Open Wilderness
Words by Llyn de Danaan

For the last few years, I’ve been listening to stories of the challenges facing Washington’s Olympic National Park and the struggle to manage and protect its valuable diversity and invaluable resources.

This place, as many others places in America’s national park system, is a treasure. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is cherished for its beauty and the opportunity it offers for solitude and respite. But let’s look at language. The lands encompassed by the park are not ‘natural’ or ‘undisturbed’. It was crisscrossed for centuries if not millennia by Native Americans who lived along streams and shorelines and traveled to the interior to hunt, to follow trails in order to visit one another and to gather a cornucopia of plants that were used as foods and medicines. First Nation people harvested trees for housing material and to construct sea-going and river canoes. Tree bark was taken seasonally for basketry and other handcrafted items. Native prairies that dotted the peninsula were maintained and enhanced by burning. These maintained open lands provided meadows, animal clearings for foraging, and prevented encroachment by fir trees that otherwise swallow these prairies so rich with bulb and other foods.

The notion of a natural and open wilderness, the myth of a relatively ‘empty west’, informed many maps drawn in the early nineteenth century.  Narratives of the settling of a raw and naked west, promulgated by some historians, reified a world view that did not include the presence of Native peoples nor the impact human beings had already had on the environment before the arrival of EuroAmericans. That view, though challenged and turned upside down by historians such as Richard White during the last half-century, continues to promote a false understanding of what we are protecting when we use the word wilderness and talk about our parks.

Yet, retaining and restoring our public lands and celebrating their ‘real’ histories and diversities is increasingly a challenge in a world whose population is growing (around 80 million a year, though the rate of US Growth was down to .8% in 2015, the lowest since 1937) and demanding access in ways that will surely destroy them and the very thing that makes them attractive.

People who go to the national parks associate them (and camping in them) with words like peace, friends, happiness, family, escape, adventure, fun, tents, campfires, and, yes, wilderness, according to recent studies. Our local park, Olympic National Park, is in fact managed in a way to provide a refuge from modern life just as its high mountains once were refugia that allowed for the survival of species otherwise made extinct by extensive glaciation during the Pleistocene. The ice sheet, a mile thick in Puget Sound, reached its maximum about 20,000 years ago. But some animals made it through that cold dark long winter. They had a place to go.

But can the park continue to provide that critical, sustaining environment for stressed humans in the years ahead?

The Olympic National Park was created in 1938.  The population of the Puget Sound area in 1940 was only 368,302. Seattle is now the fasted growing cities in the United States. It gained 86,320 new residents between April 2015 and April 2016 according to the Puget Sound Regional Council. Since 2010, the region has grown by 208,000, the equivalent of adding another city of Tacoma to the area. The region is forecast to hit 5 million by 2040.

Keeping pace, our national parks had 75 million visitors in 2015 compared with 44 million in 1975. The Olympic National Park alone hosted 3.39 million visitors in 2016.

“It is the desire for an outdoor experience away from the bustle of modern life that brings crowds of people to national parks even as the accouterments of modern life are carried on their backs or in their vans.”

Population growth has resulted in crowded urban and suburban environments, less green space, and more desire for visits to the parks. Time Magazine has called it the “Rush into the Wilderness”. Unlike those stalwart campers and hikers of the 1930s and 1940s who traveled bad roads in slow cars and trucks and were accustomed to living rough and packing everything in and out and who had not grown up in a consumer throwaway society, we have people who want the wilderness experience but have a different ethic and expectation of their time in the outdoors, one quite at odds with the ethics of those who founded these parks.

My father would have been a typical early camper. He was raised on Boys’ Life and by a mother who could make a bicycle out of a pile of junk and construct a box kite from a newspaper and a pile of twigs. As an adult, he could design and construct everything he needed to survive with a pocket knife and a bit of string. He could even make the string.  He grew up in the 1930s’ depression during which everything was saved and reused and nothing went to waste. Today’s hikers and campers spend on ever more technical equipment, boots, gadgets for carrying water easily, light weight tents and prepackaged foods. These light weight items, ads for gear companies crow, allow people to enjoy their experience more. And gourmet “farm-to-pouch” meals make the experience even more special. Attitudes have changed. Skills are not taught. Campers and hikers are increasingly ‘technical’, ‘equipped’, and can buy their way into the wilderness and onto mountain peaks while posting pictures and videos of themselves in real time. Old timers and purists lament that anyone with enough money can get to the top of Everest. The same can be said about wilderness trekkers in North America.

