There’s a recent New York Times op-ed piece by a guest writer that is causing a bit of a stir in the outdoor community. And for various reasons, I feel compelled to jump in as well.
The writer, attorney Ted Stroll, is complaining that the U.S. Forest Service is being too strict in how it enforces laws regarding wilderness management. His case is that of some hikers who got in trouble and could have died after getting lost in a Minnesota wilderness area. Their complaint: not enough signs to direct them safely on the route they were supposed to be following.
Stroll points out that in 1970, a cross-country skier also got lost in that same area and died. After that man’s death, signs went up, but those markers have since fallen into disrepair. The Forest Service chose not to replace them because the agency wanted to keep the area’s wilderness state intact.
His complaint is that such strict observances of the 1964 Wilderness Act make American wilderness areas less accessible to the public and more dangerous. He also hints at the possibility that the agency should allow more than just foot and horseback traffic through wild lands.
I can admire Mr. Stroll’s desire to look after the public’s safety, and for free access to its wild lands. But he must realize there are certain things about “wilderness” that are inherently wild, untamed and risky. Here’s how I view it:
If people construct a building for public use, there has to be some expectation that the public should be able to use that building – an office, stadium, school or home, for example – with the reasonable expectation that it’s a safe place to go.
We expect playground equipment to be safe for kids to play on. Our streets should be solid and safe to drive on. Places that have the hallmark of civilization are all designed by people, and those people should be held accountable for their projects’ safety.
Wilderness, on the other hand, is not designed by man. The religious among us will say that wild places are designed by God, and designed with specific purposes and plans in mind that don’t necessarily cater strictly to humans and our civilized societies. A more naturalistic outlook will note that wild places are created by things like tectonic forces, erosion, glacial advances and retreats, climate and the proliferation of flora and fauna, to name a few.
Wilderness areas are not designed by man. They are not up to code. They don’t have ramps, handrails and airbags. They lack phone service, water lines and proper sewage management. They don’t have storm shelters, thermostats and covered parking. If you walk into a wilderness, you have to realize that it ain’t Disneyland.
There is a certain level of responsibility that goes with venturing into wilderness areas. Go visit a city park, yeah, there’s a reasonable expectation of safety. Venture into the Grand Canyon or try scaling the Tetons as casually as you might stroll into that same park and you should expect trouble.
We have to get to a point where people are responsible for their own safety. Study your routes carefully. Learn how to navigate WITHOUT a GPS device. Bring enough food and water to sustain you in case you get lost. Wear the right clothes and have some form of emergency shelter and a first-aid kit at the ready. Tell people where you’re going, for how long and when you expect to return. Take some courses on wilderness survival.
Lots of things can go wrong in the wilderness. Simply going into wild places carries risks, but some of those can be mitigated by taking the right precautions before venturing out.
So before we start littering America’s wild places with signage, paving our trails and flooding them with bikes, ATVs and so forth, let’s first think about what people should do when they decide to interact with nature on its terms. And let’s let the wilderness stay wild. If this is asking too much, then the unwary – or unwilling – should think about sticking to the regulated, well-signed safety of civilization.