Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Farewell to wilderness

Yesterday morning I encountered an arresting headline on the Washington Post's website:

Scientists say that ‘nature,’ untouched by humans,
is now almost entirely gone

Post reporters Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis cite a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which its authors note that " 'pristine' landscapes simply do not exist and, in most cases, have not existed for millennia."

This resonated with me because a few seasons ago, while hiking in the federally designated Kachina Peaks Wilderness north of Flagstaff, I encountered not only other hikers but the debris that hikers leave in their wake: empty water bottles, mylar food wrappers, toilet tissue, assorted unidentifiable bits of plastic, and so on.

Some pristineness. Some wilderness.

This and similar encounters with what I call the Great Backcountry Garbage Patch have led me to conclude that the idea of wilderness is dangerous.

Much of Arizona off the interstates and major highways -- which is to say most of it -- looks like wilderness, though upon close inspection one finds that all of it has been altered by human activity: burning and other modifications of rangelands and forests, lumbering, ranching, hunting and fishing, and intensive resource extraction such as mining and quarrying.

Much of what looks like wilderness is also laced with thousands of miles of unpaved roads, jeep trails, and off-road-vehicle trackways, all strewn with beer and pop cans, shell cases, parts that fell off vehicles, and so forth.

Scene from Arizona's Great
Backcountry Garbage Patch

Most visitors, oblivious to the human stain, do not look closely. What they see looks wild. And it is their playground, far too vast and wild, they think, to be affected by anything they do.

But get two or three million people who think most of Arizona is wilderness that can tolerate their recreation whatever it may be, and you end up with... the Great Backcountry Garbage Patch.

Infected with the idea of wilderness, humans can be wreckers of the highest order.

A more constructive idea may be to stop pursuing the chimeras of wilderness and pristineness and instead ask, What kind of backcountry do we want to have? Maybe we should stop seeing ourselves as outdoor adventurers going forth into the (supposed) wild and start seeing ourselves as decision makers. We have altered nature everywhere and there is no going back, but there is going forward. Shall we have a talk about reasonable ways to proceed?

In the meantime, pick up after yourselves, will ya?

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