NY Times: Wilderness Isn't Safe

Northwest Editor Michael Lanza refutes a recent NYT opinion column decrying safety hazards of federal wilderness areas

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The author’s 9-year-old son Nate confronts danger on the Grand Canyon’s East Tonto Trail.

This story hot off the presses at the New York Times: The wilderness isn’t safe.

I occasionally stumble upon an article about the outdoors in the mainstream media that reflects such a shockingly uninformed perspective that I wonder if the author has ever set foot on unpaved earth. The latest laugher is this Aug. 26 opinion piece in, of all places, that pillar of responsible journalism, the Times. In it, author Ted Stroll argues that American wilderness just isn’t safe.

Perhaps so as not to create the impression that he’s merely stating the forehead-slapping obvious—he’s right, wilderness isn’t safe!—Mr. Stroll opens his piece with a brief case history. He relates a story—from 1970—about a cross-country skier getting lost on a trail in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters wilderness and dying of “exposure” (an antiquated term for what is today commonly called hypothermia). The U.S. Forest Service subsequently put markers on the trail to help skiers find their way, but some years later did not replace them when needed. The article attributes this decision to a USFS claim that the Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits signage, which is not true, but I’ll save that point for later.

Accusing the USFS of becoming “increasingly strict in its enforcement of the Wilderness Act,” Mr. Stroll argues in his Times piece that this “zealous enforcement has also heightened safety risks and limited access to America’s wilderness areas.” He notes that Congress has designated as wilderness “40 percent of the land in our national parks and one-third of the land in our national forests—more than 170,000 square miles, an area nearly as large as California, Massachusetts and New Jersey combined.”

Presumably, that’s way too much unsafe territory for a civilized nation to tolerate. Hmmm. Seems to me that someone at the Times should have tied a string to Mr. Stroll so they could pull him back to Earth.

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