Postholing through three-foot-deep snowdrifts across Deer Creek Pass, Gaillard and I pass from the Washakie Wilderness into the Teton Wilderness, both designated as part of the national wilderness system by the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. Our National Wilderness Preservation System, established in 1964, was the most progressive and prescient recognition of the value of biodiversity in history. As we walk, I ruminate on the act, which gave legal form to the thinking of my literary mentors.
“To assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”
The Wilderness Act also poetically limned both the value and the definition of wild country: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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.”
In short, the Wilderness Act was explicitly created to preserve remoteness and all that comes with it: silence, solitude, a functioning ecosystem. It was decidedly not created to preserve remoteness or wildness as a state of mind or national myth, but explicitly to draw lines on a map, to create and enforce physical boundaries, and thereby protect what little land was still semi-unsullied by human impact. Which is not to say that key terms in the statute haven’t been continually debated. The current philosophical furor rages over what constitutes a “natural condition” or a community of life “untrammeled by man,” phrases that have been parsed in different ways by dozens of scholars.
An argument I find highly compelling was published in a seminal 1992 essay titled “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.” In it, anthropologist William Denevan convincingly argues that the Western Hemisphere was not an empty, unmodified Eden when Columbus “discovered” the New World. Instead, the “natural condition” of the Americas included humans. By synthesizing the works of archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, and geneticists, Denevan concluded that there were probably 60 million people living in the Western Hemisphere before European contact–more than in Europe. Furthermore, in terms of agriculture and animal husbandry, these people were at least as sophisticated as their discoverers.
Native Americans frequently used fire to alter the landscape; they also used irrigation and forestry, and they grew a cornucopia of domesticated crops, from chilies to potatoes. Denevan asserts that at least part of the Great Plains may have been created by Native Americans, through regular forest burning designed to expand buffalo habitat.
Up to 90 percent of these populations vanished in the following two centuries from diseases such as smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, measles, and influenza. With this unimaginably massive loss of life, the march of the white man across America from the 1700s through the 1800s mistakenly appeared to be a journey through a gigantic wilderness. Which means that my heroes–Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Roosevelt–misunderstood what they were actually observing and experiencing. Ecologically speaking, the America they encountered was not, as they had so eloquently described, a geography untouched by human hand. It was a deeply loved landscape sorrowfully emptied.
When Denevan first presented his hypothesis, more than a few scientists scoffed. Today, his conclusions have helped create a new understanding of pre-Columbus America. Charles Mann summarized the current geographical thinking on wilderness in his most recent book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, writing: “Far from destroying pristine wilderness … Europeans bloodily created it.” And this blood-soaked sanctuary, oddly enough, is exactly what the Wilderness Act codified into law.
Some scholars have used the fact that Native Americans modified their environments to dismiss the thesis that a landscape “untrammeled by man” ever existed, but their logic is dubious. Denevan believes that North America–the approximately 7.5 million square miles north of the Rio Grande–contained 4 million human inhabitants before 1492. This would create a density of one person for every two square miles, enough to influence but only in special circumstances remake the landscape. In the big picture, accepting that humans were a part of the “natural” ecosystem is useful in recognizing that “wilderness” is not a static term, but a word that embodies a spectrum of varying wildness.
Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness, with its heavy horse-packing use, may not be as “wild” and untrammeled as the Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness in Alaska; on the other hand, it is vastly wilder than Pennsylvania’s 8,663-acre Hickory Creek Wilderness. In all cases, the goal of the Wilderness Act is to minimize human disturbance and restore as much of the native flora and fauna as possible.
“People tend to be parochial and shortsighted about the definition of wilderness,” says Ted Kerasote, editor of Return of the Wild and author, most recently, of Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog. “Yes, the Thorofare is much closer to all things we consider civilized than the largely unmanaged wild places in northern Canada, but wilderness is a matter of degrees, not absolutes.”
Kerasote, a hunter, hiker, and resident of Kelly, Wyoming, is a leading thinker about the connection between man and nature, the subject of his 1997 book, Bloodties.
“In the Lower 48, we wisely set aside these tiny tracts of land–museum pieces really–as repositories for species diversity and examples of what this country looked and felt like not that long ago,” he told me by phone.
“My great hope is that as we go forward into the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd centuries, the human population will become more educated, family sizes will decrease, and the earth will retreat to a human population of one to two billion. At that point, places where we’ve kept active gene pools alive, like the greater Yellowstone region, can be used to repopulate and rewild large portions of North America.”