Category Archives: Wildlands policy

Insight into why Wilderness is a hot-button cultural issue

I hadn’t realized the value-based rather than resource-based aspects of the Wilderness Act mandate, until I came across the page below in a U.S. Forest Service Wilderness planning and  management document.

In this sense, the Wilderness Act is a legislated assertion of a human role in the Creation that differs from that interpreted by many Christian fundamentalists and probably others, i.e. congressional enactment of a religious position, rather than just a specification regarding land management actions such as roadbuilding.

Page from Landres et al_2008_Keeping it wild

Encountering risk in Wilderness on Olympic’s High Divide

Wilderness is a place where one encounters risk and can never be sure of attaining a goal. Here’s Coleman Smith’s video of him and his friends facing circumstance on the High Divide in Olympic National Park. They met with an unanticipated obstacle which prevented completion of their intended route, but didn’t let that detract from the joy of the experience. (The obstacle appears at 07:45 in the video.)

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.

Olympic National Park’s High Divide-Seven Lakes Basin – Untrammeled?

A “look but don’t touch” Wilderness

Wilderness character is … the combination of biophysical, experiential, and symbolic ideals that distinguish wilderness from all other lands.
Landres, et al., Monitoring Selected Conditions Related to Wilderness Character:A National Framework
Once designated, wilderness is to be allowed to express its own will.
Doug Scott, “Untrammeled,” “Wilderness Character” and the Challenges of Wilderness Preservation

horizontal white spaceI backpacked this week in Olympic National Park’s alpine gem, the trail following the High Divide between the the Seven Lakes Basin and Hoh Valley, looking across to Mt. Olympus. The place is both very attractive to hikers and in congressionally designated Wilderness. The Park Service handles the potential for crowds by issuing a limited number of permits for camping in specified areas. Each small area, more or less a few hundred yards across, contains between six and eleven campsites, marked with numbered posts. Camping outside these sites is illegal, and hikers are asked not to leave the trails. The trails are mindfully located and constructed, with stone steps and retaining walls, crafted logwork bridges, and hewn log slab boardwalks in wet spots.

The stonework on the upper trail, but also the entire trail system that I saw on this trip was at a particular aesthetic design standard, a human construction quite something in itself, really beautiful and in my view appropriate in this location, but hardly untrammeled. Even with budget cuts, the Park Service is keeping it maintained. I came across boardwalk reconstruction.

Lofty Mount Lu (廬山高) Shen Zhou (沈周, 1427-1509), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, 193.8 x 98.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. Note trail switchbacks overlooking the waterfall.
Lofty Mount Lu (廬山高) Shen Zhou (沈周, 1427-1509), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, 193.8 x 98.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. Note trail switchbacks overlooking the waterfall.

The design aesthetic is a combo of traditional Chinese (refined, meditative) with American West frontier materials. Maybe we could call it “Sunset Magazine/National Park Service” style. Layout fits principles taught in landscape architecture school and appreciated in the Ming Dynasty.

Among hikers and park staff I met, there’s a general expectation that hikers’ behavior would fit with the values this style embodies. The permit process, requiring advance planning, going to a park office, filling out forms and interacting with officials, likely serves an effective filter, screening out those whose values don’t fit. Wild people aren’t welcomed.

Is it wilderness? For sure, the land beyond the borders of the trails and campsites fits the criteria. What you see from the trail is wild. But you don’t go there. It’s a “look, don’t touch” wilderness, viewed from quite permanent human constructions within which you are required to stay, a willful manipulation of experience done with art, craft and skill. Even though the whole area is legally capital-W “Wilderness,” the trail and campsites are  not wild, with the the wild extending from the edge of these developments.

