The Mirage of Pristine Wilderness: From High Country News

I thought this piece and the comments were both interesting. Here’s the link.

The mirage of pristine wilderness

by Emma Marris

One summer day, I went with my father and daughter to Schmitz Park in West Seattle, famous for being among the only chunks of old-growth forest within city limits. A few urban noises penetrated the 50-acre park, mostly airplanes and boat horns. But it was markedly quiet — and beautiful. The turf was springy with a thousand layers of needles. Creeks wended their way under fallen logs. Ferns and firs and hemlock quietly photosynthesized, cradled by the debris of dead trees. And all around us, right along the trail, were bushes heavily laden with red huckleberries. I ate a couple and gave several to my toddler — something I probably wouldn’t have done five years ago, when I took more seriously the solemn duty not to besmirch natural areas, especially old-growth forests, with my human presence.

As a kid growing up in Seattle, I was proud of the Northwest’s old-growth forests. We still had pristine wilderness, while the people of the Midwest and East Coast had used theirs all up. It made me feel smug.

But, of course, it isn’t that simple. For the last several years, I’ve been writing about ecologists and conservationists coming to terms with the fact that “pristine wilderness” is a mirage. Climate change, pollution, species movements, land-use changes — we’ve transformed the whole globe for good, every inch of it. And even if we could undo all that we’ve done, what would we go back to? Prehistoric humans changed landscapes much more than we once believed. And paleoecologists are teaching us to see familiar ecosystems not as eternal, unchanging, harmonious wholes so much as accidental, ephemeral aggregations — ships passing in the night in geological time. There never was a one right time, the ecologists say — no Garden of Eden.

A year or so ago, I interviewed Feng Sheng Hu, a paleoecologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana. He explained that the Northwest’s old-growth forests present a puzzle. Not because they are so old — because they’re so young. The very oldest gray, grand, massive Douglas firs in the region are about 700 years old. But their normal lifespan extends to 1,200 years, making those wise grandfathers just a titch over middle-aged. The reason, said Hu, was that the climate has only been cool enough for them for 700 years. Go further back, and you find yourself in a hotter time called the Medieval Warm Period, when frequent fires would have kept any Doug-fir forests from reaching a ripe old age. A mere 700 years ago, there were already people living in the Northwest. As Hu spoke, my pride was instantly shattered. The vaunted old-growth forest ecosystem wasn’t even one tree-generation old. It didn’t predate human settlement. It wasn’t unchanging. It was … what? Just a forest?

So as I walked through this little scrap of urban old growth, my daughter on my back, I was thinking hard about my emotional reaction. I wanted to see if it felt any different now that I know that old-growth forest isn’t the timeless, unchanging, right ecosystem I once believed it to be.

Among the skunk cabbage and black mud and moss and lichen, the big trees still seemed impressive, solid, silent — detached but somehow tender. I realized that even after we learn that old-growth ecosystems aren’t necessarily that old, the trees are still really, really big.

Then my father spoke. “We came here when you were tiny,” he said cheerfully. “You were still mastering walking longer distances, and I think you walked all the way up the trail.” This, then, was presumably back in the early 1980s, when my parents were still together. I felt a stab of nostalgia for my childhood, and my train of thought switched tracks. You can’t go home again, I thought. That’s the message of all this new research. First you learn that you can’t go back, and then you learn that there never was a home to go back to. Everything is always in flux; any date you pick is arbitrary, whether it is before or after Columbus, before or after we killed off the mammoths and giant ground sloths, before or after the logging industry began in the Pacific Northwest around 1850. And it is sad. I’ve written a whole book arguing that ditching the “pristine wilderness” idea is empowering and liberating because it allows us to look to the future and create more nature instead of clinging to disappearing scraps of seemingly untouched land. That’s still true. But it is also reasonable to grieve for the loss of a beautiful, simple ideal.

