Nash’s most famous book, Wilderness and the American Mind,
completed as a doctoral thesis the year the Wilderness Act became law, has been continually in print since 1967. Winner of
the 2001 National Outdoor Book Award in the Outdoor Classic
category, it remains the definitive history of wilderness as an idea
and an institution.
“There are two main roots of the word wilderness,” Nash told
me, pulling on the oars. “In the old Teutonic and Norse languages,
will, or willd meant willful, self-willed, or uncontrollable. Deor in
Old English, was a general term for an animal or beast — the word
deer probably derives from that. So, a will-deor is a wild animal, as
opposed to a domestic animal; an animal that has its own will.
We talk about ‘self-willed,’ and we mean uncontrolled by the will
of someone else. Thus, will-deor-ness : self-willed land, the place of
self-willed animals. It’s the one place we honor the self-willed, autonomous condition that distinguishes it from everywhere else.”
Canyon, I interviewed hydrologists studying how to regulate the
flow of the Colorado River to create naturally shaped beaches. At
Big Cypress Preserve in Florida and Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, I inspected insects intentionally introduced
from other continents to harass plants previously introduced from
other continents by accident.
In truth, these sorts of interventions are not a recent development. The nation’s first wilderness areas, which predated the
1964 Act by three to four decades, were regulated and altered
as administrators saw fit. In the years following the Act’s passage, wilderness management became people management. The
1960s saw a massive uptick in outdoor recreation. Better high-
ways and growing leisure time made wilderness easier to get to.
Down sleeping bags, aluminum-framed backpacks, lightweight
synthetic fabrics, and inflatable rafts for whitewater made the
wilds easier to travel through, once you arrived. Tra;c jams, pol-
lution, the threat of nuclear war, and the environmental move-
ment whetted civilized appetites for resiny campfire smoke,
the sigh of wind, and the call of a loon on a fog-shrouded lake.
However, with thousands of wilderness pilgrims came crowded
lakeshores, litter, piles of human excrement, and trees hacked
up for firewood.
In 1968, Robert Lucas, a Forest Service geographer doing
research on outdoor recreation, joined with two other social scientists, George Stankey and John Hendee, to assemble a framework for administration of wilderness, which they collected
in that 1978 Wilderness Management handbook. Just as Forest
As wilderness sta= focused on people management,
the Forest Service and Park Service continued to manipulate nature inside and outside wilderness areas. In the
1960s, the Salmon River country Nash and I inspected
was aerially sprayed with pesticide to control a native insect, the spruce budworm. Sheep herders grazing under
permit (which the Wilderness Act allows to this day) called
upon government trappers to kill grizzly bears, cougars, and coyotes. Non-native trout were planted to enhance fishing. In New
Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, smokejumpers were so e=ective at
controlling lightning fires that Whitewater Baldy and Mogollon
Baldy, two peaks that had been raked by electrical storms since
time immemorial, grew over with trees and were no longer bald.
PRESENT-DAY MANIPULATIONS of wilderness generally involve restoring something that was extirpated under previous,
faulty logic or removing something that was added but didn’t
belong. Wildfire, for example, is allowed to shape wilderness
landscapes again after more than six decades of attempted exclu-
In wilderness, it is assumed that nature has
been left to work out her own mysterious
destiny without human intervention.