You’re not the boss in wilderness

By John Clayton

When my friends and I encountered the fresh grizzly bear scat, we were deep in Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness, 20 miles from a trailhead. I’d seen grizzlies before—from the car. But this experience was on a whole other level. I felt vulnerable, nervous. I also felt fully alive.

That feeling owes much to the Wilderness Act, which became law 60 years ago, in 1964. When President Lyndon B. Johnson created a nationwide system of wild landscapes “untrammeled by man,” it gave physical expression to an unusual attitude toward land.

The attitude could be summarized as: In the wildest parts of America, humans come second. What comes first is the land, its water and its wildlife. If the grizzly that left those droppings had confronted us, and I’m glad it never did, we lacked the resources of civilization to protect us.

If I’d fallen off a cliff, there was no cell service to call 911. If a freak snowstorm made us cold, wet and miserable, all we could do was suffer. In wilderness, Mother Nature won’t kiss a boo-boo to make it better.

There’s something elemental about being on your own, exposed. You’ve made a choice based on your values about the outdoors. As a result, you feel the power of larger forces—and sometimes, if you’re lucky, even the power of yourself.

Before the Act became law, American culture prioritized pulling all the resources we could out of the land by drilling, mining, dam building, logging, over-grazing. We barged through habitat, flattened forests and plowed prairies. We replaced old growth with board-feet of timber, canyons with cubic meters of water, and grasslands with barrels per day of oil. We’re still doing that on 95% of public land.

But the Wilderness Act acknowledged that in some places, the land should be left as unexploited as possible. It defined wilderness as being “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape.”

Preserving wildness calls for restraint. It calls for motorized users, e-bikers, mountain bikers, pilots, snowmobilers, technical climbers with hardware and drone flyers to recreate somewhere else. Yet hiking, hunting, boating, fishing and horseback riding are all allowed in wilderness, as well as grazing if grandfathered in.

The Act’s primary author, Howard Zahniser loved hiking in wild places and he was determined: In eight years of lobbying the Congress for The Wilderness Society, he helped rewrite the bill 65 times. By the time the Act overwhelmingly passed—73–12 in the Senate and 374–1 in the House—Zahniser had died of heart disease at the young age of 58.

The Act is often discussed in terms of the acreage it protects, now comprising 806 wilderness areas and 112 million acres, roughly half of that in Alaska. Yet it’s really about nature being the boss.

In wilderness, we recognize that always getting our way can devalue ecosystems. It can harm wildlife, clean water, fresh air and other widely shared resources. It can cause us to scorn Indigenous people’s connections to the land when we should be honoring them.

Wilderness is not the only place we embrace not getting our way, just as the U.S. Capitol building is not the only place we embrace democracy, and Civil War battlefields are not the only places we honor fallen soldiers. With wilderness as reminders, we can also consider not being the boss in a city park or backyard, while watching birds or growing native plants.

Threats to keeping wilderness wild, however, have never subsided. Sixty years have brought us innumerable technologies to help us get our way while recreating in nature. And as we’ve realized that making nature more accessible might make it more inclusive and its fans more diverse, some of us are tempted to relax recreational restrictions in wilderness.

That would miss the point. “We must remember always that the essential quality of the wilderness is its ‘wildness,’” Zahniser said. “We must not only protect the wilderness from commercial exploitation. We must also see that we don’t ourselves destroy its wilderness character in our own management programs.”

Honoring wilderness ideals is especially important today because it represents the same lesson that we should be learning from climate change: People can’t control nature. Thanks to the Wilderness Act, we can celebrate that some places remain free of our habit of changing everything—just because we can.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit that promotes lively dialog about the West. He lives in Montana and writes the newsletter Natural Stories.

Buck Lake, Frank Church RIver of no Return Wilderness; Challis Idaho: courtesy USFS

This column was published in the following newspapers:

02/20/2024 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
02/20/2024 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
02/20/2024 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
02/20/2024 The Newberg Graphic Newberg OR
02/20/2024 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
02/20/2024 Valley Times News Portland OR
02/20/2024 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
02/19/2024 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
02/20/2024 Miles City Star Miles City MT
02/20/2024 Marinscope community newspapers Marin County CA
02/21/2024 Gallup Independent Gallup NM
02/20/2024 Vail Daily Vail CO
02/22/2024 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
02/22/2024 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
02/21/2024 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
02/21/2024 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
02/22/2024 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
02/25/2024 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
02/25/2024 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
02/21/2024 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
02/23/2024 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
02/24/2024 Farmington Daily Times Farmington NM
02/23/2024 Taos News Taos NM
02/22/2024 Denver Post Denver CO
02/21/2024 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
02/01/2024 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
03/03/2024 Aspen Times Aspen CO
02/28/2024 Three Forks Voice Three Forks MT
02/22/2024 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
03/08/2024 The Mountain Mail Pagosa Springs CO
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Mick Smith
4 months ago

