If wilderness, as its definition attests, is supposed to stand “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape,” then the Kootznoowoo Wilderness of Admiralty Island is serving its purpose well. To camp on the island with the highest density of brown bears on the continent and kayak through waters in which humpbacks are breaching and gray whales flapping their flippers, it’s hard not to feel humbled as a human, and concede that there are areas of this earth where man does not, and should not, hold sway. The migration of salmon swimming upstream; the beautiful, yet haunting, call of a loon; the sight of an undisturbed doe resting on the beach – upon witnessing all these simple joys not manufactured by humans, how can one not agree that there are places on our planet where the rest of nature should dominate?
SCS coworkers Mike Belitz, Bethany Goodrich, Sarah Stockdale, and myself spent the last week of August checking up on the Kootznoowoo Wilderness Area of West Admiralty Island. Kayaking the coastline of Hood, Chaik, and Whitewater Bays, the majority of our time was spent surveying for invasive plants and monitoring visitor use patterns, ensuring that the “untrammeled” character of this land was being well preserved. Wilderness, like all public land, is a shared space. But it’s also, for many, a symbolic and sacred place. A big part of our task was thus making sure that, 50 years out from the passage of the Wilderness Act, and 34 years out from the 1980 designation of this particular wilderness area, the sanctity of Kootznoowoo was still intact.
Not all people would agree with the above assertion though. In his (in)famous article, “The Trouble with Wilderness,”published over twenty years ago, the renowned environmental historian William Cronon critiqued this tendency of people to view nature as sublime, considering it a perspective of the overly romantic. Quoting Muir on Yosemite and Thoreau on Mount Katahdin and Wordsworth describing the Simplon Pass, Cronon writes that “all three men are participating in the same cultural tradition and contributing to the same myth – the mountain as cathedral.” He argues that by using such religious rhetoric to describe these spaces, we’ve abstracted wilderness, transformed it into a concept merely fit to serve our cultural and emotional needs. Thus, to him, seeing God or something spiritual in nature is a problematic aspect of how humans have historically and continue contemporarily to conceive of the outdoors.
But I disagree. To me, using such spiritual speech isn’t a romanticization or abstraction of the wilderness as much as it is an expression of the awe, reverence, and humility that these men, among many others, have felt in nature. Shelton Johnson, a park ranger featured in Ken Burns’ National Park series, may have communicated it best when he said: “When I think of a grove of giant sequoias, I think of a cathedral, or a church, or a place where you’re not necessarily worshipping the name of something, but the presence of something else. There’s no need for someone to remind you that there’s something in this world that is larger than you are, because you can see it.” In other words, the outdoors is space in which we as humans cannot be deceived into thinking we are infallible, and almighty, and always at the top of the totem pole. It’s a space where we are forced, with what’s before our eyes, to see our vulnerability, and co-dependence, and reliance on existences and processes bigger and beyond us, be those scientific, spiritual, or both.
So, despite Cronon’s objections to it, I think there is something apt regarding the religious language often used to describe wilderness. Man’s place in and relation to nature, and wilderness in particular, has always been difficult to define. A hotly contested question, my definition will have no more claim to conclusiveness than any other. But it’s always made sense to me to think of wilderness as a religion with many churches, a religion with many places and manners of worship. Like any church or synagogue or mosque, it’s a space deserving of respect, where there are some rules as to what you can and cannot do, and some strictly defined parameters. But within those, there is also the freedom to make meaning and find inspiration as you wish. It’s a place where people can go for different purposes and pursuits, but, regardless, it should be treated with the deference and due regard you would accord your own or someone else’s place of worship.
As we face growing environmental challenges and crises in the 21st century, having such humility and respect for the temple of wilderness, for these places untrammeled by man, for these spaces in which we do not dominate, will, I think, only serve us well.
Thank you to everyone who has kept up with SCS’s wilderness program this summer and read along with the blog posts. Your support has meant a lot.
If you’ve picked up a book on the Tongass or timber or even just Southeast Alaska, the story of the trees of Prince of Wales Island is probably one with which you’re familiar. But even for an outsider, the story would be hard to miss, as the history of this island has been carved into its mountainsides. One does not need to have spent much time there to recognize: this land and logging have intimately known one another.
