Environmentalism Can’t Just Be About Protecting “Pristine” Areas

Developing sustainable societies requires us to recognize that humanity is part of nature too

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Growing up, I was surrounded by what was commonly referred to as “wilderness”. Even the federal government had designated many of the areas located in the mountains visible from my home official “wilderness areas”. Their names alone — the Mt. Timpanogos Wilderness Area, the Mt. Nebo Wilderness Area, the Lone Peak Wilderness Area — evoked images in my young mind of landscapes that were at once pristine and mystical.

Over the years I indulged my imagination during hikes to some of their rocky summits along trails built during the New Deal Era by workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). These steep paths cut into the side of often rugged talus slopes seemed only slightly “unnatural” in the context of such stunning settings. But over time, I learned these wild places had lost native predators like the wolf and the grizzly and that the forests at their lower boundaries had been altered by decades of fire suppression. The word “wilderness” became a bit tarnished as a result — a reflection of a desire to get back to something that was rather than preserving something that is.

The view of nature as pure and pristine has echoed through policy debates for decades. In his essay The Trouble with Wilderness: or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, the environmental historian William Cronon (1995) argues that the modern conception of wilderness began with romantics like Henry David Thoreau who, instead of finding wilderness as something to be avoided or tamed as had typically been the case before him, declared it to be “the preservation of the world.” John Muir, picking up where Thoreau had left off, said of the Sierra Nevada Range’s Yosemite Valley that “No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine.” (Ibid)

Photo by author, taken atop of Utah’s Mt. Timpanogos. Mountain goats were introduced to the area from the Olympic Peninsula for the benefit of hunters, but have become a delight to local visitors who rarely realize they aren’t native to the area.

They weren’t wrong, of course. Nature’s capacity to evoke everything from feelings of wonder and peace to almost paralytic fear has been known for millennia and has likely been the subject of myth since shortly after humans developed language. The word wilderness remains fraught to this day. To some, however, it holds a far more utilitarian connotation than either Thoreau, Muir, or many of their modern counterparts in the environmental movement have in mind.
 By the time I was in my early twenties, I understood that the reason many of my beloved local wilderness areas had received at least tentative support from local conservative lawmakers wasn’t because they loved the wildlife it supported or thought it inherently valuable, but because the area’s growing urban population at the base of those wild places needed a reliable supply of clean water. Elsewhere, in Utah’s remote deserts and the isolated mountain sky islands that they contained, resource extraction of all sorts was deemed vital to the state’s economy and was to be encouraged no matter the impact on wildlife or water.

Seeing wilderness as “pristine” or “pure” implies a kind of permanence that never has existed in nature, even when humanity wasn’t in the picture. This illusory permanence only becomes more elusive when human desires enter into the mix. It is precisely this “nature in flux” view that led Meffe et al. (2002) to articulate what they refer to as “a ‘golden rule’ for natural resource management.” According to that rule, “Natural resource management should strive to identify and retain critical types and ranges of natural variation in ecosystems, while satisfying the combined needs of the ecological, socioeconomic, and institutional systems.

Wilderness designation and other means of protecting relatively undisturbed landscapes are an important part of the policy toolkit for decision-makers seeking to abide by Meffe et al’s “golden rule” of environmental management. However, as William Cronon (1995) points out, “the trouble with wilderness is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. Wilderness,” Cronon continues, “represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world.”

One example of the avoidance of responsibility that Cronon alludes to can be found within the growing urban centers of our planet. When the protection of large often remote landscapes becomes the focal point of our environmental public policy debates, the urban landscape and the lifestyles they enable largely escape scrutiny. It’s impossible to build a city that doesn’t come with an environmental footprint, but we can build/rebuild cities that take lighter steps than has historically been the case.

Photo taken by author in the once and (hopefully) future Bears Ears National Monument. Many of the landscapes we now view as wilderness have a long history of human habitation. Learning from indigenous experiences on the land can add much to our understanding of nature. See “Donald Trump’s Monumental Mistake” for more on the Bears Ears area.

