Friday, January 18, 2008

Into wilderness

The richest values of the wilderness lie not in the days of Daniel Boone, nor even in the present, but rather in the future. -Aldo Leopold

On Sept. 4, 1964, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which set aside 9 million acres of land to be preserved in its natural condition, where the “imprint of man’s work is substantially unnoticed.” The act further established a set of guidelines for Congress that would allow the addition of acreage at a future date. Since 1964, over 96 million acres have been added to the National Wilderness Preservation System, all managed by four federal agencies: the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Congress defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” It was further described as an area “without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions. Wilderness should 1) generally appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, and 2) have outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

The goal of managing wilderness is to control human activity so that interference with nature is minimal. There are no benches, culverts, concrete trails in Wilderness Areas. Boardwalks and steps are unacceptable in Wilderness Areas. No mechanized equipment can be used in a Wilderness Area. But sometimes, the hand of man is necessary to preserve that very wildness, to preserve the landscape that made it worthy of designation. Ecological stewardship in Wilderness Areas is a very delicate subject among members of the Sierra Club and other wilderness advocates.

If, for example, buckthorn and other exotic species move into a Wilderness Area, the very nature of the wild landscape has changed. It has been negatively impacted, however indirectly, by the hand of man. But to preserve the character of wildness and the peaceful, natural soundscape, the use of chain saws is prohibited in these areas. Hackles are regularly raised over this restriction. If, for example, a tornado rips through and hundreds of trees block the trails, a cross cut saw must be used. Likewise, to remove exotics, hand saws and loppers must be used. Since the designation of Wilderness Areas, many of these pristine landscapes have, in fact, become overrun with exotics because of this rule. Wilderness advocates sometimes argue that exotics are part of “natural succession,” that it’s “nature’s way” and that manipulation of any kind interrupts wilderness. Knowing that exotics wouldn’t be here in the first place if we had not introduced them, I argue against that.

After the Wilderness Act was passed, land managers justifiably complained that, in some cases, chainsaws are a necessary tool for proper management of Wilderness Areas. Congress drafted a lengthy, detailed Minimum Requirements Decision worksheet which forces land managers to outline the reasons and purposes of chain saw use (as well as any other form of motorized equipment). Other options must be explored and discussed, thoroughly. The worksheet has to be approved by the District Ranger or the person ultimately in control of the Wilderness Area. Decisions to allow chainsaws are not taken lightly.

Clearly, the loud whir of a chainsaw disturbs the wilderness character. If chainsaws are to be used, it must be during a time of little to no visitation. The amount of time the chainsaw will be used must be preapproved. On occasion, when environmental groups learn that a Minimum Requirements Decision is requested, they offer opinions and suggestions on the matter. The Sierra Club, who literally paved the way for the Wilderness Act, has gone so far as to develop their own wilderness management policy which states “minimal manipulation may be allowed in order to restore human-disturbed environments or offset human-induced restrictions on natural processes.” I think that covers the control of exotics. But reading some of the arguments against allowing chainsaws has made me realize that wilderness is, above all else, a very emotional term.

According to the Wilderness Act, wilderness is a place for “spiritual renewal” and “solitude” (today's Congress would never dream of writing anything like that). John Muir’s strong words are often evoked in discussions of wilderness. As elegantly stated by Congress, wilderness is a place where “man is but a visitor who does not remain.” Peacefulness, and the interdependency of the earth’s natural processes and life forms are protected under the designation of wilderness.

Missouri is home to 8 Wilderness Areas, with all but one (Mingo Wilderness Area in southeast Missouri) located in the Ozark Highlands’ sprawling Mark Twain National Forest. Irish Wilderness (pictured) is the largest, with over 16,000 acres of fantastic woodlands, streams and glades. I’ve only been through a small part of it, barely scratched the surface, really, and felt very alone, very quiet, and very content. That afternoon, I didn’t encounter another soul. No horses, no ATVs, no cell phone service. I heard lots of wood thrushes and black and white warblers. I found mosses which I had never seen before. I was alone with my thoughts, battling it out with myself, trying to understand my role in this world and the roots of genuine happiness, when a great wave of calm moved in. Now, at my lowest moments, I rush to the woods, ever distracted by wilderness, ever calm until the outside world yells at me to come back. True wilderness is a treasure. Vast stretches of native landscapes, uninterrupted, unimpaired by exotic species and viewshed pollution are even more valuable to me. This is why I am dedicating my life, wholly and resolutely, to protecting them.

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