Dad and I made a list of the reasons Schmitz Park is valuable. “It is a rare ecosystem type in the city,” I said. “And it is beautiful. And there are really big trees.” “And,” he said, “no one has ever changed it.” My first impulse was to pooh-pooh this as yet another manifestation of the counterproductive obsession with pristine wilderness. And certainly it isn’t strictly true. Some trees were taken out before it was protected, and volunteers are fiddling with it all the time, removing exotic species and planting native seedlings. But he’s right that it stands out from a sea of bungalows and coffee shops and sidewalks and docks, a green swath with big old trees. Maybe not old enough to impress Hu and maybe not pristine. But big and old, goddamn it. Big and old. A good place to let yourself mourn a little for the Eden that never was, for the early childhood you remember only hazily through photographs. A good place to feed the kid some berries. Other people may be too scared to eat them, or too respectful to touch them, but I have given up worshiping wilderness in favor of tasting it.

Emma Marris is a freelance environmental journalist based in Columbia, Missouri. Her first book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, comes out this month.
© High Country News

14 thoughts on “The Mirage of Pristine Wilderness: From High Country News”

  1. Mirage indeed.
    Since when would any responsible “environmental journalist” represent a park in West Seattle as “pristine wilderness” without deliberately degrading language and its essential meaning?

    Answer: Only when writing with an objective towards condemning America’s “counterproductive obsession with pristine wilderness” (her language choice, remember) while reserving the right to redefine the environmental grassroots movement’s error in seeing 700 year old trees as venerable enough to want to protect.

    Mirage #2:
    HCN and Emma Harris are intimately linked with The Nature Conservancy (TNC, a widely known and well exposed corporate front group with assets in the several billions of dollars. TNC was the subject of a Congressional investigation and the Washington Post did an extensive three part series in 2003, exposing many internal practices which call into question the principals and principles of this supposedly “environmental” organization.)

    Both HCN, and TNC unabashedly represents “free market environmentalism” which, according to the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC, formerly the Political Economy Research Center, a well known Libertarian think tank funded by the Heritage Institute and Cato institute), pushes “property rights” (aka privatization) of public lands and “enviropreneurism” poetically referenced here in this article by “giving up worshiping wilderness in favor of tasting it”.

    “The nice thing about secondary forest is you can pound nails into it.” – Emma Marris

    NCFP would do well to feature PERC’s (situated nearby UM) free market agenda, its close association with the Sagebrush Rebellion and Wise Use Movement, co-opting and contrasting starkly against traditional environmental principles.

  2. David- I would love to be published in HCN, but the only piece I ever submitted (on “local people, local food, local wood”) was rejected. I actually don’t think I’m a good enough writer for their print edition. I ended up responding to a request for volunteers for the Range Blog where folks’ opinions are posted, even though anything I write would be far wonkier than the average essay there. So the only thing they’ve “published” of mine (in the online Range Blog) was the re-post of the piece originally from this blog on “whether newspapers can actually convey the complexity of resource issues- example leases in roadless.”

    One of the reasons I chose to volunteer was that I felt many of their articles were one-sided, full of inaccurate assertions, and they needed some balance. But not one-sided in the direction you are asserting; quite the opposite.

    As to the Nature Conservancy, I think you are being unfair to them. I work with these folks regularly and I think that to many of us, dollar for dollar, they have done more for the environment than any other group. It’s hard for me to believe that you are actually questioning their intentions. I don’t agree with everything they support (e.g. REDDs) but I would never question either their intentions, or their success in protecting important environmental values. You can not prefer their tactics (e.g., working with ranchers to protect ferrets) as I do not prefer litigation on fuel treatment projects as a tactic, but it’s hard to argue with their outcomes.

  3. Sharon, as an employee of the USFS, I can fully understand your professional obligations to, and philosophical allegiances with, TNC.

    Given TNC is operating on the same (untaxed) corporate largess which is being used to greenwash their “market-based solutions”(sic); and those billions of dollars of TNC nonprofit (?) assets have been derived from past and present environmentally destructive investments and environmentally damaging practices; and your measure of success in environmental progress is measured “dollar for dollar”– we can at least be clear where our fundamental differences lie. Their kool-aid hasn’t worked for me.

    There are, no doubt, (because I know many personally) countless well-meaning individuals working for this multi-national corporate “non-profit” called TNC, but they, like you, must suspend their objective, skeptical inquiry into highly questionable arrangements in the name “collaboration” in order to receive their paycheck.

