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Defining Wilderness
Excerpts from a Conversation with Ron Mader, Amy Krause, Tim Burford, Gerhard Buttner and John Shores


The wilderness of the Sierra will disappear unless little pieces of nonwilderness become intensely loved by lots of people In other words, Harlem and Saint Louis and Iowa and Kansas and the rest of the world where wilderness has been destroyed must come to be loved by enough of us, or wilderness too is doomed.
- Wilderness Notebook hosted a discussion on the role that 'wilderness' plays in the minds of locals around the world. Is there a standard definition or is wilderness a cultural construct? uses the following from the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary:
1. An unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition, especially:
a. A large wild tract of land covered with dense vegetation or forests.
b. An extensive area, such as a desert or ocean, that is barren or empty; a waste.
c. A piece of land set aside to grow wild.

Another definition from the USA Wilderness Net:
The Wilderness Act of 1964 (in the USA) defines Wilderness as follows:
...lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition. area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man. area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement or human habitation.
...generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable.
...has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.
...shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historic use.

Amy Krause

In my experience, the idea of wilderness has become culturally iconic in parts of Canada and the United States. I won't speak so much for other places as my experience is limited, but I can say that in my travels overseas, I have never been to a place that held "uninhabited" and uncultivated lands in such high esteem.

Wilderness, or the idea of it, may be largely constructed - especially if you take into account the experiences of Native Americans, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples - but it occupies an important role in the minds of people here.

I recall distinctly having a conversation with a retired couple on a train in Britain about ten years ago. When they discovered I was from Canada, he said to me, "I was in Canada years ago. I remember riding the train from Toronto to Vancouver and all across the country there were just vast tracts of nothing... Nothing at all. How can you call it a country when there is nothing there?"

In his mind, the history of the people who live in a place make the country. In my mind, the fact there were places where people weren't, made the country... Somehow, I don't think the idea of wilderness - or at least it cultural importance - was the same in his mind as it was in mine.

Tim Burford

Regarding the idea of wilderness as "a place… that people believe to be unaltered by a human presence" - I spend a lot of time in the mountains of Eastern Europe which most local people and visitors probably believe to be wild and unaltered by human influence - yet the forests through which one approaches are shaped by centuries of forestry, and the alpine meadows, and the treeline itself which defines them, are entirely the product of sheep spending the summers there for even longer.

The same is true of the Scottish Highlands, once covered with Caledonian forest but now bare thanks to sheep and deer - paradoxically, the key human intervention was the removal of the bulk of the human population to Canada and elsewhere. Yet this is some of the most majestic wilderness scenery on earth.

The point is not that the wilderness is unaltered by humans, but that it is *believed* to be unaltered. It's the sense of a human presence that matters, not the actuality. Much of Nepal is densely populated, but it still offers an intense wilderness experience - although perhaps the point here is the contrast between the busy trails and villages, and the pure whiteness of the peaks that seem so deceptively close.

First stop for discussion of wilderness should be the John Muir Trust who are very active in Scotland. In October 2004 they held a major conference on Sustaining Wild Land and produced a 'Declaration for the Wild' and a working paper on Wild Land Policy - available on the website under 'policies'.

Gerhard Buttner

In my home country South Africa we have a similar classification of wilderness areas from a recreation perspective. There are many National Parks and State Forests with day and overnight visitor facilities and then some so-called "WILDERNESS AREAS" for the real wilderness experience.

These are often – just as Tim Burford points out for Eastern Europe - only "believed" to be unaltered, as there are paths and basic shelters used by shepherds in the past, clearly not completely unaltered. One attraction is sleeping in caves. Also nothing new nor unaltered: This has been done for centuries by the "San" (Bushmen) people who have left their graffiti ("Rock Paintings") all over them, adding another visitor attraction.

For many the importance of WILDERNESS is more about the EXPERIENCE than the ecological history of the PLACE. The "Wilderness experience" requires vast, impressive or majestic landscapes, and a very limited number of other visitors, rather than a completely unaltered environment.

This implies a limited "carrying capacity", not only in an ecological sustainability sense of not further altering the area for future generations, but also sustaining the "wilderness experience" for the present visitor.

Though if you ask the rural poor in Africa (or Asia or Latin America): "What is wilderness?", this leisure / tourism approach is meaningless. Possible responses might be:
…potential agricultural land for my children,
…the land we should invade before anybody else does,
…the land the government has stolen from our ancestors,
…the land we can use for firewood / hunting etc.
…the useless / waterless / inaccessible land where the dangerous animals roam etc.

This is exactly why a "wilderness area" with impoverished people in the vicinity can only be a sustainable tourist option if these people are part of the process.

"Wilderness" is a cultural construct: it can be paradise, hell, history, the future, a "close to nature" feeling, a resource opportunity, a wasteland, a political issue etc.

John Shores

Another way to frame the "wilderness" concept is to adopt the approach we use with wildlands, i.e., "lands where natural capital predominates." One can also use the lack of human infrastructure -- an approach we use in the US by identifying roadless areas (lands removed at least 10 miles from any roads).

But I like the idea of places we *imagine* to be wild.

One of the tests of any definition is how well it applies at the extremes. Does it work on top of Sagarmatha? Does it apply in the Antarctic? How about in the middle of the ocean south of Australia? Imagining you in wild places.


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