To me the design is really quite stunning. Though not commonly done in this part of the world, the design philosphy could be carried further to include backcountry cabins, lodges, meditative buildings in the same style and intent, presumably not in this location, but somewhere. Wilderness designation is so extensive in the Pacific Northwest mountains that it pretty much precludes this opportunity. Where there is development, outside of Wilderness, it’s almost always road-accessible and car/car-campground oriented. Absence of the European-type trail-accessible hut is a void, I think. Little constituency for it here? Instead, I was hiking with $1000+ of high-tech gear on my back.


The Wilderness Act of 1964, Section 2(c), Definition of Wilderness:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…”


from Landres, et al.,Monitoring Selected Conditions Related to Wilderness Character:A National Framework:

wilderness character is … the combination of biophysical, experiential, and symbolic ideals that distinguish wilderness from all other lands.

…These ideals form a complex set of relationships between the land, its management, and the meanings people associate with wilderness. … All wildernesses, regardless of size, location, or any other feature, are unified by this statutory definition of wilderness. These four qualities of wilderness are:

• Untrammeled – wilderness is essentially unhindered and free from modern human control or manipulation.
• Natural – wilderness ecological systems are substantially free  from the effects of modern civilization.
• Undeveloped – wilderness is essentially without permanent improvements or modern human occupation.
• Outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation – Wilderness provides outstanding opportunities for people to experience solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, including the values of inspiration and physical and mental challenge.

Bristlecone pine, Lost Creek Wilderness Area, Colorado, scratchboard by Evan Cantor
Evan Cantor’s illustration for Doug Scott’s article about “untrammeled wilderness character” in Wild Earth, the magazine of the Wildlands Project, showing a landscape aesthetic similar to Ming Dynasty art. To what extent is American understanding of wilderness sourced in this tradition of Chinese culture, as well as Thoreau, Muir and Robert Marshall? What ambiguities and conflicts does that imply?

Olympic National Park designated Wilderness map

Olympic National Park campsite map showing areas with entry quotas

Crowd sourced planning & distributed management for Wrangell-St. Elias

David Bornstein’s New York Times blog piece today, Crowdfunding Clean Energy, describes how solar energy is becoming another example of networked, distributed function potentially displacing hierarchic systems. With crowd sourcing, large numbers of people are able to each make small investments directly financing renewable energy. Distributed energy production in local solar installations is increasingly competitive with large-scale power plants. As the scale of these networked/distributed efforts grows, unit costs rapidly decrease. Bornstein describes social-cultural and ethical benefits as well as clean energy production resulting from this participatory system. While it can self-sustain and grow once launched, creative and assertive initiatives are required to get it going, especially because of the institutional momentum favoring centralized megaprojects.

What if Wrangell-St. Elias backcountry planning and management is considered in this framework? How about thinking of power flow and control in land management as analogous to that in electricity production? For an array of reasons, centralizing electricity production in megaplants is inadequate to meet requirements of present circumstances. Similarly, centralized agency production and control of land management regulation is now also inadequate in Wrangell-St. Elias, because it is too inefficient and expensive to be affordable with current government budgets and staffing, because essential sources of information and expertise are located outside the agency, and because ongoing participation of locally-knowledged stakeholders is in itself a necessary aspect of the human experience for which the area is being managed.

What would crowd sourced planning and distributed management of the Wrangell-St.Elias backcountry look like? For planning, consider online forums where locals, tourists, scientists and others identify discuss and debate values, issues and solutions. The National Park Service could be forum moderator (or someone else could be), and a co-equal participant. The agency could frame up the ground rules, e.g. the legislated mandates that establish the purposes of the public parklands. Imagine University of Alaska students fanning out, recording open-ended interviews with the diversity of people and organizations who care about the place. The agency planner, perhaps aided by the students, could use qualitative research methods to organize and analyze these conversations and feed the results back into the discussion. Note the fundamental ways this approach goes beyond the usual NEPA  process, with its public meetings and agency drafts. (It would not replace NEPA requirements, but supplement them, and hopefully make environmental compliance less expensive overall, because so much problem-solving is done, and hopefully done better, by the time the impact analysis is written.)

