Featured Article | Winter 2014: Wilderness

What is Wilderness?

By Buddy Huffaker

All wilderness areas, no matter how small or imperfect, have a large value to land-science. The important thing is to realize that recreation is not their only or even their principal utility. In fact, the boundary between recreation and science…exists only in the imperfections of the human mind. – Aldo Leopold, “Wilderness as a Land Laboratory,” 1941

If you’ve ever visited one of our national parks, national forests, or national wildlife refuges, it’s quickly apparent from the number of international visitors that our public treasures are renowned around the world.

Establishing these public lands demonstrated our country’s commitment to protecting wild places. But it was the Wilderness Act, passed nearly unanimously in 1964, that represents “a way to embrace and understand that we are not the only living things on this planet,” as 6th grader Kate Stratton reminds us in this year’s Aldo Leopold Writing Contest.

To qualify as wilderness, an area must be “without permanent improvements or human habitation.” Once designated, these places of unique ecological, geological, scientific, educational, scenic, or historical values are further protected from road development and the use of mechanized equipment.

Designated wilderness areas now make up nearly 110 million acres of land in this country, about five percent of our total land area. The photos in this issue honor and showcase the diversity of places protected by the legislation.

While it would have been easy in this issue of The Leopold Outlook to blindly honor the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and tout Leopold’s role in shaping the idea, the auspicious anniversary of this protection has brought debate over the act and the idea of wilderness itself to the forefront of conservation.


Canoe travel is a traditional form of wilderness exploration. Photo of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota, by Jennifer Kobylecky.

One criticism is that exploring wilderness is a privilege only available to a certain segment of the population. Wilderness areas, by design, require a dedicated amount of time, energy, and resources to enjoy. Another critique of the wilderness “ideal” is that we regularly disregard the people who were was able to live for millennia before European colonization without destroying the integrity of these areas.

I can understand both of these critiques. I myself have only once journeyed into a designated wilderness area, a day-long horseback trip into the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, the first designated wilderness area in the country.

While the experience was truly memorable, to be honest, visiting wilderness hasn’t been a priority for me and my family. There is too much to see and too little time to see it all. Or maybe I just don’t want to work that hard on my “vacation”!

Moreover, nothing is more urgent at this moment than figuring out what Leopold described as the ultimate challenge, “how to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” We dishonor ourselves and the cultures that sustained life and community in places now designated as wilderness when we fail to listen to and learn from their stories.

What we truly need more of are both urban and remote wild places, and to protect these wild places from further impacts while honoring our cultural heritage.


Photo of Clifty Wilderness, Kentucky, by Toby Grabs

In This Issue

Our goal with this issue of Outlook is to help improve our understanding of the successes and shortcomings of the Wilderness Act itself, while also challenging our cultural concepts of wilderness.

In the lead article, Lauret Savoy reminds us that the Wilderness Act emerged from Congress a few short months after the Civil Rights Act in 1964, both redefining the rights and responsibilities associated with citizenship. The actual text of the Wilderness Act follows her essay.

“Burning the Shelter” by Louis Owens explores the tension in wilderness areas between removing human impacts and erasing the past. Paul Sutter’s piece “Driven Wild” puts the intellectual and political origins of the Wilderness Act in context, helping us recognize the sincerity of the visionaries behind its passage, but also to realize their limitations and cultural perspectives.

“Wilderness and its Place in Forest Recreational Policy” reveals Leopold’s own early thinking and arguments for wilderness protection. Aaron Abeyta’s letter to Leopold, while set in a wilderness area, is really about values derived from the land’s wildness, not its legal designation.

We next highlight a partnership of scientists and artists convened by the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, the only federal research group dedicated to wilderness science. We conclude by sharing the winning entries of three students in New Mexico’s Aldo Leopold Writing Contest who stepped forward to give voice to the meaning of wilderness today in their lives.

As you read this issue, you might reflect on the following questions: How do you value wilderness? What place do federally designated Wildernesses and remote wild lands hold in your life?

Top image of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, by Jennifer Kobylecky

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