By Tim Homan
WILDERNESS ADVOCATES SEE the Wilderness Act of 1964 as the most foresighted land-ethic legislation since the formation of the National Forest System. The concept of designated wilderness represents a progression of concern, a hard-won belief by the majority that some parcels of the earth should have their own heritage, should be allowed to become what they will, unmanipulated by humans. This act of preservation, a tithing of wildness for ourselves and for the future, is an important but as yet paltry beginning reparation for our abuse and misuse of the land and its life.
Those who oppose the concept of designated wilderness view it as a radical step that locks up resources. Let it be emphatically stated to them, however, that the idea is often a matter of preference-a matter of zoning really. Either we can choose to continue opening large areas of our Southern Appalachian forest to road building and logging in order to satisfy the incessant demands of a world crowded with people chanting “more, more, more;’ like a mantra. Or we can choose to preserve, to lock up diversity and beauty – clear, unsilted streams, magnificent forests, views into wild and natural land-by designating significant tracts as wilderness. Even though the physical resources of these areas would no longer be available for extraction, we can still use them-recreationally, spiritually, scientifically-in their natural state.
Unlike Alaska and the western states, the central and eastern regions of our country have only three categories of federally owned wild land-national wildlife refuges, national parks, and national forests-where federal wilderness designation is possible. Within that immense expanse of our country east of the Rockies, from Texas to South Carolina, from Nebraska to Pennsylvania, federal ownership of those three types of wild land constitutes less than 5 percent of the total land mass. Some states within that region, especially those with flat topography and good soil, have little or no opportunity for wilderness.
Within that less than 5 percent, only certain areas – those that are roadless, predominantly publicly owned, and large (usually at least 5,000 acres ) – are qualified to be considered for a roadless inventory, the first step toward designation. Once an area is inventoried as roadless, it still has to be sufficiently scenic and undisturbed-and often economically useless-for there to be enough support to continue the qualification process.
Although percentages vary from state to state, congressionally mandated wilderness within that region east of the Rockies is, at best, somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the federal wildlands. Thus, designated wilderness over much of our country is a small fraction of a small fraction: two to three-tenths of 1 percent of the total land base. Even in our relatively wild South, with its mountains, swamps, and forests, the figure remains below 1 percent.
Unlike large sections of the Midwest, the South fortunately still has the opportunity for more wilderness. Our best opportunity lies within the national forests of the Southern Appalachians – the South’s largest concentration of publicly owned land.
Especially in the highest and most remote mountains, road building and logging in the steep-sloped Southern Appalachians is destructive and costly. Bulldozing and stabilizing roads in this high rainfall, mountainous terrain is so expensive that the federal government must subsidize it. The road building and logging damages watersheds, leaves the forest less diverse, harms certain wildlife species, and keeps the land in its ecological infancy. Spending money to subsidize destructive logging that yields little of the national lumber output makes neither ecological nor economic sense. This is especially true where we are further fragmenting the small amount of unprotected public land that remains wild and natural.
We are always faced with difficult land-use choices; designating wilderness is just one among many. But today at a time when the pace of life is increasingly frenetic – when ocean levels, global temperatures, and human populations are rising; when acid rain is falling and ozone layers are disappearing; when our collective actions lead to the daily extinction of species – it makes good sense to spare a few more teaspoons of wildness as havens for life and for human hope and renewal, protected both for and from us.
The Wilderness Act
The Wilderness Act of September 3, 1964, established the National Wilderness Preservation System, the first of its kind in the world. The idea of wilderness means different things to different people. Some describe any patch of woods bigger than their backyard as wilderness. Others won’t call an area true wilderness unless it meets rare conditions: that it takes at least a week to walk across the longest part of it, that there is no sign of human habitation even from the vistas, and that all of the original predators are still on patrol. Knowing that the term is nebulous, as much spiritual as physical, the framers of the law attempted to define the qualities and purposes of wilderness. The following are salient ideas from the act.
What is a Wilderness?
• is an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation;
• has at least 5,000 acres of land or is of sufficient size to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition;
• generally appears to have been affected primarily by forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable;
• is hereby recognized 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, and which has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation;
• is devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use;
• is preservation that will secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness – unimpaired for future use and enjoyment.
What is a Wilderness Experience?
• Primitive recreation such as day hiking, backpacking, and camping
• Hunting and fishing in accordance with state and federal laws
• Collecting berries, nuts, and cones for personal use
• Scientific research compatible with wilderness values
• Primitive facilities, if critical to the protection of the land
• Nonmotorized wheelchairs
What is Prohibited in a Wilderness?
• New road construction
• Timber harvesting
• Structures of any kind, except those primitive facilities deemed necessary to protect the land
• Mechanical transport (bicycles, wagons, carts)
• Public use of any motorized vehicles or equipment
• Removal of plants, stone, or moss for personal or commercial use
• Removal of historical or archeological artifacts by the public