These modern campers feed a giant industry.“Practically  everything in the outdoor industry is manufactured overseas”, one outfitter has written. According to studies, the campers in the United States in 2015 were from households that for the most part had an income of over $25,000. In 2013 studies, the average camper was age 32 and purchased trunk loads of items before heading out into the ‘wild.’  The biggest acquisitions were tents, sleeping bags, trailers, flashlights, lanterns, chairs, cooking utensils,  pillows, coffee, coolers or fridges, stoves, toilet facilities, airbed/mattresses, and, of course, RVs (if going to a campground) with now obligatory WiFi/GPS TV/electronics, washing facilities, air conditioning/heating.  

And how much does that add up to? A lot. According to a recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association, each year Americans spend $120 billion on products for outdoor recreation.  That’s billion. More than twice as much as Americans spend each year for internet access ($54 billion) or aeroplane tickets ($51 billion). That figure, by the way, includes gas to get to a site.

So a national park is important to people if it is accessible and one has the best and most modern gear; those park visitors mean a big return for the outdoor industry. The benefits go to retailers, designers, and manufacturers as well as local shops and sporting good stores who supply the last minute shoppers with a lot of things they could do without if they only thought about it and were not so attached to urban, interior comforts. It is a state of mind, this need to acquire, driven by advertising and the selling of an image. Camping now, we are led to believe, requires a lot of stuff that, oddly, we didn’t seem to need fifty or eighty years ago. And yet it is the desire for an outdoor experience away from the bustle of modern life that brings crowds of people to national parks even as the accouterments of modern life are carried on their backs or in their vans.

So what’s happening to the parks with all this growth? And all this stuff?  Many have weighed in on the most pressing issues facing our national parks. Even National Geographic published a list. Here are some of the top contenders:

  • Garbage. Human waste. There is too much and with reduced park budgets, insufficient staff to deal with it. With respect to Olympic National Park, we’ve heard testimony from rangers who report people cannot even be bothered to use a trowel and bury their waste.  Urinating on trails has been cited as a hazard. The urine provides a salt lick that attracts goats to areas where trekkers pass.

  • Demands for services and access that despoil the very peace the outdoor bound urban residents say they want. For example: In spring of 2017, the debate on whether to allow cell towers into Mt. Rainier National Park was underway. People say they ‘need’ cell phones for ‘emergencies.’ Does anyone believe that they will only be used in a true emergency?

  • Some parks allow access for bicycles, motorbikes and, of course, 4-wheel vehicles. A rider recently posted a review of his experience in Death Valley National Park: “The best way to see the best of it — the fastest and easiest way, without spending hours crawling down bumpy roads in a car or four-wheel-drive truck — is on a dual-sport motorcycle, one suited for both on-and off-road riding.” Modern Americans are in a hurry. Americans want it easy. No crawling down roads, let alone trails. But, of course, even isolating these wheeled vehicles on a few roads or trails away from wilderness doesn’t work. They create dust, noise, and discharge other pollutants.

  • Noise pollution. Cell phones and motor vehicles feed right into the issue of increased noise in the parks. A recent article in a 2017 Science reported that research found a high level of human-made sounds in many protected areas. This noise, “can disrupt entire communities” of plants and animals. Animals and plants need silence for reproduction and successful predation for food among other things. Critical habitats for endangered creatures could be compromised by noise. Navy jet noise over the Olympic Peninsula is audible to anyone paying attention. Permitting may soon allow more Navy Jets in spite of enormous outcry from the public. The parks don’t own the airspace.

  • Air pollution. I repeat, the parks don’t own the airspace. Whatever is happening outside the park will contaminate the air over it. 

  • And what is happening outside a park, even on public lands, will, of course, have an effect on what happens inside a park. Seeds, animals, air pollution, and noise know no boundaries. I recently took a walk through a midwestern suburb. All the grass was neatly cut into golf course lawns, each blade manicured to the same length. Then I heard something. As I continued my walk, I followed the sound and came to a foreclosed house. The ‘lawn’ was full of ‘weeds’, two or three feet high. It wasn’t a big yard, but in between weeds were clovers and other wild flowers. And the whole square buzzed and chirped and croaked with the delight of creatures who had found it. I thought about Elizabeth Kolbert’s comments about forest fragments in her book The Sixth Extinction. How far will these creatures have to migrate to find another island of grasses? Will they make it? Being trapped in a forest fragment will not cut it. Species are increasingly encountering roads, clear cuts, cities and other barriers that prevent them from thriving, finding food, and reproducing. 