For management, consider these forums developing in some continuing way, so that park visitors, scientists, commercial operators, park staff, other locals, and the national and international constituency for the park report on conditions in the field, and raise and discuss issues and solutions. Those who know the place on the ground from multiple perspectives would contribute to monitoring and problem solving. One role of the National Park Service in this is as keeper of the public good, responsible for keeping alert to the long-term national mandates for the parks and setting boundaries on appropriate actions. But it would not and could not be the sole monitor, manager and regulator of what happens in the park backcountry. And the agency can achieve its management responsibilities only in a context of mutual trust and successful collaboration. Key questions are how and if that can be accomplished, given the divergent perspectives, goals and behaviors of the National Park Service and the multiple other stakeholders.

That Yosemite is eliminating most backcountry ranger positions in the current budget crisis indicates what the Park Service can expect for staffing backcountry management in far-away, less-visited Wrangell-St. Elias. Even if the sequester gets resolved, long-term budgets aren’t promising. The Park Service is unlikely to be in position to plan, regulate, monitor and enforce adequately on its own.

Because of the multiple involved legal jurisdictions and legislated limits on agency control, restricted government budgets, and the diversity of stakeholders with established sense of ownership in the place, effectively Wrangell-St. Elias management becomes in many respects the management of a commons, with the added complexity of a strong, but sometimes ambiguous and self-contradictory national mandate, which the Park Service as agent of the federal landowner is required to implement. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Nobel Prize winning work of Elinor Ostrom  on common pool resources can be can be applied in the Wrangell-St. Elias case.

I can imagine my mentor, Grant McConnell, scowling at the notion of  managing national park wilderness collaboratively. His Private Power and American Democracy goes into the reasons why wilderness preservation requires moving control from local interests to national agencies with uncompromised protection enforcement mandate and authority. Grant’s critique should be fully understood and addressed, when constructing any collaborative management system.

If the general ideas sketched in here have applicability, there is need for considerable further inquiry into the realities of how such decentralized systems would actually function in Wrangell-St. Elias, the problems involved, and possible ways to solve them.

Can information expand to enable solving complex social problems, without requiring unsustainable energy consumption?

graph from Tainter, Complexity, problem solving and sustainable societies
Figure 4.1: Diminishing returns to increasing complexity, in Tainter, “Complexity, problem solving and sustainable societies.”
Would considering the potential consequences of information flow, instead of or in addition to energy, affect this graph?

Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be.

Getting Down to Earth coverJoseph Tainter. “Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies.” In Getting down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Island Press, 1996.

horizontal white space

The common view of history assumes that complexity and resource consumption have emerged through innovation facilitated by surplus energy. This view leads to the supposition that complexity and consumption are voluntary, and that we can therefore achieve a sustainable future through conservation. Such an assumption is substantially incorrect. History suggests that complexity most commonly increases to solve problems, and compels increase in resource use. This process is illustrated by the history of the Roman Empire and its collapse. Problems are inevitable, requiring increasing complexity, and conservation is therefore insufficient to produce sustainability. Future sustainability will require continued high levels of energy consumption to address converging problems.

Tainter, Joseph A. “Energy, Complexity, and Sustainability: A Historical Perspective.” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 1, no. 1 (June 2011): 89–95.


If readers have leads to answers to the following questions, please let me know. I’d guess the literature may well address the first set of questions. Applying physics and information theory to spiritual asceticism may be opening new ground? Unless the Dalai Lama’s seminars have gotten into it? —

What would happen if Tainter substituted the notion of “information” for “complexity?” Can information expand to support sustainability, without requiring high levels of energy consumption? Can major shifts in the organization of society, or some parts of society, result in a much greater level of function, without increase, or maybe even with decrease, of energy and materials use?