    This is widely known as the “Wrong Kind of Green”, and the American public is slowly but surely awakening to TNC’s agenda as the principle beneficiaries of corporate outsourcing of (your) agency’s functions. Privatization, deregulation, devolution is their neoliberal game and as long as there’s money to be made, there will always be plenty of players.

  4. It goes without question that an urban park setting, even one with 700 year old trees, can never be considered “pristine”.
    But to stretch this example onto the entire continent and assume that there is not one acre of truly pristine wildland left is wrong.
    Years ago, as a once field-going USFS employee on the Kootenai National Forest, I hiked miles into steep, high-elevation, unroaded areas that I would bet my life on had never been impacted in any way by man. These very remote, heavily-forested ridges dozens of miles from the major valleys and rivers, were never visited by native Americans.
    They may have burned over periodically from natural wildfires, but nothing else other than natural selection and climate change impacted these lands. And I suspect that even now, after more than 40 years, there remain small pockets of these truly pristine woodlands still survive. Largely because of the terrain and marginal timber values.
    I can say from personal knowledge and experience that it is an unforgettable feeling of deep reverence to stand in the forest and know that you are probably the first human to experience that particular view,

  5. Isn’t “pristine” a code word for “racist?” The idea that there are vast stretches of American “Wilderness” in which “man is a visitor who does not remain,” or in which most evidence shows the area to be “untouched by the hands of man” is hogwash. See Devevan’s 1992 “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492” on this score:

    It is the very excuse Europeans used to kill the natives of North America and steal their land, without economic repercussions or guilt.

    “Bet your life” all you want, Ed, but I’ve been to those very areas — and many others in the PNW making similar claims. Huckleberry bushes, obsidian flakes, camas meadows, beargrass, rock art, historical trails, and much other evidence invariably shows these areas to have been regularly occupied and used for centuries and millennia. “Pristine wilderness” is a self-serving lie, used to rationalize continental-scale holocaust, murder, and theft from the moment of European invasion to the present.

    So far as “natural fires” vs. “human fires” are concerned, I suggest you read Charles Kay’s 2007 paper, “Are Lightning Fires Unnatural? A Comparison of Aboriginal and Lightning Ignition Rates in the United States” on that very topic:

    If you have ever truly “known” you are probably the first person to experience a particular view, then that is most likely a result of biology or you are kidding yourself. I can all but guarantee someone (and probably many, many “someones) has visited the exact same spot many times in the past.

    The real problem with “Wilderness” is that it is based on arrogant and racist doctrine, in which Indians are assumed to be small bands of wandering, inept idiots (“children of nature”) and white people are viewed as omnipotent, self-destructive pathogens of Nature, able to control the weather by changing light bulbs and driving battery-operated city cars.

    Sorry to come down on this so hard, but massive amounts of damage have been done to our forests, grasslands, and rural economies during the past 40 years through this very form of ignorant racism. Wilderness policy and formation has produced some of the worst rural depressions, catastrophic wildfires, and bug out-breaks in history, yet remains a popular method of “protecting” our lands and resources.

    “Protecting” against what?

    • Bob, your impressive bio (below) and Ed’s innocent speculations notwithstanding, there is an opportunity here to appreciate the dilemma of shifting baselines and errant environmental writing. This, especially, during the present anthropogenic mass extinction event and the resulting biological devolution from errant agency “management” biases, and dysfunctional cultures built upon a dark history of genocidal religious conquest.

      It also may be time to lexically reboot here:

         [pris-teen, pri-steen; especially Brit. pris-tahyn]

      having its original purity; uncorrupted or unsullied.
      of or pertaining to the earliest period or state; primitive.
      Origin: 1525–35; < Latin pristinus early; akin to primus prime
      Synonyms 1. undefiled, unpolluted, untouched.

      I think any sentient citizen, sharing in the ownership of public lands, can both feel like they're the only person to have laid eyes on remote corners of this country AND can grok forest succession, setting, connectivity, stand structure, function, and diversity of forest communities (not tiny Seattle parks), and then apply those factors to decide for themselves whether "pristine" is appropriate to describing their sense of place.

