To me, wilderness is the unknown. It is the most natural, pristine, organic, alive, and clandestine natural environment on Earth. Wilderness may be looked at as an undisturbed natural area that humans do not have control over. Without human dominance and minimal influence, wilderness is able to maintain its natural systems and ecological processes, ultimately allowing for ultimate freedom. I believe wilderness is full of mystery and secrets, but I also trust that it welcomes and accepts everyone. Wilderness is the essence of life, from the lush plant life and vibrant critters, to the colossal trees and mighty mountains, to the freedom of thought and movement.
That being said, “Wilderness” is a relative term and can mean many different things to many different people. For example, a high school student living in urban New York City, who rarely has the opportunity to experience forested land, may consider Central Park to be “wilderness,” or even any wooded area. In addition, your average recreational day hiker may consider the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, or the Allegheny National Forest, or even the Brecksville Reservation to be “Wilderness.” However, for a piece of land to truly be a “wilderness” means it is under the highest category of protected land created. In 1964 the Wilderness Act was signed into law which created the National Wilderness Preservation System and recognized wilderness 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 (wilderness.nps.gov).” Under the Wilderness Act, only Congress may designate or change the status of a wilderness area.
Similar to other areas of protected land, designated wilderness areas have certain criteria they need to meet in order for Congress to actually appoint a section of land the title of a true Wilderness. However, unlike many other preserved lands, wilderness have a much more uncompromising standard that needs to be met: Permanent roads and commercial enterprises are prohibited and for the most part motorized equipment and vehicles, mechanical transport, temporary roads, and any permanent structures are not allowed. In addition, each wilderness area is meant to contain at least 5,000 acres of land, the land must regain a natural, untrammeled appearance, and must not show signs of “man’s” presence (ex. logging, clear cutting, manmade bridges, etc.). Other crucial factors in considering an area suitable to be a wilderness or not, can depend on the location of the area and whether or not it is conducive to the perpetuation of wilderness values. Things which must be considered are sources of noise, air, and water pollution, as well as unsightly conditions that would have an effect on the wilderness experience. Lastly, no more than 15 percent of the area can be made up of non-native, planted vegetation.
As you can see, for Congress to appoint an area of land as a designated wilderness there are numerous, very strict, criteria that piece of land must fulfill. Despite this, the main purpose of a wilderness is to provide areas of land that retain their “primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation…” (wilderness.nps.gov). In other words, they are intended to maintain the most natural, pristine, organic, alive, and clandestine natural environment on Earth. With all this being said, it is important to know that when traveling or planning a trip, wilderness areas are going to be the most secluded areas of land you can trek through. Now, for some people, this is exactly what they’re looking for, but for others, absolute seclusion can be unmanageable and dangerous. Understand that in wilderness areas there are rarely any trail markers and often the trails themselves are severely unkept. For seasoned and experienced hikers/backpackers this isn’t as big of an issue as it would be for others who are new to the activity. Whenever planning a trip, keep in mind your skill level and where exactly you’ll be traveling.
For those of us who aren’t looking for the ultimate, sequestered hiking trip, a second type of land to consider are the numerous National Forests all over the country. Under the Department of Agriculture, National Forests are managed to provide Americans with a wide variety of services and commodities and aim to provide recreational opportunities. Hunting, dispersed camping, ATV riding, and much more are activities often allowed in much of the National Forest land, usually for a small fee and no permits necessary.
Gifford Pinchot, an American forester and politician often known as the Father of Forestry and Conservation, helped to develop the National Forest system into what it is today. He, unlike other popular proponents of land and wilderness, such as John Muir, was in favor of a utilitarian view point toward the land. In other words, he supported wise use of land, planned development, and recreational activities that utilized the land.
The average American may not be all that familiar with designated wilderness areas or what specifically National Forests are, but more likely than not, they will to some degree know about the country’s National Parks. These are the most popular pieces of protected lands in the country and in many cases the most spectacular, ranging from Yellowstone, to the Grand Canyon, to Yosemite, to the Everglades, Acadia, and many, many more. Unlike wilderness areas and National Forests, National Parks are housed under the Department of Interior, and focus mainly on strict preservation of land rather than recreational use. As a result, National Parks tend to be much more highly regulated with many more rules. For example, hunting and off-road vehicles are generally prohibited, and permits are required for just about everything. In addition, National Parks are developed to serve larger numbers of visitors and provide more facilities for cars and easy viewing opportunities.
Unlike Pinchot, who was a conservationist and held utilitarian viewpoints, John Muir and others like him were preservationists. They wanted protected lands to be off limits to lumbering, dam constructing, and recreational use, and aimed their efforts toward preservation of the land beauty. The historical background of both Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, and their beliefs, provide excellent illustrations of how both the National Forest Service and National Park Service maintain their protected lands.
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