Writing in the journal Cities and the Environment, Mary L. Cadenasso and Steward T. A. Pickett (2008) state explicitly that “Cities are ecosystems by virtue of having interacting biological and physical complexes. There are organisms in cities, including people, as well as air, soil, water, light, and physical regulators such as temperature and day length.” When this variety of interactions is taken into account rather than dismissed for being too human a setting to be worthy of serious environmental consideration, opportunities to improve human efficiency and enhance habitat for a wide range of species quickly begin to present themselves.

Jessica R. Sushinsky et al (2013) studied the impact of urban development on bird populations in Brisbane, Australia. Sushinsky and her co-authors found that how cities develop and grow can have a profound impact upon birds living in the area. While both densely populated cities with relatively small backyards and less compact sprawling urban areas will negatively impact local bird populations, “compact [dense] development better maintains species assemblages at the city scale, resulting in fewer local extinctions and much smaller reductions in species’ distributions.”

In the third paragraph of The Wilderness Act of 1964, the US Congress defined “wilderness” as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The law went on to state that wilderness is “further defined to mean [an area] retaining its primeval character and influence…”(italics added) These areas, according to the law, were to be of at least 5,000 acres in size. (16 U.S.C. 1131–1136)

It’s a lovely sentiment. The implementation of this idealized vision of nature by U.S. federal land managers and by the U.S. Congress has provided me and many others with vast and incredibly beautiful areas to roam growing up, and still does. But, in retrospect, I see now that William Cronon has a point. This concept of wilderness not only blinded me to the wonders of nature literally taking place within my very own backyard, but devalued those wonders by treating them as corrupted virtually beyond repair.

Later, as I entered adulthood, I watched the wilderness debates consume both the environmental movement and its opponents. The land became a political powder keg fuelling both “sagebrush rebels” demanding greater state and local control over federal land and lawsuits filed by environmental groups to force federal land agencies to set aside areas meeting the Wilderness Act’s criteria until Congress could make the designation official.

These contentious debates have sucked most of the political oxygen from the room in states like Utah. For years this has left little trust or political will remaining that could facilitate NGO and government cooperation on policies like sustainable cities or so-called “smart growth.” To wilderness activists receiving a disproportionate amount of the media coverage and funding, cities were at best necessary evils to be escaped from whenever the chance presented itself. Meanwhile, conservative politicians and rural voters saw environmentalists in general as a group hell-bent on locking up the land upon which many depended for their livelihoods.

But the concept of wilderness needn’t be so problematic. As Cronon (1995) concludes near the end of his essay, “Wilderness gets us into trouble only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit. Nothing,” he adds, “ could be more misleading.” 
 We need large only mildly disturbed areas. We need them not only to protect biodiversity but to nourish our souls now and then. But nature does not meet a single simple definition. Heterogeneity and flux are part of the process. Both landscape and adaptive management strategies require a commitment to the intentional and intelligent incorporation of variation throughout entire regions and around the world. 
 A human presence, even a large one, need not represent a failure to protect the environment. It can and should be viewed as an opportunity for finding better means of living within nature’s limits. What we’ve come to identify as wilderness is vitally important to our conservation efforts, but we shouldn’t allow the supposedly perfect to become the enemy of the good.


Cadenasso, M. L., & Pickett, S. T. (2008). Urban principles for ecological landscape design and maintenance: scientific fundamentals. Cities and the Environment (CATE), 1(2), 4.

Cronon, W. (1996). The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature. Environmental History, 1(1), 7–28.

Meffe, G.K. et al. (2002). Ecosystem management: Adaptive, community-based conservation. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Sushinsky, J., Rhodes, J., Possingham, H., Gill, T., & Fuller, R. (2013). How should we grow cities to minimize their biodiversity impacts? Global Change Biology, 19(2), 401–410. doi:10.1111/gcb.12055

The Wilderness Act of 1964, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1131–1136 (2018)