Discussions at the National Wilderness Conference focus on broad issues
What is the future of wilderness?
What is the future of the human race?
Is anything truly wild in the Anthropocene epoch?
Big-picture questions and topics were the order of the day at the National Wilderness Conference, which took place Oct. 15-19 in Albuquerque, N.M.
Part celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, part forum for sharing research, and part occasion for soul-searching, the event brought together more than a thousand people whose discussions weren’t the sort that are commonly heard in Montezuma County, where the very mention of wilderness raises hackles.
And while there were many tough questions and few easy answers, there seemed to be universal consensus on at least thing: Yes, wilderness matters.
In fact, it matters more than ever – both to humans and to other species, said prominent presenters including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, along with the lesser-known experts who spoke.
As people become more obsessed with electronic gadgets and more removed from the natural environment, wilderness areas offer a place to reconnect with the land and escape surveillance, said Jason Mark, editor of the California-based Earth Island Journal.
“The wilderness remains one of the few places where you can get off the grid,” Mark said. “No one is tracking you, no one knows where you are, and that is really important.”
Although it’s becoming difficult to differentiate between what is natural and unnatural today, in what is being called the Anthropocene (human-dominated) epoch, he said, “we can still identify what is wild and what is domesticated.” Wild things, he said, are self-willed, autonomous, free from human control. “We need to hold on to the wild, to this distinction between places that are domesticated and not domesticated.”
But this will be a challenge in a future when wilderness is an abstraction to most people – urban-dwellers who know how to navigate a city and navigate the Internet but may have no experience trekking through a backwoods landscape.
Saying that “the digital net is tightening,” Mark described Google’s plans to send people into the backcountry to take 360-degree views of as much wild landscape as possible and make it available online. “You can right now raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon via your computer,” he said.
Google also plans to loft hundreds of low-flying satellites into orbit to provide global wi-fi, making the whole world “a universal hot spot.” Mark called that a scary idea that threatens to take away the power of the wilderness.
He noted that there are now “digital detox camps” where people go to break the hold that electronic devices have over them. “Buy a pair of hiking boots, drive to where the blacktop ends, and start walking – that’s my digital detox,” he said.
More than just an escape from urbanization, wilderness may some day provide a place to hide from Big Brother, just as Sherwood Forest did for Robin Hood. Wild places have historically been the “refuge of the apostate and dissident, the fugitive slave,” Mark noted, and quoted writer Ed Abbey: “We may need wilderness someday, not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression.”
Alluding to the “Terminator” movies, in which a global computer becomes self-aware and takes over the world, Mark said, “If some mad men ever try to activate Skynet, I think we will want some landscapes that are outside the network.”
Battling the lure of technology was a theme echoed by others at the conference, including Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First! and current executive director of the nonprofit Rewilding Institute. He said he has told people he’s taking on river trips not to bring their cell phones or he’ll throw them into the water.
“I don’t think you can find wilderness with a cell phone in your pocket,” Foreman said. “I don’t think you can find wilderness on a pair of wheels. . . People harm their own wilderness experience by taking these gadgets. You’re supposed to be getting away and hearing the sounds of nature.”
But it was a message that obviously didn’t resonate with everyone, as many audience members at different presentations doodled obsessively with their smart phones.
A number of speakers voiced concern about the pace at which plant and animal species are going extinct. A recent study by scientists with the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London estimated that the number of wild animals on Earth has dropped by half in the past 40 years because of habitat loss, pollution, and unsustainable hunting.
“We are in the middle of a huge extinction now,” Foreman said, “caused by one thing only, and that is us.”
And while the Wilderness Act was not specifically designed to stop extinction, it is a tool to protect habitat, he said. For instance, if some of the historic forests in the southeastern United States had been preserved as wilderness, ivory-billed woodpeckers might not have gone extinct.
“How do we live with all the other earthlings,” he asked, “without being the asshole nobody wants to be around?”
Dave Scott, president of the Sierra Club board of directors, called for the designation of millions of acres of new wilderness, saying refuges and corridors are needed for species trying to migrate to cooler habitats to cope with climate change. But that alone won’t save many species, he said; threats not related to climate change must also be reduced, including pollution, mining, offhighway vehicles, and more.