Traveling around the island by plane, car, and boat this past week, I saw before me a history etched in wood, a past laid bare by the felled trunks which often seemed to outnumber standing trees. But while I saw many scarred mountainsides on Prince of Wales Island, I also felt hope – hope that the manner by which this land was logged can serve a cautionary tale; function as an instructive story of misuse; and issue a warning – and wake-up call – to present and future generations of the costs we all pay when an unrenewable resource such as old-growth forest suffers reckless abuse as opposed to measured use.
It was beginning in the 1950s that many of the old-growth stands of the island began meeting with the former fate, logged swiftly and carelessly to provide raw material for the newly built pulp mill in Ketchikan. Flying over the forest in 1954, Art Brooks, logging manager for the Ketchikan Pulp Co., was to exclaim, “As far as the eye could see there were trees, trees, trees…nearly all virgin timber.” That is no longer the case. Of the 140 by 45 mile island, only a few places have been spared the saw. I was lucky enough to visit one of them, the southern tip of the island, this past week.
For eight days, I, along with a group representing SCS, SEACC, the U.S. Forest Service, and HCA (the Hydaburg Cooperative Association), traveled around South Prince of Wales Wilderness, one of the most remote wilderness areas that Southeast Alaska has to offer, monitoring visitor use patterns. Along the way, we were fortunate enough to catch sight of whales and bears, watch the wonder that is salmon swimming upstream, be shown around an abandoned Haida village, and stand in the presence of trees hundreds – if not thousands – of years old. And aware of the past of this place, the contentious story of this space, I did not take getting to gaze at these ancient trees lightly. Knowing that this land has been a battleground for environmentalists for over half a century, that these forests are standing due to the hard work of many defenders, I felt privileged to be in their presence. But mindful that their present preservation was no guarantee of future conservation – the Big Thorne timber sale further north on the island standing as a testament to as much – I also began thinking about my own role to be had in speaking for these trees.
A few days before heading out on this trip, I had been having a conversation with someone who, when my job with the conservation society came up, laughed and said, “Oh, so you’re part of the cult.” When I asked what he meant, he spoke fairly disparagingly of environmentalism in general, asserting that environmentalists rarely understood their own agendas, merely mindlessly subscribing to whatever mentality happened to be dominant within conservationist circles at the time. Although initially affronted, I am, in retrospect, thankful for the encounter, as it reminded me that it’s only when our beliefs are challenged that we take the time to reexamine, analyze, and crystallize them. As so, thinking of my parents soon flying into Sitka for a visit, and the many times as a kid they had read The Lorax aloud to me, I set out to articulate exactly what speaking for the trees means to me with regard to the Tongass National Forest.
And after having spent a week out in the wilderness, observing the natural connections that govern life in the Tongass, it becomes immediately apparent that just as with Dr. Seuss’ Truffula trees, speaking for the spruce, hemlock, and cedar of Southeast Alaska involves speaking for a lot more. It’s speaking for the salmon we saw jumping upriver, who rely on the trees for the enrichment and stabilization of their spawning streams. It’s speaking for the deer we saw foraging on shore, who make their homes and secure their food under the cover of these trees’ canopy. It’s speaking for the bears we saw catching salmon, who depend on the forest to protect their food source of fish and fawns. It’s speaking for the eagles we saw flying overhead, who make their nests and raise their young in the trees. And it’s speaking for the people who catch those fish, hunt those deer, and enjoy the multiple other uses to which wilderness can be put. We are all intricately connected. It may be important at times to see the forest for the trees, but it is just as important to sometimes, both literally and figuratively, see the individual trees as well – see all the organisms and associations that make up the forest and appreciate that the parts are, indeed, what make up the whole, and if we misuse one, we endanger them all.
In its message of interconnectedness and warning against environmental abuse, Dr. Seuss’ fable of the Truffula trees thus seems perfectly able to translate to the Tongass. There is only one point on which I might challenge him: having seen them, having stood in their presence and felt the reverence, awe, and humility they are able to inspire, in some ways, it seems, the trees of Southeast can also speak for themselves.
If you’re interested in hearing more about our work, or are looking to get involved with wilderness stewardship and the preservation of our wild places, be sure to check out SCS’s wilderness page here. Thanks and photo credit goes out to Luke A’Bear, one of the SCS participants, who was amazing at taking photos out on the trip. The Lorax image remains the property of Dr. Seuss.
The next time I go for a walk in the woods, I’ll be sure to pay attention to the ground beneath my feet. Along with the trees lining it, and the birds flitting above it, and all the animals that may amble across it, a trail itself deserves attention. As easy as it is for you to walk it, that’s how hard someone worked on it. I know this now from experience.
