NY Times Guest Op-Ed on Wilderness Management- True or False?

Thursday there was this curious op-ed in the New York Times about the management of wilderness in general and the presence of trail signs in particular.

First, I don’t believe much of what I see in the press without independent verification, and certainly not op-ed pages, but I wonder if it’s true about the signs in Boundary Waters or other wilderness areas.

Does anyone out there know? A brief internet search did not yield any substantiation of this claim.

The below comments are only relevant if Mr. Stroll’s assertions are correct.

Second, having seen signs in wilderness (and been always glad to see them) I wondered how my personal experience squared with the above observation (if true). I found this policy. I wonder if this is just a variation in interpretation of “minimal.”

Third, if that’s the case, then I wonder if the policy should be more consistent.. or whether there is an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the development of these policies.

6 thoughts on “NY Times Guest Op-Ed on Wilderness Management- True or False?”

  1. Lots of wilderness areas have signs throughout. Heck, the Bob Marshall Wilderness even has a five foot high interpretive sign a couple of days walk in.

    Generally they are used only to preserve the health and safety of visitors. Sometimes they are used to protect the resource, such as directing people away from steep slopes that would erode quickly should a trail develop. Similar arguments are used for constructing bridges, culverts, etc. It is otherwise hard to make the case that these signs are consistent with “the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable”. Like bridges and culverts, each USFS ranger district takes a slightly different approach – some eschew signs as much as possible, while others are very gang ho.

    Google ‘Ted Stroll’ and you’ll see he’s not exactly a fan of a purist or literal reading of the Wilderness Act, particularly the prohibition of forms of “mechanical transport” – i.e. mountain bikes.

  2. Thanks, Bill. It is always a challenge when the underlying decentralized philosophy of the FS is to leave the decision to the local person (eschewing, as you say, versus gung-ho) but there comes a point at which that approach could look to the outside world as “random acts of policy.” Especially if it changes when the person involved leaves (was this policy fundamentally about Joe’s personal opinion?). Especially since nowadays it is easier for users on the internet to compare notes across districts, forests and regions.

    My hypothesis is that because most of these rulings in wilderness about recreation don’t invoke NEPA (not like ditches in wilderness, or mining in wilderness), it’s possible that the public does not have a chance to get as engaged in the decisions and possibly exercise a homogenizing influence. That could be a problem with thinking of public involvement as inevitably linked to the NEPA process.

    Thanks again for helping get out the word on the facts behind the op-ed.

  3. I’ve certainly noticed plenty of trail signs in every Wilderness area I’ve visited. So I have to wonder what in the heck Stroll is talking about when he claims there is, within the Forest Service, an “official resistance to wilderness signage.”

  4. I wish the NY Times op-ed allowed comments and corrections on their website right below the op-ed piece.

    It irritates me when someone makes incorrect or misleading claims, and the only redress is to write a letter commenting on the op-ed, which has a low probability of being printed by the Times, and an even lower probability of being read by anyone. IMHO.

  5. I agree with Matthew and Bill. Funny too, because I just spent last week in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness with my son, and the signage was actually pretty neat—so old and worn that it resembled the surrounding dead whitebark pines. Very cool. And then last summer’s trip through the Bob Marshall, where we saw one sign with a coat of grizzly bear fur rubbed off on it, and one ripped in half with claw marks. Those are great signs! We need more of those.

    I can see both sides on the sign issue. But I would have a problem if the agency went overboard with them, like some state parks I can think of (or nordic ski centers where the retired groomers have way too much time on their hands, and name every ascent something like “Frank’s heart attack hill.”

    Less signage might also lead to more cairns being built by the compass-challenged (of which I’ve been guilty of).

    As for the Wilderness Act, the key here is the purpose to “provide for…the preservation of…wilderness character.” What does this mean? Partly the importance of having areas that are undeveloped: “…retaining…primeval character and influence without permanent improvements…,” “…man’s work is substantially unnoticeable….” I could go on but you get the point.

    As for the bike issue, the Act clearly states that THERE SHALL BE NO…form of mechanical transport: “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States…” Sec 2(a). And it’s completely wrong to state that the Act’s legislative history on this matter suggests otherwise.

    As for the discretion of wilderness managers, with signs and so forth, there is also the minimum requirements test: There shall be no [fill in the blank] “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act.” Sec4(c). What is the purpose? Wilderness Character and Untrammeled management.

    Seems like the author is using the non-issue of signs as a way to advance a more troubling proposal. How about we instead amend the wilderness act to disallow spandex?

  6. Here’s a link to the NY Times letters on the Stroll op-ed.

    It seems like none of the writers of the printed letters to the editor know that signs do exist in wilderness..

    as letter writer Bryson states:
    “If trails mark the wilderness, let them be the natural trails that form as deer and man pick their path. To designate, mark and maintain “official” trails defeats the purpose of the wilderness..”

    I find it fascinating that not only does the NY Times print an op-ed that makes an incorrect assertion, but that all the printed letter writers seem to take it at face value- without inquiring as to whether the assertion is true. I wonder if an op-ed writer associated the Yankees with Boston would it have been equally accepted as an op-ed.;)


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