managers from the National Park Service, the Forest Service,
and the U.S. Geological Survey. The group convened to discuss
how wilderness management might need to evolve in light of
dire conditions in the global ecosystem. Should the Park Service
and Forest Service start moving groups of organisms north to
preserve them? Should sprinkler lines be installed in the giant
Sequoia groves, for the inevitable heat and drought that could
kill the two-thousand-year-old trees? These sorts of things were
discussed. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that the goals
set forth in the legislation creating wilderness and national parks
were no longer attainable.
“What has replaced naturalness as a guiding philosophy of
what to do or not do?” I asked David Graber, chief scientist for
the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region, who had invited
me to the meeting.
“We have nothing,” he answered, his voice flat.
In general, there is a strong appetite for even greater manipu-
lation of nature. As wilderness comes to be seen as less “natu-
ral,” the moral injunctions against tinkering with it are further
reduced. At the Saint Mary’s Wilderness in Virginia, where acid
precipitation was causing a die-o= of aquatic life, wilderness
managers dropped helicopter loads of limestone to bu=er the
acid. Life bloomed again. In the Bandelier Wilderness in New
Mexico, grazing and fire suppression had caused conversion of
grasslands into piñon-juniper woodlands with bare ground in
between, leading to rapid soil erosion. Crews were sent out to cut
down junipers with chainsaws, windrowing the brush to hold
soil and shelter new ground vegetation. In California’s Sequoia–
Kings Canyon Wilderness, a major program is under environ-
mental review to poison lakes and streams in order to remove
previously planted trout that compete with an endangered frog.
As many lose their resistance to manipulation, Roderick Nash
is left on the fringes, adamant as ever in his rejection of all this
mucking about with wilderness.
“What distinguishes these areas is not that they have the exact
biological features we want them to have under current theories,
but that we choose to leave them alone. They are the only place
we do,” says Nash.
“What about spotted knapweed?” I ask him. “What about
“Wilderness is a place we leave alone,” Nash answers. “Let
evolution work. Evolution takes a long time, longer than our ho-
rizon. Let nature find her way.”
“But even when we don’t intervene intentionally,” I protest,
“our accidental e=ects like climate change still act on a place, so
you get all the unintended damage without the deliberate e=orts
to mitigate it.”
“Fine,” says Nash. “But a place you change on purpose isn’t
Park Service scientist David Graber comes down on the other
side. The Wilderness Act “is a prisoner of its time,” wrote Graber
in 2003. “It is limited to an understanding of the world that ex-
isted in 1964.” Some wildernesses, Graber maintains, are wil-
dernesses in name only. They require urgent intervention and
long-term maintenance simply to preserve what remains of their
biota. And yet, he argues, what remains of their biota is con-
siderably more valuable than some high-minded philosophy of
noninterference. Graber is unimpressed with the philosophical
distinction between doing things by accident, such as changing
Earth’s climate, and doing things on purpose, such as saving
endangered species. Restricting ourselves to only those grand
strokes we make accidentally, and not the better ones we make
on purpose, seems like a terrible mistake to Graber.
“In the present setting, doing nothing is still doing something,” he says. A
the origin point of a meteor shower.
Peaches redden: branches
are propped with juniper posts
and a shovel; steam rises
from a caldera; stepping
through a lava tube, we emerge
into a rain forest dotted
with wild ginger; desire
branches like mycelium.
Carrying a bolete in a basket,
a plume rises where lava reaches
the ocean. Who said, out of nothing,
in a meadow to view the Perseids
but discover, behind a motel,
a vineyard, and gather wherever we go.