Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Oy! Wilderness!!

"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"

The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam,
Quatrain XII: FitzGerald, 5th Edition

Sometimes ideas for these essays come from unexpected places. For instance, in the April Cycle World there is a paragraph in the "Roundup" section about the 1964 Wilderness Act. This law allows certain areas to be designated "Wilderness" and prohibits resource development (e.g. oil drilling, mining, logging) within them, as well as road construction and the use of any motor vehicles. There are now 759 of these areas totalling almost 110 million acres and located in all but five states. The topic of the Cycle World note is a study out of Utah State University showing that wilderness designation has a negative economic impact on local communities, including loss of tourism. Apparently people aren't flocking to enjoy the wonders of nature, especially if they have to walk to them.

I have to admit some internal conflict about the whole wilderness issue. On one hand there are real long-term benefits to preserving wild lands and subsequent biodiversity. This includes benefits we know nothing about because we don't know how to ask the questions yet. Anyone who thinks we understand ecosystems is simply foolish; there's a lot to learn from the forests, deserts and plains. We may not be able to imagine the benefits today, but that's been true in every era.What's also true is that there will be some benefit, because there has always been. Besides, on a purely emotional level, even a city boy like me appreciates the natural world for its own sake.

But there's another hand.

It's equally foolish to ignore the very real long and short term costs of wilderness preservation. Not only is there an immediate local cost--selling t-shirts and freeze-dried camping food to hikers doesn't pay what mining, logging and oil drilling do---there are long term costs as well. These include resource dependence on other countries not nearly so careful of their ecology nor the welfare of their native people as we are.

It doesn't help that wilderness preservation and expansion is promoted by people from the dark side of the environmental movement. "Earth First!", according to their website, wants to increase wilderness areas to seven times their present size. These are the people who, along with outfits like the Earth Liberation Front, promote eco-terrorism and sabotage. Agreeing with these sons (and daughters) of bitches about anything feels like saying "Well, yeah, but Hitler did get the trains running on time." 

So how can we maintain some of the benefits of wilderness preservation without giving more power to genuinely bad people? One clue comes from looking at their websites: the pictures they post of themselves reveal a bunch of white college and college-dropout types and their academic enablers. They're dressed in outdoor-chic products from companies like REI. I'm betting that few if any understand anything about real wilderness living despite their constant railing against modern industrial society. In fact their clothing, bicycles, tents and outdoor equipment couldn't exist without the industries and capitalist economy they love to hate. And that's the key.

What I'd like is not easier access to wilderness, but stricter regulation. Here's the rule: Anyone can enter a wilderness area at any time and stay there as long as they like. They can hunt, fish, forage, build dwellings, raise crops and so forth just as they please---but they can only use technology and materials that were available to the native people of that specific area prior to the year 1490. That means nothing after 1490: no medicine, eyeglasses, clothes made from fibers not grown locally, metal tools, magnesium fire starters, nylon rope, monofilament fishing line, compasses, GPS... Nothing. No horses, either. And once they're in the wilderness, they're on their own. No rescue helicopters, no EMTs, nothing.

How do they get clothes and equipment? They're bought or traded for locally from people who make them as they were in the 1400s, or they make them themselves the same way. No steel needles or factory made thread, no chemically-tanned leather, no timber cut by chainsaws. All natural and Neolithic. You can do pretty well with that technology if you work at it. Nevertheless, it'll be interesting to see how much more wilderness the Earth Firsters and other eco-bullies want under those conditions.

We shouldn't forget the eco-terrorists. Some at least will be caught, and when they are the appropriate punishment is to give them what they said they wanted: a natural life. Dress them in season-appropriate 1490-era clothes and shoes and drop them off by helicopter as close to the geographic center of a wilderness area as possible. That's it. They're free to live their lives in a state of nature. We know how that will turn out, too: poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.

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