Artifice in wilderness management: Upper Sol Duc River bridge in Olympic National Park

Definition of ARTIFICE
1.a : clever or artful skill : ingenuity
1.b : an ingenious device or expedient
2.a : an artful stratagem : trick
2.b: false or insincere behavior
Thoreau’s idealized notion of wilderness sets up an unattainable ideal of contemplative non-intervention that provides no guidance for what sort of human artifice is permitted.
Mike Everett

horizontal white spaceLet’s be honest about this bridge. It’s artifice.

I don’t know its history, yet — am looking forward to talking with the Olympic National Park wilderness resource specialist, who hopefully will know. Evidently, the big log didn’t come from this location, but from lower elevation, somewhere else, I’d guess outside the park. It’s larger diameter than any tree in the vicinity. And it’s second growth, unlike the surrounding forest: take a look at the wide rings in the cross-section. The wood hasn’tSol Duc log bridge cross section showing second growth log grayed yet, so the bridge is quite new, built in Olympic National Park Wilderness since congressional designation of that Wilderness in 1988. Apparently, it was dropped into place by a Big helicopter. Note the steel staples in the log ends, for attaching cables to guide it onto its foundations as it descends in its sling. Skyhook. Technological magic. (What would Thoreau think of this?)

Sol Duc log bridge approach and campsite signA sign in matching style points hikers to nearby designated campsites.horizontal white spaceupper Sol Duc stock ford stepsDownstream from the bridge, a ford across the creek provides access for stock. The Park Service provides a log stairway for them to climb out the uphill bank. This artifice decreases erosion and creates a sharp edge between wild land and human construction. People and domestic animals stay on the constructed side of the boundary.

horizontal white spaceSol Duc log bridge plastic wedge securing railing postHere’s what I like best: Seems that as the crew was finishing up the bridge, they noticed that one of the railing posts was loose. So one of the gals/guys picked up a felling wedge they happened to have around & pounded it into the crack. Looking at the wedge there today, I can see them doing it. There’s a genuineness to appreciate, a making-do with materials at hand that fits what I know of living in wild country, bricolage.

What’s more natural here, the skyhooked bridge or the bright green plastic wedge?

horizontal white spaceThe bridge itself is a feature in a place congress directs to be “without permanent improvements … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” A more modest bridge could have spanned this creek. Would that have been better? By what criteria?

The upcoming backcountry planning for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska should address parallel questions. When we’re aware of them, we’re in position to address clear value choices. Otherwise, it’s easy to live within our preconceptions, stay in our comfort zone, and never encounter the wild, contradictory and mysterious. Wilderness should be, I think, about real encounter.

I like this bridge.

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