Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Wilderness Paradox

An interesting article, articulating the so-called Wilderness Paradox--the notion that to effectively protect wilderness, you need to raise awareness of the potential threats to it, but that to raise awareness brings crowds of nature lovers, and fundamentally alters the experience of being there.

However, I think the author overstates the case somewhat.  Looking at a place that's even more heavily used than the Wind Rivers one can take the example of Yosemite National Park, for example.  About 3.8 million visitors each year visit the park, mostly during the compressed "tourist season."  Very few of those visitors get out of the seven square miles of the Yosemite Valley, however. 

So yeah; Yosemite Valley is in and of itself a spectacular location.  No doubt about it.  But Yosemite National Park is almost 1,200 square miles.  If the visitation is concentrated on only seven of that, then there's a lot more park to see, and much of it is extremely lightly visited backcountry--again, by relative terms.

That's true of the Wind Rivers mentioned in the article above as well.  Sure, the Titcomb Basin and Cirque of the Towers areas are fairly heavily visited, especially considering that they are not easily reached by the casual--both being far from any road.  But the Wind Rivers are vast, and one can easily find days and days of solitude in the mountains, and enjoy scenery every bit as spectacular.  It's still easy to "have it all" in the Wind Rivers (or even Yosemite National Park) if one is simply aware of the issue and willing to do some minimal planning around it.

And, of course, in both cases, there are other nearby scenic wonders that are not national parks, and don't have the same kind of visitation numbers anyway.  The Beartooths or the Absarokas in Wyoming and right across the border in Montana, for example, or the Gros Ventres, have much of the same scenic grandeur as the Winds or even the Tetons--without the crowds.  If Yosemite isn't your speed, have you tried the Ansel Adams or John Muir Wildernesses right next door?  Or even going a bit further south to King's Canyon National Park?

And this is in California, near large population centers.  Going on a summer weekday, you can still find awesome solitude... if you really want it.

That doesn't mean that the issue of the Wilderness Paradox is nonexistant, just that it's over-stated.  Could it change?  Could the situation become worse?  Of course, but I don't see that has likely in the next few decades.  Backpacking and hiking are more popular now than ever before, and the population of the US has grown tremendously in the last century.  But that growth is slowing dramatically and backpacking isn't likely to become more popular than it already is.  A few locations will always have to be sacrificial lambs; offered up to the masses to enjoy in crowds.  Places like the Grand Canyon (where you can also find solitude, if you just get off the rim roads), Yosemite Valley, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone, or a few other such places.  Even, to a lesser extent, places like Cirque of the Towers, Titcomb Basin, Thousand Island Lake, the Chicago Basin, etc. meet this criteria.  But by serving as magnets for crowds, support for the protection of wilderness grows, we have a gateway avenue to introduce our less ruggedly inclined wives and children and friends to the love of the outdoors via easily accessible, day-hike accessible spectacular scenic areas, and they serve as magnets for people, oddly allowing other nearby areas, many of equal scenic splendor, to be left alone.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting side-note to this post: an article about solitude amongst some of our busiest national parks and other wilderness areas.