National Geographic : 2014 Sep
50 Years of Wilderness 75 the environmental historian William Cronon has observed. “In truth, ‘Wilderness’ is a state of mind and heart” is how photographer Ansel Adams once put it. “Very little exists now in actuality.” Today even the most remote wilderness ar- eas, like the Bering Sea Wilderness off Alaska or the Innoko Wilderness in the state’s interior, are being dramatically altered by the grand geophys- ical experiment that humans are conducting. Sea ice is disappearing, permafrost is thawing, and woody plants are invading the tundra, all thanks to global warming. The impossibility of escaping human influence, even in those few parts of the globe that people have never inhabited, has led some scientists to propose that we are living in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. In the age of man the Wilderness Act may seem futile—but it has arguably become more important. Designating land as wilderness rep- resents an act of humility. It acknowledges that the world still transcends our comprehension, and its value, the use we can make of it. “I look at wilderness today as the control in the grand experiment,” says Garry Oye, just re- tired as chief of wilderness stewardship for the National Park Service. “ Throughout time we’ve demonstrated that we really don’t understand natural systems. Having these blocks of land protected as wilderness shows some restraint.” There are practical as well as ethical argu- ments for such restraint. In the Anthropocene many—perhaps most—species are on the move, tracking the changing climate. Plants and ani- mals that find their routes blocked by cities or airports or highways are likely to be in trouble. Wilderness areas, which allow for less impeded movement, may provide the best hope for new plant and animal communities to form. “ The reason designated wilderness is so important is because it legislatively and per- manently sets aside big pieces of land,” says Peter Landres, an ecologist at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in Missoula, Montana. “These big pieces are needed to let ecological and evolutionary processes play out. So if I’m an animal and I don’t like it here, I can move over there. Yes, wilderness is affected by climate change, but it’s exactly because our world is now so dominated by people that it’s so important to have places where we let nature be.” And defining wilderness loosely, as land that’s relatively untrammeled, opens lots of places to the designation. Fifteen years ago Fred Lavigne led a successful campaign to add 10,000 acres to the Sandwich Range Wilderness; that in- creased the size of the wilderness by 40 percent, which means 40 percent more room for bears and moose and woodpeckers to move around. Some 30 proposed wilderness areas now await approval from a gridlocked Congress. None of the proposals would have made it even that far without broad local support. There would be no better way to celebrate the Wilderness Act’s golden anniversary than for Washington to ap- prove them. j SLEEPING BEAR DUNES WILDERNESS Last March, Congress invoked the Wilderness Act for the first time in five years, designating 32,500 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the east side of Lake Michigan. Some of the dunes tower more than 400 feet above the lake.