Celebrate Memorial Day With A Wilderness Walk.


Yesterday I celebrated Memorial Day by sitting in a five-hour traffic jam on I-93 between Manchester and Concord, NH.  I was coming back from a graduation at a high school in Wolfeboro, as far as I could tell everyone else was driving to Lake Winnipesauke to eat soft ice cream at a drive-in, take the kids to a water park, or maybe just enjoy being inside their car instead of sitting in their backyard.

wilderness              The more our society becomes urbanized and suburbanized, the more we all want to find a way to get back to the rustic delights of the out-of-doors and nature, even if we can only do it when everyone else is trying to do it too. But as I was sitting on the highway, I kept thinking of what Jane Goodall once said, “I don’t give two hoots about civilization. I want to wander in the wild.” But how do you wander in the wild when you can’t find any wildness anywhere around?

I’ll tell you how to do it.  Download this national map from the U.S. Census and you’ll discover that wilderness may be closer than you know.  Because we have always defined wilderness as any place with less than 2 permanent residents per square mile, and this map shows that there are still plenty of such areas within easy driving distance of just about everyone in the Lower 48. Here’s a couple of examples from wilderness zones thgat I know:

New York: Franklin County – The population density is 31 per square mile, but that’s only because you’re in the Lake Saranac region where tourism abounds. But drive along State Route 30, look for Travers Road about three miles south of the town of Malone and drive east about 500 feet. The road crosses a small creek – park your car there and walk alongside the stream. As soon as you can no longer see the road you’re all alone.  As you walk along the bank of the stream, the larger prints are moose.

Virginia: Highland County – Take I-81 through Shenandoah, get off in Winchester and go west on U.S. Highway 50, go left on Route 614 and now you’re in what is called Shawnee Land. Which is a big trailer park with a street actually called Geronimo Lane. But if you drive past that mess and then make a right turn on Route 612, follow the power lines for about half a mile and you’re completely in a wilderness zone.

Georgia: Echols County – In the olden days before they built all those interstates, one of the main routes down to Florida was U.S. Highway 441.  You can still take it all the way through the middle of Georgia (it runs between Miami and Tennessee) but figure you want to stop just before you hit the Florida line, just out of Fargo, and walk along the banks of the ol’ Suwanee.  Some places you’ll find a few folks, many places you won’t.

So here are three spots that are within a day’s drive of the 112 million people who live on the East Coast. And I could easily extend this list to every part of the Lower 48.  The point is that wilderness still exists all around us and a wilderness adventure doesn’t have to be a big deal. The only thing you need to take with you is a little water if it’s a warm day and some sunscreen even if you’re going into the woods.

And the one thing you don’t need to take along in order to enjoy your walk is a gun. Because a gun is heavy, it’s a pain in the neck, and you don’t need to protect yourself or anyone else from the animals or the people you might meet along the way. And that would be just as true if you were walking down a city street except the only animals you’d probably see in New York or Boston are a few dogs or a stray cat.

Take a walk this weekend and think about what Jane Goodall said.


Maybe Wilderness Should Manage Wilderness Zones

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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?

There’s Still Plenty Of Wilderness In The Lower 48: Just Use Your Imagination.

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Badlands from the Elkhorn (sm)

Elkhorn Ranch courtesy Sean Palfrey

In 1883, then 25-year old Theodore Roosevelt went out to the western edge of North Dakota to fulfill his dream of shooting a trophy buffalo and bringing the mounted head back to his home in New York.  Roosevelt had been interested in nature and natural environments since he was a little boy and his affinity for the outdoors was eagerly encouraged by his father, Theodore Sr., who was one of the founders of the New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1869. By the time he was a teenager, Roosevelt had trecked through much of the Adirondacks and journeyed through Europe and Egypt collecting specimens of all kinds, but the trip to the West in 1883 marked the first time that Roosevelt actually immersed himself in what was still wilderness lands.

Actually, the wilderness that Roosevelt hunted through in 1883 was, in reality, almost gone.  The transcontinental railroad linked both coasts since 1869, the Plains Indians were more or less pacified by 1877 (and slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890), and the U.S. Census announced that there were between 6 and 20 people living on every square mile of land in at least half the land mass of the lower 48.  Which meant that the wilderness, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, was gone.

TR was keenly aware of these changes, partly because he knew that it wouldn’t be much longer until animals like the American bison would be gone for evermore; but he was also a man of his times who believed that the frontier represented a remarkable resource for nation-building, both in economic and cultural terms.  In many respects, his comments sprinkled through his writings about the virtues of living on the frontier, presaged the single, most important essay ever written about the development of America, namely, Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis,” published in 1894.  In this essay, the author described America as being uniquely different from Europe insofar as the social, economic and legal institutions brought over from the Old World were not the same institutions that were developing as the country moved West.  In this latter space, basically the land between the Missouri River and the western coast, America was developing a new brand of institutions, a new culture, a new organizational ethos that reflected the egalitarianism and independence of the frontier.

Not only did Turner and Roosevelt know each other’s works, but Roosevelt used Turner’s ideas to sell his notions about conservation and nature to skeptical politicians whose support he needed to promote and develop what later became our present-day system of natural monuments, including national historic sites, national preserves and reservations and, the greatest treasure of all, the national parks. The law that TR signed in 1906 gave the President the right to designate “historical landmarks, historic preservation structures and other objects of scientific interest,” which today represents 12% of the protected landscape in the entire world.  That’s not bad considering that the U.S. occupies 6% of the globe’s land mass.

The reason I find TR so fascinating is that all of this interest and concern about preserving nature grew out of his desire to go into natural places in order to hunt big game.  Which is something which a visitor can still feel by visiting what remains of TR’s Elkhorn ranch.  The property lies midway between the two branches of the national park named after our 26th President, and while the ranch house itself has not been preserved, you can stand where TR stood in front of the house and look over the Badlands the same way that Sean Palfrey looked over the Badlands when he took the photo which adorns this page. And then bed down for the evening, watch the stars come out, and wait for the first slivers of daylight to brighten the sky behind the buttes overlooking the ranch.  And maybe if you are quiet enough, a few of the bison who once again claim this area as their home will amble by.  It may not be wilderness in the technical sense, but it’s as good as you’ll ever get.


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