The shifting meanings of wilderness


Richard Vacha’s column on wilderness in last week’s issue eloquently articulated why wild places are important, but his essay did not distinguish between what a given person might experience as wilderness—which is deeply personal, and varies tremendously between individuals—and the legal status of wilderness at the core of the disagreement over Drakes Estero in recent years.  He contrasted his backcountry recreation experiences with “operating a business in a wilderness area,” which he argued does not make much sense.  Some historical perspective might clarify why many people felt an oyster farm in wilderness made perfect sense.

The 1964 Wilderness Act described wilderness as “untrammeled,” a landscape “retaining its primeval character and influence.” It compelled federal land management agencies to identify roadless areas of their holdings larger than 5,000 acres with opportunities for solitude and primitive types of recreation, so that Congress might formally designate them as wilderness areas. Commercial enterprises and permanent roads were prohibited, along with most structures and motorized or mechanical uses.

Yet that concept of wilderness must be understood in its historic context, which followed the rapid proliferation of the automobile in American society in the early 20th century—from only 8,000 registered in 1900 to over 23 million by 1929. Federal support for building roads profoundly expanded the reach of the car. The early park service specifically designed parks to accommodate cars and car campers, but others, including a young timber surveyor named Aldo Leopold, saw them as threatening something essential about wild places. It was in this context that Leopold first suggested the need for wilderness preservation.

Leopold and his fellow founders of the Wilderness Society made important exceptions to their proposed policy to accommodate subsistence or small-scale land uses. During his work in the Southwest, Leopold helped shape the earliest Forest Service policies in the 1920s for locating roadless areas, protecting them from road building and other development, and recognizing wilderness recreation as a dominant use. These policies allowed limited logging and grazing to continue, provided they did not require new roads. 

After World War II, intensification of road development across many western public lands, particularly for both timber extraction and tourism, drove much of the push to establish a national wilderness protection law. Yet the purpose was not to “lock up” the public lands; as historian Jay Turner writes, “Even in its earliest drafts, the Wilderness Act included provisions to meet the concerns of rural Americans and the mining, timber, and grazing industries.” The bill was designed more to prevent new disruptions of existing wilderness rather than aggressively pushing out long-established local uses.

Point Reyes is a place where a portion of the landscape has been “rewilded,” with over 25,000 acres of formally designated wilderness, plus roughly 8,000 acres of “potential” wilderness, almost all of which are tidelands. Including the tidal areas in wilderness was intended to limit the park service’s ability to develop recreational services. The new category of “potential wilderness,” first used in the 1976 bill, allowed Congress to include areas the government did not fully own, rather than to remove existing land uses. 

Many wilderness advocates in the oyster debate asserted that, by including Drakes Estero as “potential wilderness,” Congress intended to eliminate the oyster farm in 2012, once its reservation of use expired. This was often described as a “promise,” the breaking of which could threaten the entire national wilderness preservation system. Yet throughout the legislative history, wherever there was mention of the oyster farm, the tone was unambiguous: It should be allowed to continue. There was no hedging of “until its reservation runs out.”

Instead, designation of the tidelands aimed to prevent further development by the park service, and specifically to exclude motorized vehicles. The Sierra Club’s representative testified, “The possibility of jeeps and motorcycles having access to the Estero shore and adjoining area is a frightening one.” A letter from the Marin Conservation League specified that it “strongly urges inclusion in Wilderness of the quarter-mile strip of tidelands and Drake’s Estero. The fragile and important estero must have protection from recreational motor boats. The beaches must be protected from off-road vehicles . . . and we do not object to the non-conforming use of the Johnson Oyster Co. operation in Drake’s Estero.” The hearings wrapped up with letters from California Assemblyman Michael Wornum and Jerry Friedman—then serving as chair of the Marin County Planning Commission and representing numerous local organizations—that specifically referenced oyster farming at Drakes Estero as a non-conforming use that should continue under full wilderness designation.

In response, the park service insisted that the tidelands could not be designated as wilderness, not because of the oyster farm but due to incomplete federal title; the State of California still held fishing and mineral rights to these lands. The compromise was to categorize 8,003 acres, mostly the submerged tidelands, as potential wilderness. The park service’s representative agreed, and recommended tidelands as potential wilderness, “to become wilderness when all property rights are federal, and the areas are subject to National Park Service control.” It was a question of legal title, not commercial use.

But the 1980s and ‘90s brought a new vision to the forefront of the environmental movement: a far more absolute, purity-based ideal of wilderness as perfectly pristine. This new ideal began to reorient the mainstream environmental organizations’ goals, as groups increasingly adopted this more fundamentalist conception of idealized wilderness. Here at Point Reyes, representatives of the National Parks Conservation Association and Sierra Club, as well as the locally-based Environmental Action Committee, employed this pristine ideal as a crowbar with which to pry the oyster farm out of the seashore’s landscape, warning that allowing the oyster farm to continue would “overturn” the estero’s wilderness designation.

Yet Drakes Estero’s designation as potential wilderness meant that the estuary had been managed as wilderness ever since, with the sole non-conforming elements of maintaining the oyster rack structures, which long pre-dated the designation (and the seashore itself), and use of an outboard motor to propel the harvest boat. The oyster farm’s “commercial operation” itself was on shore, on land that is historically part of the seashore’s pastoral zone, and which was not included in the wilderness designation. 

The wildness of the estero and the passive production of oysters were not as mutually exclusive as the rhetoric sometimes suggests. But those who are fundamentalist about wilderness are driving humans and nature farther apart; what we need is a return to a more pragmatic vision of wilderness, one that recognizes that not all human actions diminish wildness, so as to make room for the relative wild once more. 


Laura A. Watt is Associate Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies and Planning at Sonoma State University. This essay was adapted from a longer version that will be published in The Relative Wild: Common Grounds for Conservation, John Hausdoerffer and Gavin Van Horn, eds., The Center for Humans and Nature and the University of Chicago Press, forthcoming in 2016.