I spent this past week out at White Sulphur Springs, working with the Forest Service cabin and trail crew and a group of SCS volunteers to repair an old trail that had fallen into disrepair. For those not familiar with the area, White Sulphur lies within West Chichagof-Yakobi, designated wilderness in 1980, and derives its name from the naturally occurring hot springs to which it is home. If there was ever a perfect place to first experience trail crew, White Sulphur was it. At the end of a hard day, what better way to calm aching muscles than by sliding into a warm tub, the whole time gazing out at an uninterrupted panorama of alternating mountain and ocean?
Yet while we relaxed at night, the days we worked were long. At it by 7:30 every morning, the next nine hours were spent carrying rock, hauling gravel, sawing logs, digging steps, constructing bridges, and brushing overlying vegetation from the trail. It was hard work, but equally rewarding. A week ago I had never even seen a crosscut or heard of a Pulaski. I now know how to use both, along with a slew of other tools. But in addition to the technical skills I gained while building trail, what I most appreciate about the trip is that it allowed me to experience and engage with wilderness in a completely new way.
People who take issue with wilderness often level the charge that it’s wasted space, that it’s land that’s been cordoned off from humans, that it leaves no place for people. But what I saw out at White Sulphur was quite the opposite. Far from being a place that excludes people from the land, I saw the extent to which the wilderness can facilitate positive human interaction, can foster camaraderie and companionship. These things I felt with my fellow crewmen, with the individuals we met out there who thanked us for our hard work, and even – on a more abstract level – with the many people who I knew would in the future walk this trail, enjoying the product of our labor. Thus, although wilderness, by definition, is a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” wilderness’s definition by no means completely excludes man. People, when exercising respect, need not be seen as antagonistic or antithetical to these places. To the contrary, I conceived of our work at White Sulphur as being to the benefit of both people and place. Mending a trail system begun over 75 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps, we were making it easier for people to come to, have contact with, and care for these wild areas. Thus, within wilderness, within these “areas where man and his works do not dominate the landscape,” there clearly remains at least some room for man.
Still, people often take issue with the 1964 Act. In particular, I have often heard people, even ardent supporters of wilderness, angry over the line in which man is defined as a “visitor who does not remain,” arguing that man should not suffer exclusion any from these places. But to make this critique seems, at least to me, to ignore the broader context of the act, in which wilderness is being designated and defined as public land. And put into conversation with the notion of “the public,” the definition of wilderness starts to seem less restrictive, less exclusive, less qualitatively different than other public spaces. Think of the last public park or beach you were at. It probably wasn’t open all hours of the day, and if it was, there were most likely, at the very least, some rules or restrictions posted. And that’s because public space – be it a road, a park, or a wilderness area – does to some extent require the monitoring and control of human use. It’s not meant to exclude. Rather, it’s how the preservation of these places into perpetuity can be ensured.
Thus, when it comes to the definition of wilderness and man’s place in it, it strikes me as a glass half-full or half-empty situation. You can interpret the law as having written people out of wilderness, or you can see it as having explicitly written people in, allowing and inviting man to visit and enjoy these places. What I saw out at White Sulphur was unmistakably the latter. It was people experiencing not exclusion from the land, but communion with it, working hard at a trail so that others will similarly be able to experience such harmony between self and space, person and place.
Be sure to visit the wilderness page of our website for more information on upcoming trips!
This past week, I, along with SCS co-workers Paul Killian and Tracy Gagnon, had the privilege of introducing Ray Geier, a talented artist from Boulder, Colorado, and a recipient of one of the Forest Service’s annual artist residencies, to Southeast Alaska. Our destination was South Baranof, designated wilderness in 1980 under ANILCA, where we spent five days paddling from Shamrock Bay to the Rakof Islands. Along the way we monitored the land for human use and disturbance, kept track of boat and plane traffic for Forest Service management purposes, and disassembled an illegal tent platform. Greeted at our first campsite by a brown bear, our time spent out in the field also found us no stranger to wildlife. Not a day – or barely even an hour – went by in which we didn’t come across a sea otter, seal, or sea lion breaking the surface of the water in front of us. Thus, despite the fairly constant rain that hammered us for most of the trip, the splendor of the place was not lost on us. As Ray, frequently to be seen with colored pencil or paintbrush in hand, had to say: “It’s even more beautiful than I thought it would be.”
