossil Ridge and Oh Be Joyful, in the Gunnison National Forest, designated as Wilderness. But now I bemoan the fact that Wilderness advocates have always rejected bicycling as a legitimate form of travel in Wilderness. Their ban on bikes has led to major alienation of mountain bikers from the preservation movement. Most mountain bikers do care about protecting the Earth, but few know the noble history of Wilderness, the story of Aldo Leopold, Howard Zahniser, and David Brower; maybe not even John Muir. It’s a major loss of constituency for the preservation movement. Cyclists could be a giant breath of fresh air, talent, political power, and money for preservation. But their rejection by the traditional Wilderness community blocks that.

    Dr. Freemuth writes, “If the mountain bike community decides it is opposed to wilderness (because the Act prohibits “mechanized travel”)…” But this is putting the cart before the horse. The cycling community did not reject preservation and its leaders believe that “mechanized” really means “motorized.” The 1966 US Forest Service rule implementing the Wilderness Act defined “mechanized” as “propelled by a non-living power source.” That rule is still on the books. The rejection was only one-way, by the Wilderness people against bicycling.

    Allegation: The Wilderness community has become somewhat like religious fundamentalists. They revere a human law and accept no substitute, no modification, no adaptation. That puts it extremely, but it’s worth considering the degree to which it is true.

    Science has learned that the impacts of bicycling and hiking on fauna and flora are roughly the same. This is not an argument about harm to ecosystems. It’s about “proper” Wilderness experience, which they think a bicycle cannot provide.

    It’s also about user conflict on the trail. Yes, some hikers get bothered by cyclists and don’t want to share the trail. So the mountain bike community has always accepted the idea that some percentage of trails should be hiking-only. But let’s abandon the idea that Wilderness, because it’s holy, should be 100% without human-powered bikes. Wilderness needs mountain bikers. Wilderness advocates should embrace cyclists, educate them about the great idea and its history, and appreciate the different perspective that cyclists can bring to an expanded community.