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The Idea of Wilderness Erases Native People. Here's How To Fix It.

Petroglyphs in New Mexico's Ojito Wilderness
Petroglyphs in New Mexico's Ojito Wilderness | Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

Commentary: Wilderness offers a respite from our sick society. We need that respite more than ever. Landscapes with no farms, factories, or freeways are fewer and further between these days. Humans have drastically altered something like 80 percent of the Earth’s land area, and eroded the ecological integrity of the remainder to varying degrees, and protected areas designated as wilderness offer an important refuge from that alteration for wildlife, as well as for people who need a little psychological space.

And so it’s hard to find an environmentally concerned person who doesn’t like at least the idea of wilderness. In federal law, designated Wilderness is the most stringent level of protection a landscape can receive: it’s a way of saying “extractive industry may make money elsewhere, but not here.” Which means that legal wilderness status is important and needs defending.

But there’s a big problem with the wilderness concept as enshrined in law: it’s rooted in a cultural outlook that defines Native people as either subhuman or nonexistent. The wilderness concept erases Native people, and it needs to be rethought.  

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Here’s the idealized federal definition of wilderness, as expressed in the 1964 Wilderness Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson:

By a strict interpretation of the above definition, there is precious little wilderness in the lower 48 states.

The Western world’s idea of wilderness as a place with intrinsic value, rather than as a threatening wild landscape in need of being tamed, has its roots in the 19th Century. It was an essentially Romantic notion, the idea of a “pristine” nature thriving in the absence of human beings, from which a visiting person could derive spiritual fulfillment and wisdom.

Inconveniently for adherents of this Romantic notion, there were few places outside of Antarctica where humans had not been shaping the landscape for thousands of years. In North America, the positive idea of wilderness began to gain steam just as the continent’s Native inhabitants were in the process of being exterminated, with both military and vigilante violence committed against peoples already staggering from the impact of generations of European epidemics.

Settlers poured westward into lands that had until quite recently been populated, sometimes heavily, with Native people. Those settlers took the landscape, newly shorn of human beings, as having the “primeval character” mentioned in the Wilderness Act.

But rather than showing its primeval self, that landscape was reeling from the impact of colonialism. In California, Native peoples had influenced the landscape for millennia through means such as clearing desert springs, pruning and coppicing plants, diverting streams to flow out onto patches of dry ground, and — above all — burning.

Their efforts over the millennia shaped the “primeval” California the settlers found: the park-like forests and flower-filled meadows, the oak savannas of the Coast Ranges. Outside California, other peoples radically altered the landscape in a hundred different ways, building large cities with earthworks in the southeast, intensively farming crops in the northeast, constructing formidable irrigation works in the Sonoran Desert, and managing many of the continent’s landscapes with fire.

Describing many of North America’s landscapes as “without permanent improvements or human habitation,” in other words, obscures the existence of the people who lived in the landscape for millennia, and who in large part created the landscape. It’s no accident that the wilderness idea started gaining favor just as settlers were clearly winning the war against North America’s Native peoples. Defining our continent’s sublime landscapes as devoid of human influence was a summary act of intellectual genocide: first, steal the land and kill most of its inhabitants, then claim they and their works never existed.

It’s no wonder that especially in California, whose landscape even now bears the deep imprint of millennia of traditional Native land management practices, many Native people are not particularly fond of the wilderness concept. Which is not to say they aren’t glad that treasured landscapes are protected under the Wilderness Act. It’s just hard to appreciate an environmental ideology that erases you, your ancestors, and your culture.

As non-Native people learn more about Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the opportunities it offers to live in the landscape rather than on it, it’s likely that the wilderness concept will increasingly be called into question. And that will be tricky. It’s not unknown for advocates of extractive industry to point out that Native peoples burned the prairies, reasoning that the landscape has already been altered by people, and consequently that they should be allowed to stripmine the place. Especially in this political climate, it’s risky to criticize a concept, problematic as it may be, that’s resulted in protection of millions of acres which would otherwise be subject to the bulldozer and the plow. What we need is a way to reconcile the Western wilderness concept with Native viewpoints about how to care for the land.

That might not be as hard as it would seem. The wilderness concept is under philosophical attack from other directions as well, including both industry advocates and so-called “new conservationists,” environmentalists who argue that people should use modern technology to control the earth’s ecosystems. They point out that no wilderness, protected or unprotected, is immune from the influence of human technology. Pesticides drift into wilderness areas, sickening insects and the birds that feed on them. Smog kills trees. Invasive exotic plants don’t respect wilderness boundaries, nor do those boundaries provide insulation from rising global temperatures.

In response to that kind of criticism, biologist George Wuerthner in 2014 offered a pointed rebuttal in the book Keeping The Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth. He wrote:

Such a nuanced view of Wilderness — a place where the land's natural productivity isn't mainly harnessed for human use — seems to offer some wiggle room for those who don’t wish to exclude Native land management practices from the landscape. If Native peoples largely used natural forces like fire and flood in deliberate, methodical, but gentle fashion to shape the landscape, perhaps those practices aren’t incompatible with wilderness after all.

You can find inspiration for this possible compromise in the language of the Wilderness Act itself, in the description of Wilderness as a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Odds are than most people reading the Act imagined the somewhat obscure word “untrammeled” to mean something like “untraveled” or “untrampled.”

But to “trammel” something is to restrain it, to keep it from doing what it wants to do, to prevent it from fulfilling its innate potential.

To pave a piece of earth is to trammel it. To cover it with condominiums or cotton fields, to route vehicles across its soil, to spray it with insecticides; all these acts truncate the potential of the living community of organisms in the landscape.  

But if Native peoples were (and are) a vital part of natural landscape processes shaped over millennia, if cultural burning and gentle diversions of snowmelt and ritual clearing of desert springs actually allow the landscape to approach its full natural potential, if the landscape in fact depended on Native peoples every bit as much as it did on beavers or bears or salmon, then barring those people and their practices from the landscape would be limiting that landscape’s capacity. It would be trammeling the land.

Put bluntly, the exclusion of Native people from the living landscapes they once maintained might well be in and of itself a violation of the spirit of the Wilderness Act.

It’s at least worth discussing.

Banner: detail from Valley of the Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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