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The Wilderness and Its Place in Forest Recreational Policy

Image of Gila Wilderness landscape

By Aldo Leopold
First published in Journal of Forestry, 1921

When the National Forests were created the first argument of those opposing a national forest policy was that the forests would remain a wilderness. Gifford Pinchot replied that on the contrary they would be opened up and developed as producing forests, and that such development would, in the long run, itself constitute the best assurance that they would neither remain a wilderness by “bottling up” their resources nor become one through devastation. At this time Pinchot enunciated the doctrine of “highest use,” and its criterion, “the greatest good to the greatest number,” which is and must remain the guiding principle by which democracies handle their natural resources.

Pinchot's promise of development has been made good. The process must, of course, continue indefinitely. But it has already gone far enough to raise the question of whether the policy of development (construed in the narrower sense of industrial development) should continue to govern in absolutely every instance, or whether the principle of highest use does not itself demand that representative portions of some forests be preserved as wilderness.

That some such question actually exists, both in the minds of some foresters and of part of the public, seems to me to be plainly implied in the recent trend of recreational use policies and in the tone of sporting and outdoor magazines. Recreational plans are leaning toward the segregation of certain areas from certain developments, so that having been led into the wilderness, the people may have some wilderness left to enjoy. Sporting magazines are groping toward some logical reconciliation between getting back to nature and preserving a little nature to get back to. Lamentations over this or that favorite vacation ground being “spoiled by tourists” are becoming more and more frequent. Very evidently we have here the old conflict between preservation and use, long since an issue with respect to timber, water power, and other purely economic resources, but just now coming to be an issue with respect to recreation. It is the fundamental function of foresters to reconcile these conflicts, and to give constructive direction to these issues as they arise. The purpose of this paper is to give definite form to the issue of wilderness conservation, and to suggest certain policies for meeting it, especially as applied to the Southwest.

Aldo Leopold hunting in the Gila Wilderness, 1927

It is quite possible that the serious discussion of this question will seem a far cry in some unsettled regions, and rank heresy to some minds. Likewise did timber conservation seem a far cry in some regions, and rank heresy to some minds of a generation ago. “The truth is that which prevails in the long run.”

Some definitions are probably necessary at the outset. By “wilderness” I mean a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks' pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man. Several assumptions can be made at once without argument. First, such wilderness areas should occupy only a small fraction of the total National Forest area—probably not to exceed one in each State. Second, only areas naturally difficult of ordinary industrial development should be chosen. Third, each area should be representative of some type of country of distinctive recreational value, or afford some distinctive type of outdoor life, opportunity for which might disappear on other forest lands open to industrial development.

The argument for such wilderness areas is premised wholly on highest recreational use. The recreational desires and needs of the public, whom the forests must serve, vary greatly with the individual. Heretofore we have been inclined to assume that our recreational development policy must be based on the desires and needs of the majority only. The only new thing about the premise in this case is the proposition that inasmuch as we have plenty of room and plenty of time, it is our duty to vary our recreational development policy, in some places, to meet the needs and desires of the minority also. The majority undoubtedly want all the automobile roads, summer hotels, graded trails, and other modern conveniences that we can give them. It is already decided, and wisely, that they shall have these things as rapidly as brains and money can provide them. But a very substantial minority, I think, want just the opposite. It should be decided, as soon as the existence of the demand can be definitely determined, to provide what this minority wants. In fact, if we can foresee the demand, and make provision for it in advance, it will save much cash and hard feelings. It will be much easier to keep wilderness areas than to create them. In fact, the latter alternative may be dismissed as impossible. Right here is the whole reason for forehandedness in the proposed wilderness area policy.

It is obvious to everyone who knows the National Forests that even with intensive future development, there will be a decreasing but inexhaustible number of small patches of rough country which will remain practically in wilderness condition. It is also generally recognized that these small patches have a high and increasing recreational value. But will they obviate the need for a policy such as here proposed? I think not. These patches are too small, and must grow smaller. They will always be big enough for camping, but they will tend to grow too small for a real wilderness trip. The public demands for camp sites and wilderness trips, respectively, are both legitimate and both strong, but nevertheless distinct. The man who wants a wilderness trip wants not only scenery, hunting, fishing, isolation, etc.—all of which can often be found within a mile of a paved auto highway—but also the horses, packing, riding, daily movement and variety found only in a trip through a big stretch of wild country. It would be pretty lame to forcibly import these features into a country from which the real need for them had disappeared.

It may also be asked whether the National Parks from which, let us hope, industrial development will continue to be excluded, do not fill the public demand here discussed. They do, in part. But hunting is not and should not be allowed within the Parks. Moreover, the Parks are being networked with roads and trails as rapidly as possible. This is right and proper. The Parks merely prove again that the recreational needs and desires of the public vary through a wide range of individual tastes, all of which should be met in due proportion to the number of individuals in each class. There is only one question involved—highest use. And we are beginning to see that highest use is a very varied use, requiring a very varied administration, in the recreational as well as in the industrial field.

An actual example is probably the best way to describe the workings of the proposed wilderness area policy.

Gila Wilderness, 2024

The Southwest (meaning New Mexico and Arizona) is a distinct region. The original southwestern wilderness was the scene of several important chapters in our national history. The remainder of it is about as interesting, from about as large a number of angles, as any place on the continent. It has a high and varied recreational value. Under the policy advocated in this paper, a good big sample of it should be preserved. This could easily be done by selecting such an area as the headwaters of the Gila River on the Gila National Forest. This is an area of nearly half a million acres, topographically isolated by mountain ranges and box canyons. It has not yet been penetrated by railroads and to only a very limited extent by roads. On account of the natural obstacles to transportation and the absence of any considerable areas of agricultural land, no net economic loss would result from the policy of withholding further industrial development, except that the timber would remain inaccessible and available only for limited local consumption. The entire area is grazed by cattle, but the cattle ranches would be an asset from the recreational standpoint because of the interest which attaches to cattle grazing operations under frontier conditions. The apparent disadvantage thus imposed on the cattlemen might be nearly offset by the obvious advantage of freedom from new settlers, and from the hordes of motorists who will invade this region the minute it is opened up. The entire region is the natural habitat of deer, elk, turkey, grouse, and trout. If preserved in its semi-virgin state, it could absorb a hundred pack trains each year without overcrowding. It is the last typical wilderness in the southwestern mountains. Highest use demands its preservation.

Leopold (right) packing with companion in the Gila Wilderness, 1927

The conservation of recreational resources here advocated has its historic counterpart in the conservation of timber resources lately become a national issue and expressed in the forestry program. Timber conservation began fifteen years ago with the same vague premonitions of impending shortage now discernible in the recreational press. Timber conservation encountered the same general rebuttal of “inexhaustible supplies” which recreational conservation will shortly encounter. After a period of milling and mulling, timber conservation established the principle that timber supplies are capable of qualitative as well as quantitative exhaustion, and that the existence of “inexhaustible” areas of trees did not necessarily insure the supply of bridge timber, naval stores, or pulp. So also will recreational resources be found in more danger of qualitative than quantitative exhaustion. We now recognize that the sprout forests of New England are no answer to the farmer's need for structural lumber, and we admit that the farmer's special needs must be taken care of in proportion to his numbers and importance. So also must we recognize that any number of small patches of uninhabited wood or mountains are no answer to the real sportsman's need for wilderness, and the day will come when we must admit that his special needs likewise must be taken care of in proportion to his numbers and importance. And as in forestry, it will be much easier and cheaper to preserve, by forethought, what he needs, than to create it after it is gone.