Who's the boss?
When it comes to Wilderness, we are not in charge – which is what makes it so special

Who's the boss?

Teton National Park. / Courtesy NSP

John Clayton / Writers on the Range - 02/22/2024

My friends and I encountered the grizzly bear scat deep in Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness, 20 miles from a trailhead. I’d seen grizzlies before – from the car. But this was on a whole other level. I felt vulnerable, nervous. I also felt fully alive.

That feeling owes much to the Wilderness Act, which became law 60 years ago, in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson created a nationwide system of wild landscapes “untrammeled by man.” The attitude could be summarized as: In the wildest parts of America, humans come second. What comes first is land, water and wildlife. If the grizzly that left those droppings had confronted us, and I’m glad it never did, we lacked the resources of civilization to protect ourselves.

If I’d fallen off a cliff, there was no cell service to call 911. If a freak snowstorm made us cold, wet and miserable, all we could do was suffer. In wilderness, Mother Nature won’t kiss a boo-boo to make it better.

There’s something elemental about being on your own, exposed. You’ve made a choice. As a result, you feel the power of larger forces – and sometimes, even the power of yourself.

Clayton

Before the Act became law, American culture prioritized pulling all the resources we could out of the land by drilling, mining, dam building, logging and over-grazing. We barged through habitat, flattened forests and plowed prairies. We replaced old growth with board-feet of timber, canyons with cubic meters of water and grasslands with barrels per day of oil. We’re still doing that on 95% of public land.

But the Wilderness Act acknowledged that in some places, the land should be left as unexploited as possible.  Preserving wildness calls for restraint. It calls for motorized users, e-bikers, mountain bikers, pilots, snowmobilers, technical climbers with hardware and drone flyers to recreate somewhere else. Yet hiking, hunting, boating, fishing and horseback riding are all allowed in wilderness, as well as grazing if grandfathered in.

The Act’s primary author, Howard Zahniser loved hiking in wild places and was determined: In eight years of lobbying for The Wilderness Society, he helped rewrite the bill 65 times. By the time the Act overwhelmingly passed, Zahniser had died of heart disease at the young age of 58.

The Act is often discussed in terms of the acreage it protects, now 112 million acres, roughly half of that in Alaska. Yet it’s really about nature being the boss.

In wilderness, we recognize that always getting our way can devalue ecosystems. It can harm wildlife, clean water, fresh air and other widely shared resources. It can cause us to scorn Indigenous people’s connections to the land when we should be honoring them.

Wilderness is not the only place we embrace not getting our way, just as the U.S. Capitol is not the only place we embrace democracy. With wilderness as reminders, we can also consider not being the boss in a city park or back yard, by watching birds or growing native plants.

Threats to wilderness, however, have never subsided. Sixty years have brought us innumerable technologies to help us get our way while recreating in nature. And, as we’ve realized, making nature more accessible might make it more inclusive and its fans more diverse, but some of us are tempted to relax recreational restrictions in wilderness.

That would miss the point. “We must remember always that the essential quality of the wilderness is its ‘wildness,’” Zahniser said. “We must not only protect the wilderness from commercial exploitation. We must also see that we don’t ourselves destroy its wilderness character in our own management programs.”

Honoring wilderness ideals is especially important today because it represents the same lesson we should be learning from climate change: People can’t control nature. Thanks to the Wilderness Act, we can celebrate that some places remain free of our habit of changing everything – just because we can.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit that promotes lively dialog about the West. He lives in Montana and writes the newsletter Natural Stories.

Top Stories

Screen machine
04/18/2024
Screen machine
By Missy Votel

Artist renovates vintage truck into eco-friendly printing studio

Read More
Mano y mono
04/11/2024
Mano y mono
By Missy Votel

Local ripper keeps retro sport alive and proves one ski is all you need

Read More
Ready to take flight
04/04/2024
Ready to take flight
By Missy Votel

Valkyrie Multisport Relay Race descends on Durango for second year

Read More
Who turned out the lights?
04/04/2024
Who turned out the lights?
By Missy Votel

Highlighting Durango's effort to obtain Dark Sky status

Read More
Read All in Top Stories

The Pole

Shop till you drop
04/18/2024

Got a tax refund burning a hole in your pocket? First off, lucky you. Secondly, why not stretch those dollars and support small local businesses at the same time?

There’s still time to cash in on the Durango Business Improvement District’s (BID) Spring Rewards Program.

BYOPFD
04/11/2024

Grab the sunscreen, SUP, wetsuit and … life jacket. Lake Nighthorse opens for the season this Fri., April 12, with new rules requiring personal flotation devices and sound-signaling devices, like whistles, on paddle crafts.  

Tie on the feedbag
04/11/2024

If you’re famished from all your water sports this weekend, check out Durango Restaurant Week, April 12-21 (actually 10 days.)

Lord of the lunge
03/28/2024

It’s another one for the books. On Fri., March 25, New Yorker Austin Head set a Guinness World Record for lunging. As in those horrible exercises they make you do at the gym until your quads freeze up.

A trainer at Life Time Fitness in Brooklyn, Head broke the record by lunging 2,825 times in an hour through his DUMBO (“Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) neighborhood in Brooklyn. That’s 47 lunges a minute for those with a calculator, enough to smash the old record of 2,358 lunges. (Yes, apparently this lunging is a thing.)

Read All Stories in the Pole