      At issue here, is an environmental writer harboring (with "pride" no less) the notion that a park within Seattle city limits can be described as "oldgrowth forest", and project that misperception onto the greater public and public landscapes in order to advance the goals of free market environmentalism in order to, (as the environmental writer states) " look to the future and create more nature".

      Now, that's big and bold. Create more nature?

      Besides violating the use of language and its meaning, this "environmental writer" is also comfortable with violating the First Law of Thermodynamics.

      For someone who extolls, among her notion of the "nice things of secondary forest", being, "you can pound nails into it.”, she makes one wonder if she actually thinks this is how we "create more nature". One thing for sure, this is how she creates more paychecks: shilling the notion that we can leave our problems to corporate front groups to magically "manage" where the Forest Service admits it has failed miserably, now through new improved, corporatized "stewardship and restoration". Is this our way out of the present mass extinction event?

      I don't think so, and a great many others don't as well.

      While there's plenty of evidence to demonstrate the profound ignorance around applied "forest management", including applied Wilderness policy, your statement,

      "Wilderness policy and formation has produced some of the worst rural depressions, catastrophic wildfires, and bug out-breaks in history" is an interesting assertion.

      Are you suggesting Wilderness policy and formation is more significant than the mismanagement which has occurred and is now occurring around our national forest system policies of unsustainable timber harvest, road building, deferred maintenance on those roads leading to further forest degradation, leading to listing endangered species, leading to the devastation of rural economies, catastrophic wildfires and bug outbreaks?"

      I don't think so, and a great many others don't as well.

      • Hi David: You have an amazingly extensive vocabulary and a very entertaining take on syntax, but still I think I understand most of what you seem to be saying.

        First, I agree with a lot of what you are saying about Emma Marris, although I probably am probably sympathetic with her general approach to “free market environmentalism,” if I understand you correctly on that point.

        Second, I think I understand your question directed toward me, although by answering it yourself, I’m assuming you think it is mostly rhetorical. Not sure on that point, though, so here goes:

        Yes, I probably do. And yes, we are probably not in agreement on this point. I think.

        Different strokes for different folks. Right?

  6. My two current favorite books that discuss this topic in more depth are:
    Paradise Wild by David Oates (one of my all-time favorites)
    Here’s a review:

    A lifelong mountaineer, a poet, a descendant of naturalist William Bartram, and a gay ex-Baptist who took to the mountains to test his masculinity, David Oates has thought deeply about how nature and culture interact in our lives. His book “Paradise Wild” will move and provoke readers, while contributing to the ongoing debate over the meanings of “nature” and “wilderness.”

    An engaging mix of scholarship and personal reflection, “Paradise Wild” explores a range of topics, including the mountaineering adventures of John Muir, the debates over ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, the nature writing of Terry Tempest Williams, and the environmental philosophies of Henry Thoreau and Edward Abbey. Above all, the book offers a passionate look at “wildness”-what Oates calls “the Eden in each moment and in each cell, that cannot be lost.”

    Readers interested in how we think about nature-in ecological politics, environmental literature and philosophy, nature writing, cultural studies, and queer studies-will welcome this bold and original new work.

    and more recently,
    Uncertain Path by William Tweed

    In this provocative walking meditation, writer and former park ranger William Tweed takes us to California’s spectacular High Sierra to discover a new vision for our national parks as they approach their 100th anniversary. Tweed, who worked among the Sierra Nevada’s big peaks and big trees for more than thirty years, has now hiked more than 200 miles along California’s John Muir Trail in a personal search for answers: How do we address the climate change we are seeing even now–in melting glaciers in Glacier National Park, changing rainy seasons on Mt Rainer, and more fire in the West’s iconic parks. Should we intervene where we can to preserve biodiversity? Should the parks merely become ecosystem museums that exhibit famous landscapes and species? Asking how we can make these magnificent parks relevant for the next generation, Tweed, through his journey, ultimately shows why we must do just that.

    Although neither review states it, both authors discuss the history of native peoples on the landscape. They are both excellent writers IMHO.