John Clayton: In the summer of 1987 my wife and I went on a two month backpacking trip through 7 different Montana Wilderness areas: From June 15 to August 15. The hike was sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association. We started at Lewis and Clark Pass and ended at Holland Lake in the Swan Range. We hiked 356.25 miles led by Walking Jim Schultz. We were +/- 60 might in a tent. When the trip was over, I didn’t want to leave the wilderness (Bob Marshall). It’s so quiet and it’s just you and the animals; plus, you get in great shape. At one point Mountain Goats were coming down our trail. We stepped out of the way and let them pass: Upon doing so I touched a Mountain Goat. Just one of the wonderful things that happened on our two month trek. We packed 10 days of food and gave it to the Montana Wilderness Assn. Upon arriving at a certain trailhead…we’d hand over our trash and get 10 more days of food (we’d earlier packed). Consequently, we never left the wildness during our two month hike. Nice article…THX! Mick

Sherri Gronli
4 months ago

Really liked your article. Nowadays there is such a sense of entitlement. I see this all the time when I hike. People just don’t get it. Wilderness is wilderness. Period.

Rick Freimuth
4 months ago

Thank you, John, for a realist’s point of view regarding wilderness areas and the Wilderness Act. Two of my favorites are the “first name” wildernesses, The Bob (1,009,352 acres) and the Frank (2,366,827 acres). Before the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness received it’s final name (for Idaho’s finest, last statesman) and designation, the general area was known as the Idaho Primitive Area established in 1931. Living in Idaho then, that was the name I knew it by until the 1984 renaming. Of course those two are a couple of the biggest wilderness areas. Another favorite of mine is much smaller, the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness in NE Oregon at 20,299 acres.

Hank Perry
4 months ago

John- absolutely loved this article.

Susan Rhea
4 months ago

I recently the old book 1491. I knew some of the history, but was still surprised by a lot of it. One focus in the book is on the manipulated environment of the pre-European Americas. There is ample evidence that the Americas Europeans saw was not untrammeled by human’s influence, but was sustainably managed to improve crops, grazing lands, and vibrant civilizations. Some of the crises in our wilderness, national forests and parks is that we have not managed well, we have allowed overgrazing, over growth, suppressed natural fire and not done enough prescribed burning. Could you please address this POV in another article?

John Clayton
4 months ago
Reply to  Susan Rhea

1491 is a great book! And you constructively identify a difficult tension. I have an article coming out shortly about pre-European civilizations in Yellowstone. It’s in a different venue, but I you can look for it via my website (johnclaytonbooks.com) or newsletter (naturalstories.substack.com). Thanks for asking!

Kirk Johnson
4 months ago

Great article. As Tionesta, Pennsylvania native and Wilderness Act of 1964 author Howard Zahniser once said, “we must remember always that the essential quality of the wilderness is its wildness.”

It is not about generating “boots on the ground” or “heads in the beds,” etc., per se, but rather first and foremost it is about permanently preserving the WILDNESS of the wilderness as an end in itself. No developed rec user groups are ever entitled to any kind of development exceptions to the Wilderness Act. The visitation will be there, but we visit the wilderness on the wilderness’s terms — we do not dumb down the wilderness to the lowest common denominator or otherwise make accommodations.

Michael Schwartz
4 months ago

The core premise of the article is exactly right, and very well done. In addition, the timing for such thoughts is critical as more people think they want to go there. Some discover they do not, as they begin to realize…. they are not the boss. As a pilot for 50+ years I clearly recognize the incredible privilege we have to be able to fly into such spaces, which was ‘grandfathered’ into the creation of these areas. And after going there we are reminded on how important it is to respect those below on the trails, rivers, and elsewhere simply not wanting any contact at all, visually or aurally. It’s essential. We do support the values that John Clayton has presented, as we are also hikers, trail volunteers, and vocal advocates for wilderness. I and others will keep the concerns that he has presented in our flying, which can be intrusive or impactful as many human activities are in these special places. See you out there.

John Clayton
4 months ago

Thank you all for the kind words and inspiring stories. Here’s to another 60 years! 🙂

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