Gila Wilderness Area’s 90th Birthday- by Char Miller

Looking into the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. | Photo: Avelino Maestas/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Looking into the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. | Photo: Avelino Maestas/Flickr/Creative Commons License

I was out of town and have a bit of a backup of posts and will be be posting them this week. This from Char Miller on Wilderness:

Link here..

Excerpt below:

The two men met in Colorado in 1919, shortly after Carhart achieved what Leopold then was dreaming about. Assigned to develop a plan for the development of roads into and cabins surrounding Trappers Lake in Colorado’s White River National Forest, Carhart took one look at the unsullied high-country site and reported to his supervisor that the best and highest use of the lake and its beguiling environs was no use at all. Strikingly, his advice and plan was accepted, and Trapper’s Lake is today considered the “Cradle of Wilderness.” So when Leopold came calling, he and Carhart had a meeting of the mind.

From their conversation emerged a set of ideas that eventually became enshrined in the Wilderness Act. Carhart, for example, drafted a memorandum distilling the essence of their shared vision, a perspective driven by a sense of how imperiled these lands were and how democratic their preservation would be. “There is a limit to the number of lakes in existence; there is a limit to the mountainous areas of the world,” Carhart affirmed in 1919, and “there are portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made.” Such divine terrain, primitive and uncluttered, “of a right should be the property of all people.”

Two years later, Leopold published what amounted to a declaration of first principles, and did so in his profession’s lead publication, the Journal of Forestry: “By ‘wilderness,’ I mean a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.”

Even in the 1920s, not many places would meet all these qualifications, but the upper watershed of the Gila River did. Its typography — mountain ranges and box canyons — had isolated it from development, leaving it in a “semi-virgin state,” Leopold confirmed in his article. Its relatively pristine character made it perfect for his purposes: The Gila was the “last typical wilderness in the southwestern mountains. Highest use demands its preservation.” With the support of Forest Service chief, William B. Greeley, and regional forester Frank Pooler, he submitted a proposal to designate the vast region a wilderness, and to that end on June 3, 1924 the Forest Service set aside 755,000 acres.

For all its virtues, one of this landed legacy’s core assumptions, the notion that wilderness is absent of and an antidote to civilization, a place devoid of human impress, must be critiqued. The conceit emerged in the late 19th-century in response to the industrial revolution and rapid urbanization, when writers such as John Muir asserted that the call of the wild, of open space, would be a tonic for those living in cramped, dense cities. This understandable aspiration only makes sense however in the context of other historic forces that had emptied these lands of the people who once lived within them. The Gila wildlands Leopold encountered were absent of people as a direct result of the Mexican-American War and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. To manifest its control over the region, the U.S. Army ultimately defeated the Apache who had made use of the Gila, relocating them to distant reservations.

Even with their forced removal, evidence remained that what would become a “wilderness” had supported complex social life dating back 11,000 years to the Paleoindian peoples who occupied the Gila highlands. And forward in time to include the Cochise and Mogollon cultures that later settled the region. When the latter disappeared sometime in the 13th-century it left behind a built environment that included cliff dwellings and pueblos, and a material culture rich in pottery. The Apaches, who arrived in the 1600s, held this ground for several centuries. To declare this land wild, then, was to erase these people and their ancient histories, an erasure the Gila designation set in motion and that has been replicated wherever wilderness has been proclaimed.

Leopold did not wrestle with this conundrum, though he recognized that wilderness was a social construct and a lived reality. He knew too that its physical presence was in decline. “Wilderness is a resource that can shrink but not grow,” he observed in Sand County Almanac. “The creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible,” and it follows that “any wilderness program is a rear-guard action, through which retreats are reduced to a minimum.” To hold this line required a new form of activist, “a militant minority of wilderness-minded citizens” scattered across the country and who are available “for action at a pinch.”

Energizing this avant-garde is also cause for celebration, on this or any other day.

5 thoughts on “Gila Wilderness Area’s 90th Birthday- by Char Miller”

  1. Interested to observe how Leopold’s wilderness concept has evolved into today’s “growing a wilderness” where, in the east, high-graded and cut over timberland, laced with woods roads and sprinkled with pine plantations have been granted “Wilderness” status. Hardly places where “the hand of man has never set foot”.

  2. The Wilderness Act doesn’t exactly adhere to Leopold’s concept, and isn’t quite as strict as “never set foot”, settling for somewhat more vague language such as “generally appears” and “substantially unnoticeable.” But you’re right that sometimes even that is a stretch… Miller’s point that wilderness is a social construct is a good one, and Leopold’s quotes that “The creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible,” and it follows that “any wilderness program is a rear-guard action, through which retreats are reduced to a minimum” are right on target.

