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‘Wilderness’ doesn’t have to be such a dirty word

February 13, 2010
By Joe Hackett, Enterprise Outdoors Columnist

At some point in time nearly every sportsman and woman has experienced "The Dream."

It's a common fantasy of stumbling into a lost valley that is full of game, with big unwary bucks, plentiful partridge, turkeys and more. It is a piece of land that time forgot and that no one has ever visited. Fish and game can be found in every stream and behind nearly every tree.

Likewise, anglers dream of finding the fabled "lost pond," a place where giant brook trout regularly rise to sip flies on the surface or a monster bass still lurks in a hidden cove, far off the main lake and out of view.

In our dreams, the location of these prized haunts are always secreted away in a lonely stretch of river, a deep valley or on a long-lost tract of land that lies well off the beaten path. It is a place where few people go and even fewer people know. It is always a sporting Shangri La and we always have it to ourselves, alone in a singular piece of the wild.

We usually imagine the place to be somewhat like America before the arrival of the Europeans. It is a wild and untamed place where we can ramble, free to hunt and fish at will. As with any perfect fantasy, we will continue to seek it until we are no longer able to amble about anymore.

With such commonality in our shared visions of a perfect wilderness, it remains a wonder that so many sportsmen detest the wilderness label, especially in the Adirondacks. I've often wondered about the basis for such revulsion.

Is it strictly the label as it is applied to the land? That the land doesn't qualify, it isn't wild enough? Or is the resentment actually a reflection on the agency that provides the moniker? Or does it portray the animosity some people possess over the quantity and quality of people that the wilderness land label often attracts?

Despite the vast quantity and high quality of the numerous wilderness areas in the Adirondacks - currently over a million acres, or 18.8 percent of the Park's land mass - some still insist that the term "wilderness" is a dirty word.

According to The Wilderness Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3,1964, "A wilderness 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."

By comparison to the national standard, the Adirondack wilderness is huge. In a span of less than 300 years, we have managed to reduce the "vast, howling wilderness of the New World" into a disjointed assembly of industrialized and urbanized landscapes of overdeveloped lands that now dominate 97 percent of the nation's original landmass. Only 2.58 percent of the lower 48 remains as designated wilderness, a meager 106 million acres.

Although wilderness is defined as "untrammeled by man," the sad paradox of bestowing a wilderness designation is that such areas tend to attract hordes of people seeking solitude, while the adjacent and much wilder forest lands often remain desolate and underutilized.

In the Adirondacks, I have found that lands administered as Wild Forest or Primitive have a wilder feel than many wilderness lands, although I realize the observation may be skewed due to the obvious signs of overuse in the wilderness areas I frequent.

I've witnessed the situation time and again, especially over busy holiday weekends.Paddlers complain about searching the entire St. Regis Canoe Area for an open campsite when there are usually plenty of good sites available in nearby Wild Forest areas. The people are few, the campsites are clean and there's usually plenty of firewood available in these areas.

It often seems that our wilderness lands have become too domesticated, homogenized and sanitized. All of the developed trails, carries and campsites posted with the related signage describing the rules, regulations and other restrictions deemed necessary for preservation make it so. I often wonder whether all the clutter is for our protection or the land's and if access is so easy to accomplish for all travelers, is the land really wild?

Despite the politically correct and often messy notion of universal access, there must be certain places on this planet that are available only to the fit, the determined and the capable. We can't allow it all to be the same, tame woods.

The naturally occurring terrain restrictions and degrees of difficulty in access shouldn't disallow anyone from attempting a journey. Those with a will, will still find a way. But for those without the will, access shouldn't be a cakewalk regardless of their various restrictions.

As I grow older, I've learned to recognize and accept such limitations.I no longer feel comfortable climbing the slides on the backside of Giant or rock hopping along the upper Boquet River to Slide Rock. These were special places that I visited in my younger days and although I may never enjoy the locations as I once did, I'm happy to know that others still have that opportunity. If access were easy to accomplish, maybe these places would no longer be so special.

As is often the case, humans ascribe a value to the land according to its importance to their own personal degree of usefulness.As I've heard said, "If I can't hunt or fish there, what's the use? What's it good for?"

In an obviously selfish and egocentric manner, we tend to measure the value of wild lands in terms of the benefits that we can derive, rather than in terms of the overall environmental, ecological, recreational, economic and social consequences that the protections may provide.

I know that by now, some of my regular readers are beginning to wonder if I've become a tree huggin', bunny lovin', greenie, but that's not the case. Rather, after having spent over 30-some-odd years covering ground in the Adirondacks, I've taken a step back for a hard look at what's covering the ground.Mostly, I've discovered that there are too many labels on the land.

In many local discussions I've shared, wilderness is often presented as a "freebie" that is enjoyed by a small minority of backcountry enthusiasts and a handful of commercial outfitters. While it may or may not be the case, the sad fact remains that the vast majority of citizens, locals and visitors alike never have and never will travel into a wilderness area to engage in backcountry recreation.

However, this perceived lack of use should not be considered a measure of the land's worth. The value of wild lands is greatly distorted when the scope is narrowed to encompass simply to human benefit.

Considered from the perspective of scarcity, the value of wilderness land is truly significant. It is a part of our natural character and ournational culture.But there's a greater untapped potential in terms of the unique and irreplaceable living laboratory that wilderness provides for medical and scientific research.

It serves as critical habitat for wildlife threatened by extinction and preserves gene pools and biological diversity.Our boreal forests are part of the world's largest carbon bank and wild lands protect watersheds and the quality of our air due to the filtering action of green plants and forests.

Wilderness also protects undisturbed, naturally occurring geologic phenomena for present and future generations to pursue the origin of this planet and the universe, in addition to the scenic value of these forms.

It also offers a haven from the pressures of society and allows us to escape the stresses of modern-day civilization. Wilderness-based experiences positively affect our physical and mental health, self-esteem and confidence. The aesthetics inspire art. Music, literatureand the lands offer a classroom that knows no boundaries. But most of all, the remaining wild lands are our bequest to the future and comprise an uncompromising element of national pride and prestige that must be preserved for future generations. When wild is gone from the land it can never be fully restored. Such efforts will simply replace it with a synthetic imitation of the original and that's something I hope I'll never see in my lifetime.



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