Beginning this week I am going to publish some columns on wilderness. Hope you will find them interesting.

            At the same time the U.S. Census declared in 1890 that the continental United States no longer contained any wilderness, the first attempts were being taken to preserve it. Beginning in the 1870’s there had been discussions about protecting forests which culminated in the passage of the Forest Reserve Act in 1891.  This law embodied the notion of protecting forest ‘reserves’ and entrusted a federal agency, the U.S. Forest Service, with the task of monitoring the welfare of forest zones.

The whole point of the 1891 law was not so much to preserve woodland spaces, but to regulate their use and balance out the need for lumber and other woodland products with the necessity to allow woodlands to reproduce and, at the same time, sustain the animal and plant species which existed in forest zones.

         Montague Plain

Montague Plain

But management of open and untrammeled space is one thing, preservation is quite another. This difference was recognized in the watershed 1964 Wilderness Act, which created and protects more than 100 million acres throughout the 50 states administered by four federal agencies, chiefly the Park Service, Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the purpose being to protect space that will serve no ends other than recreation and natural habitat.

What chiefly makes the lands designated as ‘wilderness’ distinct from all other land owned or administered by government agencies is the concept of ‘permanence;’ or rather, the lack of any kind of permanent structures or facilities which would allow humans to exist within those spaces in any kind of permanent way.  The law says that in these spaces “man himself is a visitor,” whose presence is both temporary and transient so as to protect the ‘primeval character’ of wilderness zones.

Of the present 109 million acres of land designated as wilderness, 94% is located in 11 western states, of which Alaska alone contains 56 million acres, which is 52% of the total.  The only state east of the Mississippi containing more than 1 million acres is Florida, mostly within the Everglades National Park.  My state – Massachusetts – is third to last, containing only 3,244 acres which encloses a little piece of Cape Cod.  So if I want to see any real wilderness, I have to get in my car, figure to be away for a week or more, and drive.  Or do I?

Twenty minutes from where I live is a 1,200-acre area known as the Montague Plain.  It is a flat, wooded zone, now owned and managed by the State Department of Conservation and Recreation and considered a prime example of pine-scrub oak barren which is the natural habitat for certain rare animal species and plants.  Evidence indicates that fire was used to manage and drive game by native Americans from perhaps as early as 2,000 years before European settlers first appeared.  The current plan adopted for the Montague Plain involves conducting small, managed burns and cuttings in order to better understand ecological management of such sites.

Want to explore some wilderness?  Drive to the Montague Plain, park your car and walk a mile or so into this remarkably empty zone. The 1890 Census defined wilderness as any square-mile that did not offer permanent settlement to two persons or less and this is certainly the case on the Montague Plain.

But the fact that an environmental agency starts managing a wilderness area doesn’t mean that the strategy will necessarily correspond with what Nature has in store for any particular natural space.  The deer herd in Massachusetts, for example, has declined by at least half since forest lands were protected and allowed to revert to mature growth which prevents deer from foraging and reproducing in the undergrowth that was left after early farmers cleared much of the land. The prehistoric inhabitants who used fire to drive game animals were only copying what natural fires had been doing ln the Montague Plain from the beginning of time.  Who is to say which way works best?