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Fall 2004 Issue
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Looking Forward to Wilderness
By Jennifer Lamb, NOLS Public Policy Directory
A NOLS Spanish course in “Coordillara de la costa,” the coast range North of Patagonia, with the Huilliches natives. The curriculum was a Leave No Trace Master course, or “maestros de No Deje Rastro” in Spanish.

As the 40th anniversary year for the Wilderness Act draws to a close, we wrap up our focus on wilderness by attempting to take a peek into the future. Since my skills with a crystal ball are limited, I will share some thoughts from a recent wilderness conference in up-state New York, a gathering of some of the most experienced wilderness stewards and advocates in the country, who supported and witnessed the birth of wilderness in 1964 and continue to nurture its development as devoted parents.

The speaker at the closing plenary session of the conference offered a fitting analogy. The signing of the Wilderness Act and creation of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) in 1964 was the birth of Wilderness as we know it. Birth and childhood behind us, we must now turn our attention toward managing wilderness in its mature adulthood. If childhood is about birth, growth, development, learning, exploring, and defining ourselves, we might say that adulthood is marked by honing our skills, finding our productive, comfortable place in the world, and making the most of that place. Perhaps as adults we carry a little baggage, and hopefully we work through some issues along the way.

Adult wilderness certainly carries some baggage, much of which we discussed in the last issue of the Leader: the managing federal agencies are challenged by inadequate resources and inconsistent policy to maintain proper stewardship; it is now harder to designate new wilderness because demands on suitable land are difficult to resolve, leading to “compromise” bills; we need more legislative champions who will lead the wilderness charge on Capitol Hill; there is division, even between members of the wilderness community, about how wilderness should be managed and designated; and the public lacks awareness of the NWPS and its importance for the future.

Given these challenges, what will the NWPS look like when it turns 80? According to The Wilderness Society, our existing system of 106 million acres barely taps into the body of land that is suitable for wilderness protection. Most at the conference agreed optimistically that by 2044, we will designate a significant number of new acres, perhaps doubling the size of the existing NWPS, mostly by designating land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Specific areas in the U.S. will be “wilderness battlegrounds,” and wilderness outside the U.S. will grow. One thing seemed certain: The future of wilderness is sound and the concept is well accepted.

While the concept may be well accepted, there are widely ranging views, even within the devoted wilderness community, on how we should manage wilderness in its maturity. Passionate debate reigned throughout the conference on the following challenges:

Wilderness “zoning”: As demands on public lands and Wilderness increase, many advocates believe that we should strive to create use zones within wilderness that will disperse use and better manage impact. On public lands adjacent to designated wilderness, we should create “buffer zones,” so that we don’t find ourselves with “Wilderness islands,” heavily developed urban areas, and nothing in between.

A continuum of opportunity: Many visit wilderness to find solitude. Many others seek natural settings for low-impact recreation. Still others value wilderness for a host of other reasons. But wilderness can’t be all things to all people. Some advocates believe that we can address this by helping people find what they need while protecting the resource. In other words, we can find solitude outside of designated wilderness and should manage public land to this end.

Partnerships for protection: Many advocates believe that the key to designating more wilderness will lie in developing partnerships, and that non-governmental organizations will be critical to creating corridors of connection between wilderness and other public land. Others believe that partnerships, particularly with the private sector, amount to the commercialization of wilderness, which ultimately leads to its overuse and demise.

Moving forward: Two representatives of the USDA Forest Service shared their views on what we must accomplish to ensure a healthy system of wilderness in 40 more years. First, they said, we must be mindful of the need to practice restraint when it comes to managing and visiting wilderness. The Wilderness Act, after all, mandates that wilderness serve a higher purpose than simply meeting human needs. Second, we must not waver from the legislative mandate set forth in the Wilderness Act to guide our management actions. Third, we must provide more structured and consistent professional training for federal wilderness stewards. Fourth, we must develop a long-term monitoring system so that we know what we have accomplished and how far we need to go to protect wilderness. Finally, we must increase public awareness of the NWPS and its importance in preserving the future. We must introduce people to a public land ethic and underscore the importance of intention when it comes to visiting wilderness and wild places. We must connect people to place.

While the future seems a bit daunting for wilderness in its adulthood, I take heart in realizing that the core of NOLS’ mission aims directly at the two most intangible, tough-to-measure tasks on the list above — practicing restraint and connecting people to place. We play a critical role in helping wilderness reach its happy, healthy 80th birthday. Our mission is more relevant than ever.

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