  7. Sharon: Don’t forget “Tending the Wild” by Kat Anderson and “Forgotten Fires” by Omer Stewart (partly edited by Kat). Tom Bonnicksen, Carl Johannesen, and Charles Mann should be getting more attention in these regards, too, in addition to Kay and Denevan. Except for politics, Wilderness and “roadless areas” would be seen as failed policies based on unacceptable and ignorant racist doctrines. Exclusionary, passive management is a failure and the evidence is everywhere you look in which these policies have been implemented.

  8. Bob, I don’t know your background or experience in the forests of western Montana, but based on your racist-centric response, claiming I have duped myself on the pristine quality of some portions of the Kootenai NF, I must assume you have not hiked this area, ever.
    If i was determined to categorize your mindset without knowing you, I could easily assume you have never bushwacked the dense, steep forests along the Canadian border in the Kootenai/Flathead National Forests. You have an agenda that has nothing to do with my experience in wild forests.
    Those ridges that backed into watersheds (such as the Salmo River) that flowed into British Columbia were extremely isolated and unroaded in the 1950s. The very steep slopes were tangles of devilsclub and alder and down timber. Other than marten, wolverine and lynx, there was little game or other food sources that might have attracted native Americans.
    The specific sites I visited back then were dozens of miles (as the crow flies) from any major valley or river where the natives and pioneers moved or lived. There was absolutely no reason for any person to go there, except in some some “civilized” search for sawlogs during the boom years of the 50s. The natives of that area were smart enough to avoid such isolated areas that provided little or no food or shelter values, nor were on any travel route. Are you assuming they were foolish and just banged through the steep brush for fun?
    Frankly, you don’t know what you are talking about. I have read extensively of this continents history before 1492, and studied wildfire (natural and manmade) impacts as well as part of my USFS career. I am well aware that much of the present USA was visited and used and passed-through by ancient tribes. Based on your very narrow and biased mindset, any Continental Divide ridgetop once visited by a young Indian boy on a vision quest (for a night or two) was suddenly “non-pristine”. One set of footprints in the dust was enough, even if he was the first visitor and possibly the last. The moss pressed into the rocky soil by his body for a few nights was forever soiled by man. A very, very narrow point of view.
    It is simply a difference in definitions of the word “pristine”. In my world, if a scuba-diver descends 100 ft. into a Pacific Ocean canyon a thousand miles off the coast of Australia for five minutes, in an area rarely visited by boats or divers, after he leaves it is still pristine to me.. Assuming he takes nothing or does nothing except swim and view. In your world it would seem that deep ocean canyon has been impacted by man and is forever “not pristine”. I don’t buy that mindset. You are espousing another agenda beyond the scope of the original thread.

    • Ed: Briefly, my background is a PhD at OSU in the study of catastrophic wildfire and Indian burning patterns of western Oregon. I have successfully hunted bear and deer and planted tens of thousands of trees in northern Idaho, while driving most backroads and hiking most forest trails throughout the PNW during my 60+ years here. My Masters was in Interdisciplinary Studies, including oral histories, forest science, and archaeology. The reforestation business I operated for 20+ years successfully completed more than 80,000 acres of projects — none of which has ever burned in a wildfire to the best of my knowledge. I personally planted more than 2 million trees during that time, and cut or thinned nearly 2,000 acres of hardwoods and young conifers.

      I do know what I am talking about. A few dozen miles of hiking is not much — now or then. To say the ground may have been “too steep or brushy” or been visited solely in search of food or game by Indians in the past is to question your personal research in these issues. Omer Stewart’s Forgotten Fires would be a good starting point, and it would be good to look into the archaeology of the area. Too say that Indians were “too smart” to visit the same areas you visited (I’m assuming YOU weren’t looking for “sawlogs”) can be taken many ways. “Presumptuous” is probably the most kind.

      Maybe you think a steep ocean canyon is pristine — if by “pristine” you mean not (often) visited by people. Then so is the moon and so is Antarctica. That is what I meant by a “racist” definition. People are not pathogens or (necessarily) despoilers of nature — we are part of nature.