This residency with the Alaskan Voices of the Wilderness Program was Ray’s first visit to the state, so although a newcomer to Sitka myself, I tried over the course of the trip to communicate as much about the history of the land as I could. We discussed logging and the pulp mills, and SCS and ANILCA, and talked more generally about the allure of this landscape and the unique relationship between the Alaskan state and the American wild. It was while telling Ray the specific story of South Baranof though, and its particular path to wilderness designation, that I was struck by how fitting a place it is to hold the artist-in-residency trip; and that is because South Baranof provides the perfect example that you don’t have to be a conservationist by trade to care for the earth or embrace an environmental ethic. Neither the project of a non-profit nor the goal of a group of “greenies,” the proposal for the protection of this area actually came from the Sitka Chamber of Commerce. For this reason, I think that South Baranof has an important story to tell, which is that regardless of whether you’re an artist or a government employee or anything in between, there’s a role you can play in the preservation of our planet and public lands. Environmental stewardship can emanate from anywhere; caring for the Earth is not reserved exclusively for the environmentalist.
And this comes as very good news, because in recent decades – at a time when the environment has become one of the forefront social, scientific, and political issues of the day – people’s willingness to identify as an environmentalist has plummeted. In 1999, the last time that the national Gallup poll asked whether people considered themselves “environmentalists,” only 50% of respondents answered yes. Yet a related survey conducted only a few months later found 83% of respondents, a considerably larger number of individuals, “willing to agree with the goals of the environmental movement.” So what accounts for this disjunct?
According to a number of social scientific studies, many people’s hesitance to self-identity as an “environmentalist,” even while agreeing with the term’s associated values, stems from the negative connotations that people believe come attached with the word. For many, the term conjures up images of tree-hugging hippies, implies privileging ecology over the economy, or suggests subscription to a larger (and liberal) agenda. I myself have encountered friends and acquaintances wary of using the term for all of the above, among other, reasons. Which is why I like the story of South Baranof. It’s a story of an environmentalism differently defined – a story of many different types of people who over the years have worked to protect the land. As a matter of fact, the first people to press for restrained logging and preservation of the Southeast’s forests were not hippies, but hunters! Thus, from its Chamber of Commerce creators up through its current artist, among other, stewards, the individuals responsible for the creation and conservation of South Baranof have shown that “environmentalist” doesn’t have to be a restrictive or totalizing term. Caring for the Earth can come in different forms.
The American author and environmental activist Edward Abbey once advised his readers to “be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast, a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of your lives for pleasure and adventure.” As we continue to face growing environmental threats in the 21st century, I think the sentiment captured by Abbey’s statement is an important one: which is that caring for the earth doesn’t need to be your full time job in order to practice good stewardship. Being green doesn’t necessarily require engaging in extreme action, merely exercising a conscious ethic. So there is good news for the 66% of Americans who in 2014, in this year’s Gallup survey, admitted to worrying about the environment, which is that you can be an “environmentalist” and something else – be it an artist, or a hunter, or a town employee, or whatever job you currently hold. As the success story of South Baranof attests to, stewardship springs from many sources. You don’t have to be an “environmentalist” by trade to effect change and get the job done.
If you’re interested in learning more about or applying to a Voices of the Wilderness Alaska Artist Residency, be sure to check out the link on the Forest Service’s website. And if you’re still looking to get outdoors this summer, be sure to check out some of the opportunities provided by the Sitka Conservation Society at our wilderness page here. The artist trip may be over, but there are many more ahead! We’d love to have you involved.
Ten years ago, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act occurring this year, in 2014, the United States Forest Service launched what it termed the Ten Year Wilderness Challenge – an endeavor aimed at bringing to the over 400 wilderness areas under the Forest Service’s management a level of care needed to protect and preserve their wild character. As of 2009, the Sitka Conservation Society has been one of the organizations partnering with the Forest Service, specifically the Sitka Ranger District, to bring this goal to fruition.
This past week, I was lucky enough to find myself on the first Community Wilderness Stewardship trip of the season, traveling north to the Baird Islands. Bordered to the east by Slocum Arm and on the west by the Pacific Ocean, the Baird Islands are part of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness Area, successfully designated wilderness in 1980 by the famed Alaska National Lands Conservation Act. And after spending four days in this area, it’s fairly easy to understand why the citizens of Sitka fought so hard to rescue this land from logging operations. Over the course of the trip we were awoken by whales in the morning, tailed by playful sea lions, protected from the elements by huge old-growth trees spreading their branches above us, and at all times were looking out on panoramic scenes of untouched mountain and open ocean. Nature, it would seem, is doing alright in Southeast Alaska.
