Balancing “cinema” and reality in wilderness planning

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There is a balance that should be aimed for in wilderness planning, a balance between two different kinds of benefits that are both involved in the wilderness experience. To my mind, the right balance between these two is not achieved as well as it might be in the draft Boulder White Clouds Wilderness Plan that’s been out for comment.

The first benefit is easy to understand. It’s about preserving the physical and visual aspects of wilderness. I think of this as the “cinematic” experience. It’s what the draft Plan (in its description of Wilderness Character) calls “biophysical environments relatively free from modern human manipulation and impact.” In a word, it’s the look of wilderness.

The second benefit is more challenging. It’s about preserving the opportunity for uncurated personal experience of our environment. In a word, it’s the feel. The draft Plan (also in the Wilderness Character section) calls this benefit “personal experiences in natural environments” and “symbolic meanings of humility, restraint and interdependence that inspire human connection with nature.”

On the surface, it seems like these two aspects of the wilderness experience should go together. But I believe they can also come into conflict if wilderness managers over-reach with human controls aimed at the “cinema-type” experience. That is: Real personal experience of wilderness can be compromised if the rules pass beyond preserving wilderness and instead amount to contriving it, so as to conform with pre-conceived human notions.

The plan’s definitions

How do I get there? Mostly from the description of wilderness in the Wilderness Act itself. The Act calls wilderness a place “… where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

So let’s unpack that. What is meant by untrammeled? The word is actually defined in the glossary of the draft Plan. It says: “Area is unhindered and free from intentional actions of modern human control.” Strictly read, that definition doesn’t exactly go to the cinematic aspects of wilderness. Its real focus is on the degree to which human control is relinquished.

I’m not saying rules aren’t needed. But at the same time, rules are the essence of “intentional actions of modern human control.” So, to my mind, the very definition in the Plan itself calls on us to limit the impact that the rules can have on the wilderness character and our experience of it.

And what is meant by visitor? The description in the Wilderness Act doesn’t say people are banned. It doesn’t even say that people are to leave no trace, although it could have said so if that’s what it intended. Instead it says that people are visitors, guests “who do not remain” but who are welcome – guests, indeed, for whose benefit the whole wilderness scheme has been devised.

Getting to balance

Of course, the very idea of wilderness planning is self-contradictory. Everyone can see that. The only plan that wouldn’t have those contradictions would be a plan written by Mother Nature herself. And her language is not ours. So some degree of artificiality is unavoidable. We have to do the best we can.

How, then, to determine the right balance? I think the tipping point is reached when rules impose so much pretense that the experience of wilderness becomes non-credible. To put it another way: The balance is lost when visitors feel enveloped by the manipulation of their experience. It is lost when their experience fails to be a respite from the ever-present control and hyper-contextualization of our modern world.

In a word, the balance is lost when our experience of the place becomes too cinematic– too scripted, framed, edited and packaged.

I suggest that the Plan as a whole be reviewed with this balance in mind. For example:

• Are packed-in foils and Weber-like grills and REI pans really preferable to stone fire circles where the experience of the elements is unhindered and a visceral connection is made?

• Must a few existing wickiups (that happen to be used by guides and visitors rather than people of the past) be eradicated for the sake of … what? a movie-set life? or pre-conceived notions of the right look that we impose on the real physical place?

• And by the way, that brings up the illogical distinction made between people of the past and those of the present. Under the Plan, the existence of people of the past is to be protected and discoverable. But people of the present, including those who visit most often, are treated almost like non-persons – those whose existence is to be covered up and pretended away.

Back in Disneyland?

I believe this test of balance should be applied throughout the draft Plan. The Plan should reflect an awareness that a too-enveloping presence of human control can itself have a trammeling effect on the desired personal benefits for wilderness visitors.

Put another way: The more our wilderness experience is a product that’s been designed through human control, the more we’re back in Disneyland and the less we’re able to find the authenticity we look for in wilderness.

The paradox of wilderness planning is that, unavoidably, Man is not only the Visitor but also the Host. Ideally, both as respectful Visitor and as accommodating Host, we can remember that we are not the Owner.

Campbell Gardett is a member of Custer County’s Natural Resources Advisory Council

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