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“Wilderness” Is a Dangerous Idea. Here’s Why.

Contrary to popular belief, wilderness is a made-up concept. Here’s why it could be harming our planet.

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A couple of years ago, I was patting myself on the back for an article I’d just written about the benefits of wilderness when I got a reproachful reply from that magazine’s editor.

“Ooh,” she wrote. “We actually don’t use the word ‘wilderness,’ anymore.”

She went on to write that wilderness was a dangerous idea. The word erased Native American history by insinuating that nature was only “correct,” and “pure” if it contained no people whatsoever. She added that many U.S. national parks were created by booting whole tribes out of their ancestral homelands, even though they’d been living on—and sustainably stewarding—those lands for centuries.

In some ways, I understood what she was getting at, but mostly I was shocked at her objection to the word itself. I’d been writing about pristine, untrammeled wilderness for outdoor magazines for years. I loved wilderness. I loved walking in it, talking about it, and pretending I knew a lot about its ecological benefits. How dangerous could the word really be?

Ultimately, my curiosity got the better of me. Fine, I thought. I’ll do my research. To my surprise, I discovered that the editor was right. Among some experts, anti-wilderness ideas are gaining traction—and for good reason.

How We Got Wilderness So Wrong

In the U.S., wilderness is formally defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act 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.Most Americans (myself included) have long believed that this kind of wilderness is the purest—and therefore best—kind of nature. But that’s not necessarily the case. 

Traditionally, Indigenous Americans don’t draw lines around nature the way Westerners have. Many tribes consider nature something they’re in constant relationship with, simply by virtue of being human. Water is nature. Grass is nature. We are a part of nature, and nature is a part of us. The concept that nature exists in some places and not in others—that some patches of ground should be considered “wilderness” and others should be “civilization” or “agricultural land”—is a Western ideal. And it could be doing more to separate us from nature than to connect us to it.

It’s not hard to trace America’s obsession with wilderness as a separate, mythical entity. For one, Americans are still pretty enraptured with the pioneer days and the colonial idea of exploring the unknown. Then you have the influence of characters like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, who built whole careers on waxing poetic about “pristine” nature. Their writing was gorgeous, and their wilderness theory sparked the modern conservation movement. Both are laudable. But, like many ideas that got invented in the 1800s, this one bears reexamining.

The more I read, the more I understood just how subjective ideas like “wild,” and “pristine,” really are, and just how dangerous these concepts could be. After all, they’re all arbitrary measures—whims that the US government used to justify forcing Native tribes out of their homelands. Americans created wilderness areas not because they had any proven ecological benefit over other forms of preserved land—we did it just because we liked the sound of it.

What the Science Says

Decades of scientific literature make it clear that having undivided, roadless landscapes is essential for the health of most species, especially those with far-roaming populations. But how “pristine” does that wilderness need to be? I spoke to an ecologist friend about this a few years ago. He’d been working in Hawaii, which is in a constant state of invasive-species triage.

“Western ecology wants to turn the landscape into a museum,” he said. “But you just can’t do that.” 

After all, landscapes are dynamic. They adapt according to new species, human influences, and now, global warming. Many of our landscapes have adapted to coexist in tandem with their Native American neighbors, and some plant and animal species have even adapted to coexist alongside more aggressive human occupants, too. It’s not practical to try to rewind the clock, my friend told me. Trying to achieve perfect restoration—like banning the use of Indigenous fire even though controlled burns were what shaped our landscape in the first place—could be fighting an uphill battle. Plus, studies show that active restoration efforts are not necessarily more effective than just letting nature do its thing. With the climate crisis as urgent as it is, our time may be better spent elsewhere. Like, say, putting an end to drilling in the Arctic or new strip mines in the West. 

The Enemy of Environmentalism

There’s one more problem with the Western notion of wilderness, one that affects us every single day: Wilderness creates the idea that some places belong to the natural world—and others don’t. 

When we compartmentalize nature, we end up fighting ourselves. We practice LNT in national parks but contribute to microplastic pollution at home. We live simply when we’re in the backcountry, but buy trucks and TVs and giant houses when we’re ensconced in suburbia. In this way, wilderness doesn’t connect us to nature. It disconnects us.

 Wilderness areas also create an illusion of progress. By focusing exclusively on national parks and protected zones—instead of fighting for clean-air legislation or renewable energy—many American conservation efforts are just a Band-Aid. They’re like drinking a kale smoothie while smoking a pack a day. They ignore the fact that everything is connected.  

What to do about it

The word “wilderness” may be a loaded one, but that’s not to say that landscape protections aren’t an important part of conservation and climate mitigation. Banning road-building, clear-cutting, and drilling on large chunks of land is one of the best methods of keeping carbon in the ground. And in some delicate environments, giving places the same protections as designated wilderness (like banning motor-vehicle traffic) could be necessary to protect fragile plants or cryptobiotic soils.  

I don’t think we should totally overhaul the American conservation system, but I do think it should be more holistic. What good is a new national monument if there’s no carbon-cutting legislation to go with it? Did we really protect the land if we’re not going to address the mountains’ vanishing snowpack and the hotter temperatures that are forcing animal species to flee to higher and higher elevations each year? 

Maybe it’s idealistic to hope for bundled legislation in the future. But in the meantime, we can change the way we talk about nature—about wilderness versus civilization, or nature versus cityscapes. These separations only exist in our minds.  

So next time you’re at home with your house plants, at the office, or in a city park, pretend you’re in nature (because you are). How would you act differently? Would you take a little more care to pick up roadside trash? Waste a little less food? Vote differently? Run your business differently?

Contrary to what modern wilderness theory may have us believe, nature is everywhere. It’s time we started acting like it. 

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