  • Run-ins with animals. Though deaths are uncommon, increased numbers of ignorant or willful visitors will undoubtedly cause an increase in encounters that do no one any good. Even experienced, smart hikers can be at risk. A horrible death of a beloved local brought the danger of non-indigenous mountain goats in the Olympic National Park home. ‘Management’ had failed. The killer goat was a known and reported threat in the mountains. But park visits will always bring risks. These wilderness areas are there to provide habitat for native, indigenous species, including apex predators such as wolves, bears, and mountain lions. Bison will attack and have in western parks. Bees, wasps, and angry raccoons can spoil a day in the outdoors. Even so, park visitors are more likely to die from falls or drowning than animal attacks. But these too are often the result of failure to prepare properly or even the consumption of alcohol. 

  • Destruction of habitat and impact on trees/vegetation is inevitable. No matter how vigilant rangers are and how many obey the rules, some people go off trails and ignore their impact on the fragile environment. With millions of people every year, even a small percentage of those who are careless or defiant will destroy habitat.

  • Invasive species come with the wind, in the fur and waste of animals, and on the shoes of hikers. National Geographic reports that “6,500 non-native invasive species have been found in US national parks. Seventy percent of them are plants, which encroach on a staggering seven million acres (2.8 million hectares) of our national parklands.” What this means for native plants is a long conversation. 

  • Water issues. Along with climate change comes an uncertainty regarding water supply even as the parks face increasing demands for water by visitors as well as for firefighting and the lives of aquatic species.

We may bemoan the overpopulation of our country, our world, and the fundamental challenges to our national parks raised by overuse of and demand for natural getaways by the public. But as Garrett Hardin said in his 1968 Science article, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, ‘Most people who anguish over the population problem are trying to avoid  the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing any of the privileges they now enjoy.’ And the privileges increasingly allow us to ignore the impact of our actions, our culture, and consumerism on our public lands and parks. After all, walk down any street, head up, looking at your fellow travelers and notice how many eyes are down, watching the little handheld devices. These are the devices that many would love to carry into their hiking experience along the exquisite alpine trails of Mt. Rainier National Park. Take a look at how many ear buds you see. How many are completely involved in conversations with human beings somewhere in the distance. Will many give up the privilege of staying ignorant of reality?  One technological solution to our zoned out, clueless world is to smash the cell towers and block all electronic communication. Not something that would be tolerated in a free, democratic system.

Annie Prouix’s brilliant book Barks depicts the early invasion of North America by EuroAmericans. Driven by greed, they assumed that the forests, the trees, the animals would last forever, that they could take and take without a thought for tomorrow. Even today, when we know that abundance has limits, that the world and its resources are infinite. We continue to take and find justifications for it. And we assume technological solutions will fix everything.

The tragedy of the commons notion, developed and widely read in the late 60s, was based upon a scenario described by William Forster Lloyd in the early 19th century. In essence, a ‘common’ grazing ground enjoyed by the cattle of villagers and held in common by them. At some point, each villager, seeking to maximize his/her gain, decides to add one more animal to the commons. And another. Freedom and self-interest eventually lead to ruin. As Hardin writes,  “The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.”

Education can help, Hardin says, but “the basis for this knowledge... (must be) constantly refreshed” as new generations come along.

Hardin foresaw the problems we face with national parks. “...There is only one Yosemite Valley”, he wrote, “whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone.”

The solutions to the problems in our national parks are not easy to imagine. They are ‘problems’ the parks have in common with our whole society and our world. Technology will not save us from depletion and ruin. A new morality or change in how we think about our world and our resources will not come easily or quickly enough. Coercive measures, even if many agree to accept them, will be fought and decried. And yet, here we are right now in the Pacific Northwest, in a relatively progressive environment facing an onslaught of aeroplane noise, cell phone towers, and the consequences of climate change and fragmented forests. Will we stand up and be counted? Or allow yet one more, two more, three more predictably destructive choices be justified and their consequences become part of the new normal.

One can only imagine what ‘wilderness’ will look like, smell like, feel like in fifty years... or if it will even still exist.

LLyn is an author, anthropologist and emeritus faculty of The Evergreen State College where she taught from its inception until 2001. Her current book project focuses on the life of the first Native American woman pilot, whose ancestors were among the first oyster farmers on Willapa Bay.

These words were first published in Issue Two of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.
Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri