Maddie Schuyler, Fall 2021
The Wilderness Act of 1964, which was enacted to preserve and protect U.S. lands in their “natural condition”, defines “wilderness” as, “…in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, …an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” (Wilderness Act of 1964). This definition assumes the mere existence of truly untouched or “pristine” pieces of the natural world, completely unaffected by the presence of humans. Arguably, this is a likely flawed assumption, as one might contend that every corner of the earth is impacted by human activity—even if only indirectly, through means such as pollution, noise, and climate change resulting from anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Even hundreds of years ago, many seemingly untouched natures were in reality significantly modified by humans in one way or another. The pre-colonial modification of land in the Americas by indigenous populations is one such example, through their agricultural practices that significantly changed the landscapes. This modified land that European colonizers discovered upon their arrival in the Americas has been used as the standard for the land’s “natural condition”, despite being far from truly natural in many ways (Denevan).
Part of the appeal of the New World to European colonizers was the illusion of untouched nature, which later on became a symbol and source of motivation for conservation efforts, as seen with the Wilderness Act. In his mid-19th century essay, Walking, naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild…in Wildness is the preservation of the world,” (Thoreau). Though there are usually good intentions behind this described preservation of wilderness, the idea that the best way to preserve these areas is to keep them “wild”, untouched, and human-free can be particularly harmful to indigenous people who have cultivated sustainable methods of living on these lands for centuries. Protected areas created as a result of this pristine wilderness concept has resulted in the disruption of indigenous practices and sometimes the displacement of these communities altogether. The absence of these native groups in these areas has proven to be detrimental to the biodiverse ecosystems they have shaped through their management of the land over many years (Fletcher et al.). By being mindful of the problematic aspects of pristine wilderness ideology in modern conservation efforts—and, in addition, supporting indigenous voices and knowledge—a more ethical approach to conservation can be achieved.
Denevan, William M. “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 82, no. 3, 2010, https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8306.1992.tb01965.x.
Fletcher, Michael-Shawn, et al. “Indigenous Knowledge and the Shackles of Wilderness.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 118, no. 40, 5 Oct. 2021, https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2022218118.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. 1862.
United States, Congress. Public Law 88-577, The Wilderness Act. 3 September 1964. 88th Congress, Second Session.