    (from: THE WILDERNESS ACT, Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S. C. 1131-1136), 88th Congress, Second Session, September 3, 1964)
    (c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

    • Guy

      Thanks for the official definition of wilderness.

      But we have some conundrums:
      1) “untrammeled by man” is made null and void by “man himself is a visitor” which allows for some trammeling.
      2) “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions” is made null and void by “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable”. Which in turn begs the questions:
      — a) Who defines “natural conditions” for each site? How big of a loss of timberland to wildfire is an acceptable natural condition if the natural condition is timberland?
      — b) How much are the “natural conditions” due to the prior activities of mankind? Who gets to have the final say as to which guess is the correct answer to that question for a given area? Is their any real way to know? Can we afford to find out?
      — c) Once 2-a&b) is decided, who decides when the “forces of nature” require significant noticeable management, in a timely manner, in order to “preserve its natural conditions”?
      — d) Are the taxpayers willing to pay treble damages to affected non-federal landowners when the lack of management on wilderness areas destroys non-federal assets? When timber theft occurs intentionally or unintentionally the perpetrator pays treble damages. Don’t federal land managers have the same responsibility to do no harm to other landowners?

  3. well, why over-analyze it? “Untrammeled” means not limited or restricted, I don’t see why that would exclude visitors unless one wants to be really nitpicky. The rules about what visitors can do are pretty well defined and occasionally refined (horsepackers mostly ok right now, mountain bikes not allowed, you can build a campfire but not a cabin, etc.) As for who gets to define/decide, like most political processes it’s not entirely cut-and-dried, but as we all know, constituencies lobby for (or against) designation of a wilderness area, and Congress gets to decide. “Significant noticeable management” is allowed in certain situations, sometimes only exigent ones, and they’re reasonably well defined and publicly available in Forest Service Manual 2320

    Sometimes an ambiguous situation pops up, like the state of Idaho sending a wolf hunter into the Frank Church, and a federal court ends up having to make a decision about it, but I don’t think there are too many such cases, relatively speaking.

    I can’t find a legal precedent for treble damages for this kind of scenario (but maybe others have?); treble damages are available under various state statutes as a type of punitive damages for some intentional torts, or federally under RICO, but if there’s no applicable law here, then asking whether taxpayers are willing to pay treble damages seems like a non-issue.

    • Guy

      Sorry, but I am a diehard literalist – My ESP doesn’t work so I get very confused when the meaning of words are treated lightly or when policy really isn’t policy because it is contradicted internally and externally.

      Your excellent link is very helpful but even its provisions can be easily overridden. Case in point: on page 11/55 we find “fire control, insect and disease control, grazing, and visitor use are permitted. … Where a choice must be made … preserving the wilderness resource is the overriding value.” Yet, we have situations like the one where the Forest Service did not act to control the spruce bark beetle (SBB) in a Colorado wilderness area contrary to the advice of their chief entomologist. As a result, the Spruce in Colorado are being wiped out across all ownerships because the USFS knowingly allowed the SBB to grow to an epidemic level where control became impossible. If this was done because of the lack of funds, they have indirectly appropriated the spruce assets of all Coloradans without any law to support their action. The same applies if they were negligent because they feared legal reprisal from pressure groups who could twist the wording of existing policy so as to override the literal meaning of the wording in the policy. The same applies if the policy is contradicted by other policy/law like the ESA. Policy and law should be written so as to remove the need for legal recourse. The words “are permitted” and “preserving the wilderness resource” shouldn’t be used if the USFS can ignore them or the general populace can override them in the courts. Certainly in this case the USFS ignored their charge and took no action in terms of “preserving the wilderness resource”.

      As to compensation for damages, my case rests on:
      1) Treble damage timber theft laws which apply whether the theft was intentional or unintentional. If I loose my timber because of your neglect or irresponsible action ignoring the advice of professionals, then you have taken my timber and you legally owe me treble damages. As you imply, legalize may provide loopholes around equitable treatment but that doesn’t make it right.
      2) If there is in fact no recourse for treble damages as an inducement to responsible action towards other timber owners, we still have the 5th amendment to fall back on. Eminent domain provides for recouping losses for erosion and other damages incurred on the property, reestablishment costs, net present value of immature stands carried to a reasonable rotation age and standing timber value of mature stands. The process for determining this compensation from the feds is the same as timberland owners use for writing off storm damage for tax purposes when there is no responsible party to sue for treble damages. As you will readily agree, eminent domain in the 5th Amendment requires that the government’s power of eminent domain be coupled with “just compensation” for those whose property is taken. To me, this would seem to render all legal weaseling null and void. But then I only know the intent of the law rather than the letter of the law. But, wait a minute, there is no letter of the law because laws aren’t well thought out and their words can be twisted way beyond their intent by anyone not interested in the intent of the law. Seems like I’ve come full circle and made my case for being a literalist once again. I feel a little dizzy.


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