Scott quoted writer Wallace Stegner:
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed . . . if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste.”
But Scott offered some criticism of the environmental movement. He said wilderness has not always been preserved and managed with an eye to the rights and needs of indigenous peoples. In some cases, lands reserved for native peoples were then taken away and made into parks. At times, he said, “the environmental movement has failed to recognize its complicity in the displacement of indigenous people.”
He called for measures such as allowing Alaskan natives to continue subsistence hunting and fishing; the protection of sites for spiritual practices; and park interpretation that accurately conveys history even when it reflects badly on the U.S. government. Indigenous people should be sought out to provide their own interpretations, Scott said. “Make the experience of nature and wild places more broadly available for all,” he added.
The environmental movement has been criticized as predominantly for white, wellto- do people, he said, although that is not entirely true. For instance, a recent survey funded by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that nine in 10 Latino voters said it was important for the U.S. government to address global warming and climate change.
“We have got to make the environmental movement younger; we have got to make it more diverse,” Scott said.
“Wilderness is for all.”
Different speakers offered different views of the future. Max Oelschlaeger, an environmental philosopher with Northern Arizona University, said he is pessimistic. “The shit has hit the fan and it’s going to get a lot worse,” he said.
Our current era, in which people’s connection to the land has been severed, is “pathological given the evolutionary past from which we have come,” he said.
“We have separated ourselves from the land, from the flora and fauna, and from the natural system,” Oelschlaeger said. He said pristine wilderness no longer exists in the Anthropocene Age.
But George Nickas, president of the nonprofit Wilderness Watch, said he is optimistic. “People love wilderness, people need wilderness, and because of that, we will preserve wilderness.” Most people relish the idea of there being places where humans aren’t in control, he said, even if they never actually see those sites.
But he warned that there are threats to the very concept. One, he said, is “the political pragmatism that has afflicted our movement” and pressured advocates to endlessly compromise. Another is “market triumphalism – everything is commodified. Everything has to have a market value.”
Yet another threat is the response to climate change – not climate change itself. Wilderness will adapt to change, Nickas said, but “the temptation to meddle, to garden, will be so strong” that people may manage wild areas to the point that they cease to be wild. “It’s hard to watch the vegetation change and invasive species take over,” he said.
“There will be reasons to meddle on virtually every acre of our wilderness system, and whether we resist that and give nature its autonomy will be the real test.”
Nickas added, “These are big challenges, but I do believe all of them can be overcome.”
He urged supporters not to be apologetic about the restrictions on activities within wilderness boundaries. “I think we need to think big and bold about wilderness again.”
Nickas’ call for letting wilderness alone was echoed by Foreman. “Don’t go overboard to protect wilderness areas from change,” he said. “We need to take some action, but we also need to be very, very humble about it.”
The two agreed that fire suppression and fire-prevention efforts – which are generally allowed in wilderness areas – can be threats. Dave Bengston, a research social scientist with the Forest Service concurred, calling it a “war on fire driven by the fire-industrial complex.”
Nickas said “rewilding” is not needed in wilderness areas, although it may be fine for places outside them. “The only thing that makes wilderness not-wild is us,” he said.
After the speeches and seminars on Oct. 17, many conference attendees went to the New Mexico premiere of the film “Wrenched,” about Ed Abbey and the growth of environmental activism. The showing was followed by a panel discussion featuring several of the activists featured in the documentary, including Foreman and Earth First! co-founder Bart Koehler, Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams, author Jack Loeffler, and Kim Crumbo of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. They answered audience questions, discussing the future of wilderness, environmental nonprofits they believe have “sold out,” and their efforts not to compromise in advocating for wild places.
They were asked their advice for the next generation. It was Foreman who gave the pithiest answer:
“Please don’t have kids,” he said The audience laughed merrily, but he seemed serious. “There are 7 1/2 billion of us on the planet right now. It’s going to be 12 billion by the time you’re my age. Just don’t have kids.”