What Will Happen To The Wilderness?

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 12 2014 @ 8:02am

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Fifty years ago last week, Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act. David Biello assesses what’s happened since:

[M]ost wilderness in the continental U.S. is not untrammeled land. Wilderness areas are often former working landscapes—the Orwellian phrase created by the logging industry to explain away clear cuts—whether they were cleared for logging or farming over the course of the 19th century and early 20th centuries in places like the Adirondacks. The great forest that once covered the eastern U.S. has been re-growing for the last 50 years, even if its primeval quality may be illusory, given the exotic animals and plants that now live there. And, in this era of global warming, even the Artic and other remote spots show signs of human trammeling—whether the leavings are plastic detritus or a changed climate.

How he thinks about the future of the wild:

Wilderness poses this fundamental question at least: what kind of place do we want for our home? Will our terrestrial abode retain an abundance of plants, animals, microbes and fungi like the world Homo sapiens was first born into? Or will the Earth become a vast monoculture, a grim subset of nominally wild species that co-exist in symbiosis with modern human civilization, like rats and seagulls? “Is being an asteroid the great purpose of our species—to steal the lives and homes of millions of species and billions of creatures?” asks political scientist David Johns of Portland State University, in his essay in “Keeping the Wild.”

In the end, wilderness is a state of mind. The natural world can only persist now as a deliberate act of human will. That will require firm human purpose as a gesture of humility, yes, but also a form of self-protection. “This is not really an ‘environmental problem.’ It’s a human problem,” writes environmental historian Roderick Frazier Nash of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “What needs to be conquered now is not the wilderness, but ourselves.”

Update from a reader:

In David Biello’s article, the word “untrammeled” is misused. To be trammeled means to be restricted, such as a trammel used on a horse. To be untrammeled means to be not restricted or hampered. (I learned what “untrammeled” meant in 1972, in my first weeks of Park Ranger training at Grand Canyon National Park.)

The Wilderness Act says that wilderness is an area that is “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” So wilderness is a place that is unrestricted by mankind, or as noted in Wikipedia, “meaning the forces of nature operate unrestrained and unaltered.”

In this article, “untrammeled” is confused with a word like “untrampled.” (It’s a frequent mistake.) For example, the author writes: “And, in this era of global warming, even the Artic [sic] and other remote spots show signs of human trammeling—whether the leavings are plastic detritus or a changed climate.” This is a clear misuse of the word “trammeling.” Biello should be informed of this mistake and a clarification from you might be in order.

(Photo by Jocelyn Kinghorn)