What happens if an analysis like Tainter’s, or one that considers information along with or instead of energy input, is applied to problem-solving methods practiced in spiritual communities such as Christian monasticism and Buddhist sangha?

Also, I’m curious about what happens if ecological and evolutionary notions are applied to developing organizational responses to complex management issues, such as, for example, wildlands management in a complex national park like Wrangell-St. Elias, which is the size of Switzerland, with many engaged landowners, jurisdictions and stakeholders, and conservation and preservation issues. Would it be useful to evaluate networked/collaborative management models vs hierarchical/authoritarian approaches, using information and energy input-output considerations? Could doing that give insights into how best to respond to agency budget and staffing declines, which are happening at the same time that management issues are becoming more difficult and complicated?

Networked/collaborative vs hierarchical/authoritarian management also likely differ in outcomes, beyond those typically identified in agency or business planning, but which other cultures, including but not limited to Christian or Buddhist ascetic communities, might feature. I wonder if applying information & energy input/output analysis in the planning process might tend to open up the process to an expanded set of alternatives. Maybe just by breaking set patterns of thinking & behavior?

I realize all this needs much more research and thinking to be clear & useful. Comments welcome.

Earlham’s core principles of wilderness education: Living in a “positive state of non-expectancy”

Strikingly similar to the values of the Wrangell Mountains Center —

Core principles guiding the Earlham College wilderness program educational mission:

  • The Adventuresome Spirit
    Viewing obstacles as challenges to be overcome. Actively seeking out opportunities to learn and to push oneself outside the “comfort zone.” Living life in a “positive state of non-expectancy” — allowing for appreciation of the trail magic that can come from being present and aware of the adventuresome potential of each moment.
  • Sense of Place
    A connection to the land we are traveling through such that we are not just tourists or passersby but, rather, we become changed by our relationship with the land and its stories. As modern life increasingly separates us from such relationships, the principle of gaining a “sense of place” on wilderness trips reminds us that this value is critical toward the creation of a personal and a larger community-based environmental ethic.
  • Servant Leadership
    Servant leadership is defined as the ability to think of others through the acquired skills of listening, observation, awareness, empathy, acceptance and foresight. It is the difference between caring “about” something or someone and “caring for” it. It is an active behavior that happens in lots of little ways. A servant leader constantly thinks about how to help his or her group in small and big ways. A servant leader is also aware of “giving back” in small and big ways to the people and the places he or she experiences. Finally, a servant leader understands that knowledge and experiences acquired have moral consequences and leaves changed as well as committed to working toward putting that change into service.
  • The Contemplative Spirit
    Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound and one of the central figures in the field of outdoor and experiential education created the 7 Laws of Salem which were his goals for operating his first school in England. One of his 7 laws was to “provide periods of silence, following the great precedent of the Quakers. Unless the present day generation acquires early habits of quiet and reflection, it will be speedily and prematurely used up by the nerve-exhausting and distracting civilization of today.” Hahn wrote that in the 1920’s. The art of contemplation and reflection is what brings meaning to our lives. It is also fundamental to the kind of deep and rigorous observation and scholarship we value at Earlham. On course, there will be many opportunities to practice the contemplative spirit.There will be “small” moments, for example, it is common to begin major meals with a moment of silence. There will also be “larger” ones like silent paddles and hikes, reflective solo’s, and observation activities.
  • Simplicity
    Simplicity and simple living is comprised of two parts: inward simplicity and outward simplicity. The two are, of course, connected. Inward simplicity can be defined by the priorities and goals that you have in your life and how you make decisions about them. Outward simplicity is how you manifest those priorities and goals to the world. Wilderness courses are all about simple living- both inwardly and outwardly. You carry everything you need on your back or in your canoe. You eat simply but heartily. You will have a minimum of possessions and “modern” distractions. This outward simplicity, we hope, will encourage inward simplicity- allowing you to reflect on what is truly important to you and how you want to go about “walking joyfully on this earth” as George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends” once famously said.