This is a guest post from collaborator and good friend Chris Vlautin who is currently a Wilderness Fellow for the USFWS. Hopefully I can convince him to become a regular contributor as he has experienced a lot and has some fantastic stories to tell.
Same Lands, Different Experiences
If you asked a hundred people what a “wilderness” is, you would probably get back a hundred different responses. Unlike tangible things like ‘mountains’ or ‘National Wildlife Refuges’, a Wilderness is something that is more subjective. To some, it is an untouched place that allows them to experience the same sights, sounds and smells that generations past have. To others, it’s an opportunity to disconnect from the trappings of technology and the modern world. To still others, it’s a means to test their mettle and to exercise the highs and lows of self-reliance. All of these definitions are correct; it’s a great number of things to a great number of people. A Wilderness is more than a collection of plants, animals, rocks and streams –it’s also the impression one gets from witnessing all of nature interact. It is a community of life of which we can be a part, if we take the time to contribute.
Most people who know me would agree that I have a bit of a cynical streak. But those who know me well also understand that I’m, deep-down, an optimist. The projects I feel passionate about tend to be ones that attempt to undo past wrongs or to improve on things that may need a bit of help. This is the case of my position as a Wilderness Fellow for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Our Nation is one of stunning natural variety –it contains everything from arctic tundra to barren desert. However, we as Americans have a rather rocky history when it comes to how we treat those resources. Along the way to becoming as such an important force in the world, oftentimes we have exploited the environment to do so. Fortunately, there are instances where we have seemingly done things right. The United States was the first modern society to officially designate National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges. We have passed legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Recently, a great deal of my professional focus has been spent on this final law. As its name implies, the Wilderness Act was a monumental step forward for the establishment and preservation of untouched spaces in the U.S. While no area nowadays exists that has not been touched by man in some way, designated Wildernesses are on the far end of the spectrum when it comes to federally managed lands. Although not quite ‘pristine’ in the textbook sense, Wilderness areas represent those small remaining places where the impact of man on his environment has been kept to a minimum. There are ways to quantify what a Wilderness is and isn’t, but these too, are subjective. The framers of this law have literally defined the phrase through legislation, but they did so in a way that I feel captures the intangibility aspects of the term. The text and purpose of the Act was to effectively “preserve [the] natural conditions” of an area –its character and how it makes us feel.
Not to venture too far into solipsism, but part of what makes a wilderness a Wilderness is how it is experienced by those who are fortunate enough to visit one. And the visit is important. Wilderness areas were put in place for us to explore, experience, appreciate — and then leave. We are meant to use them to reconnect to the past and to consider how we can make the future better. Just as each person has their own definition of what a wilderness is, each person experiences wilderness differently. And the wonderful thing about the size and terrain of the United States is that we are fortunate enough to have so many designated Wildernesses –over 700 areas covering 1 million acres. In fact, there may be one in your own backyard -each unique in its own right.
The Nation’s designated Wildernesses are managed and preserved by the four major land protection agencies: The National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Forest Service. Each of these is given rein to look after their appointed areas. Over time, the four wilderness management agencies have improved their cooperation and coordination of wilderness stewardship. Emerging technologies have allowed for more facile inter-agency communication and assistance in dealing with issues of climate change, budgetary restrictions and increasing development. As we approach September 3, the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s signing of the Wilderness Act, we do so with a continued drive to secure these amazing spaces and to ensure they will be around for many years to come.
Big Lake, Arkansas
18 June 2014