JOURDAN IMANI KEITH
ISAW SEVERAL BISON the other morning as I followed the usual left and right turns that take me to the rural outskirts of Enumclaw, a town forty-five minutes from y house in Seattle. The bison were actually boulders or bushes or clumps of hay that had wandered away from the stack. But I saw them as clearly as I did on mornings when I walked to my job along the lake in Yellowstone, following the gravel paths that passed dangerously close to the resting mammoths. Always, now, since leaving Yellowstone, I see
shadows of wilderness wherever I go.
It is the same for my friend on the other side of the conti-
nent who, decades later, still sees the Beartooth Mountains in
the jagged clouds above Philadelphia’s streets. It is also true
for some of the teenagers, like Michael, who I camped and
worked with in the mountains and lakes of the North Cascades
National Park. One early autumn I ran into Michael in our
neighborhood on a south Seattle corner, which was plump with
fast-food chains and drug stores. He pointed into the greasy air
above a discount food outlet. “There,” he said, gesturing more
emphatically, “see it? It’s an eagle’s nest.” I strained, wanting
to see the shadow of the wilderness cast so close to the intersec-
tion of honking cars, but I couldn’t see what he saw. Four years
later, he still talks about it, still insists that it was there, and
now he mourns, “They have torn up the path and removed the
pole where it nested.”
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act both
became laws that govern the land and the people of the U.S.
The Civil Rights Act required the desegregation of our public
accommodations including the “separate but equal” facilities,
camping areas, and outdoor eating areas assigned to “colored”
people in our national parks. The Wilderness Act protected
large areas that would have been lost without laws in place to
stop people from dominating every landscape. Fifty years later,
the cool shadow cast by these two monolithic acts makes it
possible for me to occasionally enjoy outdoor experiences in
remote places that would be out of reach without the combina-
tion of their protections.
Yet, access is more than the permission to be somewhere
formerly o=-limits. The people accessing recreation in the wil-
derness are still predominantly white, and de facto segregation
exists instead of a legal one. The protections of the two acts
fall short of addressing the underlying land-use practices and
attitudes that have resulted in a segregated wilderness, one in
which the wild is hardest to reach for the people who, for his-
torical reasons, still have fewer of the financial assets required
to get there.
While the lack of access to wild places is beginning to be
recognized as an issue of inequity, the absence of more than
just a shadow of wilderness in and around urban places is not.
When President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, it le-
galized the segregation of wild places from the places where
people remain. In doing so, it entrenched the cultural belief
shared by Aldo Leopold and others that wilderness must be
“segregated and preserved” from the areas where people live,
including areas where indigenous people lived for thousands
of years. Consequently, the protection of remote wilderness
areas has meant the sacrifice and disappearance of nearby wild
places, which, because of their smaller size and proximity to
people, are not defined or protected as wilderness.
Segregating wilderness from people creates permission to
deforest and devalue the landscape where people are allowed to
“remain” while falsely defining the remote landscape as “
pristine.” Desegregating the wilderness requires not only the laws
that forbid discrimination but also the reintegration of nearby
wilderness where people live.
Now largely white organizations and agencies are grappling
with the dilemma of a segregated wilderness by working feverishly to get urban people out to remote places—because people
will not protect what they have not enjoyed. But what if wilderness zigzagged through areas where urban people live? Then
accessing the wilderness in our daily lives could be more tangible than wild shadows cast by memory.
At the signing of the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson
said, “Freedom would be secure only if each generation fought
to renew and enlarge its meaning.” I think the same is true for
What do you think about the future of wilderness? Share your thoughts
with us at www.orionmagazine.org.
The protection of remote wilderness
areas has meant the sacrifice and
disappearance of nearby wild places.