      Personally, I like people. We’re adaptable to all kinds of situations (think Paiutes and Eskimos) and can be a lot of fun to be around. To prefer an environment that seemingly displays a complete lack of human presence and to think of such a void as “pristine” is the very type of thinking that results in ruined economies, massive bug outbreaks, and catastrophic-scale wildfires. In my book.

      We obviously have different value systems in these regards. I have my biases, as you have observed, and you have yours. That’s only natural, too.

      • Bob, I don’t know why you try to read so much into my postings that never were intended, nor inferred in any way. Because I value my experiences in the woods in a manner that differs from you doesn’t degrade my experience. Possibly I was deluding myself that day I stood on that brushy ridge, thinking that I might have been the first person to enjoy that view. Having worked for a few seasons cruising timber, marking trees for cutting, piling slash and watching the awful disturbance of natural things by logging, I was caught up in the moment of a truly undisturbed, “pristine” patch of the forest. I was born and raised in the outskirts of Chicago, where as a young boy any acre of scrubby oaks or willows seemed like heaven to me. So a few decades later, hiking these undisturbed (by white man, at least) woods was a delight and an awesome experience.

        Yes, I was actually cruising timber that day looking for commercial timber stands, in an area supposedly covered with suitable timber. Thankfully this area has never been logged. Too steep, too fragile, and not enough timber value to justify the costs. I am pleased to know that my “special place” has remained untouched and “pristine”.

        Your bias towards humans in the natural world is fine, but I am not anti-human, environmental freak you are trying to paint me to be. Not am I anti-logging or a wilderness extremist. But my experience in the woods and my dealings with the federal and state bureaucracies involved with forest, range and watershed management opened my eyes to values that I sense (from your posts) are near the bottom of your value list.
        To love the natural world (where man’s touch or impact is not evident or nicely hidden) is not a vice, nor does it condemn me as a nasty racist. You use that word to incite and create tension, to sell your points of view. I guess it works…you got my attention!

        I guess I give the Blackfoot and Kootenai and other Salish tribes a bit more credit for common sense than you do. I have read extensively of the tribes in this area and I can’t recall anything that would lead me to believe they wasted time and energy (as I was doing that day, looking for saw-timber) bucking the brush searching for …what? Few or no food sources, animal or vegetable. Certainly not on a travel route to salmon or bison. No lodgepole tepee poles. No possible way you could ride or lead a horse into that country. How you can remain so assured that these natives traversed or burned or utilized every square foot of this vast country is a mystery to me. I just don’t buy it.

        The original posting that started this dialogue concerns a Seattle parkland comprised of ancient trees crisscrossed with trails and visited by thousands. I would agree that using the word “pristine” for such a setting is stretching the definition a bit. But if you were an urban person, raised on concrete and asphalt, such a rare, special place might look pristine to your uneducated, uncritical eye.

        I guess the word “pristine” to you is what the world “wilderness” is to me, when it is used by careless writers to describe a logged, wooded hillside adjoining a freeway somewhere in Oregon. We all have our quirks and hot-buttons. I guess we now know yours.

  9. Ed: Please reread your own posts. I don’t think I read too much into them. Consider the assumptions you are making about thousands of years of people that have lived in that area before you, whatever names you may give them. Consider the assumptions you are making as to what the landscape may have looked like and contained hundreds or thousands of years before you arrived; or what the carnivores you list may have subsisted on that brought them (and not people?) to the landscape you are describing.

    People are people, and they are carnivores, too — just like cats, bears, and wolverines. They like to travel, and can cover dozens of miles a day for lots of reasons; not just hunting and gathering. Where those animals live, people do, too. Often for the same reasons. Why the discussions about “vision quests” and moss and conjectures about “smart enough” and “common sense” regarding people you seem to know little about?

    Why the blunt statements about what I do and don’t know about? Your statements about past visitors seem speculative and condescending, and your assumptions about me are inaccurate.

    So, yes, those are my hot buttons. I seem to have struck a few of your own. We have different values and perspectives and that seems to be the main cause.

    I think Bob Dylan wrote something about these kinds of differences in perspectives: “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.”

    There’s room enough for everybody, but we can’t impose our own biases on others. My bias is to cherish past cultures and current visitors — and to see the landscape at its best when people are included. And at its most barren when people are absent.


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