Why Wilderness? Why, Indeed.

Why Wilderness? #summerreading #whywilderness #wilderness #envhist #dissertationreading

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A couple weeks ago I sat down with Why Wilderness: A report on Mismanagement in Lake Superior Provincial Park. Published in 1971, this collection of essays paired with a report on conditions in Ontario’s Lake Superior Provincial Park, specifically on resource extraction industries (namely timber), was organized by the Algonquin Wildlands League. Firstly, the book is an excellent piece of primary literature from the preservation battles of the 1970s. I particularly love it because it focuses on a provincial park rather than a national park.

One of the most jarring aspects of the book is that it mentions Indigenous use of the land and interest in the park’s welfare exactly once, and it takes fifty-four pages for that to even happen. Statements like:

“So indeed, why all the fuss about preserving wilderness? Except for a narrow strip of settlement along our southern border, Canada is all wilderness and is likely to remain that way for a long time.” (page 4)

This statement entirely erases past and present Indigenous populations, especially those located in the North. It reminded me of this map of Canada that was circulating a couple years ago; it was accompanied by this caption on Huffpost:

Canada no humans

Despite acknowledging that white people screwed things up, the report, particularly the opening essay “Why Wilderness,” still valorizes colonial landscape extraction. “The pathetic remnants of this hardwood forest that survive today are living outdoor museums,” writes Fred Bodsworth, “that tell us far more about pioneer courage and endurance than do museums filled with spinning wheels and flintlock muskets.” (page 5) Bodsworth is insistent that conservationists are not hellbent on stopping progress and suggests that it is our god-given duty to conserve nature:

“Conservationists are not trying to stop progress, or to halt further development of soil and forest resources; but if we believe that man’s heritage includes not only the works of man but also the works of creation, we have an obligation to the future to ensure that good samples of creation’s multiformity of natural patterns are preserved.” (page 9)

As I have noticed in most of my research, this book illustrates the disconnect between the outdoor recreation democratization rhetoric and what happens on the ground. The authors argue for the preservation of wilderness for the use of the masses and simultaneously bemoan the overuse and trampling of wilderness areas. There is an undefined, but still present insinuation that there is a “right” kind of person that should have access to wilderness.

Similarly, the writers talk about a “right” kind of wilderness as well. The wilderness that the Algonquin Wildlands League is championing here is the useful kind! (Ring a bell? Cough, cough, Runte) The kind of wilderness you can drive to in a day. The wilderness in northern Canada is deemed useless because “no-one” (ie. white urban peoples) can use it for funsies:

“Canada indeed does have too much wilderness. But three million square miles of boreal spruce forest and Arctic tundra are no consolation to people who seek the thrill of hiking under towering pines or paddling a wilderness waterway within a one-day drive of home.” (page 11)

“Recreation wilderness,” according to Bodsworth, is different from pure-nature conservation. Recreation wilderness is based on emotions, on feeling like one is in wilderness. Thus when logging companies in Superior muck up the river shore, one no longer feels like they are in the wilderness, thus the experience is lessened.

So, why wilderness? According to these writers, wilderness is necessary because we need it for consumption. For the experience. For the feeling. For the convenience.

This book is fascinating, largely because of the contradictions held within it. However, is wilderness, in all its intellectual and supposed-physical forms, not inherently contradictory?

Feature Photo is the first photo in Google Images when you search for “wilderness”: Cook Lake in the Bridger Wilderness, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming, US.

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