And it is; but we also found signs that the work of conservation is not yet over. On a few of the small islands in the chain, we discovered an invasive species of plant, possibly curly dock, which, without monitoring and control, could constitute a threat to the ecological health of Southeast’s native species. We also came upon lots of human trash, which, along with the potential harm it may have on the ecosystem, is also obviously an aesthetic affront. As well as doing general inventory on site use and monitoring for signs of permanent human presence, we therefore also spent a lot of our time picking up trash and pulling out plants.
One of my favorite moments from the trip happened in the midst of one such garbage pick-up. As I was, rubber gloves on and trash bag in hand, helping clean up the beach on which we were camped, Paul Killian, an individual at the crux of the partnership between SCS and the Forest Service, walked by me with a particularly heavy haul of trash. I made a comment about what a good load he had gotten, to which he smiled and said, “It’s not staying in my wilderness!” I liked the way that Paul had phrased that: “my wilderness.” It reminded me of a fact I often forget – although one that each time I remember amazes me no less – which is that by virtue of being American citizens, we are all shareholders in these vast and beautiful tracts of land. Our public lands, constituting about a third of the United States, are, in essence, land being held in trust for the American people – for us. It is land about which each of us is allowed to have and exercise a voice. There is thus something very personal about these public lands; and nowhere do I feel this more acutely than when I am actually out in the wild, enjoying and appreciating these areas. Herein, for me, lies one of the true values of experiencing wilderness: it turns the theoretical concept of conservation into a concrete and emotionally-driven desire to take good care of our earth.
My first trip to the Alaskan woods and waters made me very excited for a summer of working with various peoples and places in Southeast as SCS’ wilderness intern. Being in the Baird Islands reminded me that even after an area obtains official wilderness designation, these lands remain in need of protection and voices to speak for them. Luckily, I also got to see firsthand that these places remain very much worthy of protection, and that there are people willing to lend their voices and hands to the continuing cause.
If you’re interested in volunteering for SCS, be sure to check out our site’s Wilderness Page. It has all the information on how you can get out and explore Southeast Alaska while making a difference and helping SCS promote the cause of conservation!
On Tuesday night, June 10, just over 40 people gathered at Crescent Harbor to embark on a three hour boat cruise that travelled out of Sitka Sound, all the way to West Crawfish Inlet and back. Fresh off the plane from Boston, MA, I was lucky enough to be one of those participants, and had my first real introduction to the Alaskan landscape that I will be working with closely this summer as SCS’s Wilderness Intern. We were exploring by boat the South Baranoff Wilderness Area, one of the nineteen wilderness areas that is managed by the United States Forest Service within the Tongass Forest of Southeast Alaska. The cruise, the first of four trips being sponsored by SCS over the course of the summer, had as its educational theme the concept and land designation of “wilderness,” in honor of this year’s 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. A landmark moment in American history, this act, signed into law in 1964 by President Johnson after almost unanimous Congressional approval, officially recognized as important the designation and legal protection of places “without permanent improvements or human habitation” (Wilderness Act of 1964, Section 2 c. “Definition of Wilderness). Wilderness was meant to be a place where nature reigned and humans remained solely as visitors.
The visitors on this week’s boat tour certainly got a taste of wilderness’ wonders, catching sight over the duration of the trip of sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, and sweeping old-growth forests of western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and Alaskan yellow cedar. About halfway through we even caught a glimpse of one of the brown bears for which Sitka, and Southeast Alaska in general, is so famous. In some ways, the boat cruise, and the natural beauty being appreciated from its decks, thus functioned as a celebration of the past – a celebration of the 50 years of committed stewardship that has kept such pristine places intact, and preserved them for the enjoyment of future generations and those who have yet to behold the natural splendor of Alaska.
But even as it commemorated past achievements, the tour also served as a stark reminder that the battle for the protection of wild places is not yet over. As of only a few months ago, a Department of the Army permit was issued for work in the waters of Crawfish Inlet – the very inlet to which our cruise had come. The permit will allow the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association (NSRAA) to moor structures and store net pens in the inlet, which stands to interfere with the current use of these woods and waters for subsistence, recreation, and tourism operations. The land’s “outstanding opportunities for solitude,” one of the quintessential pillars and promises of wilderness areas, will no doubt also be negatively affected by the presence and operation of these large, metal enclosures.
Fish are a fundamental part of the Southeast’s ecosystem, economy, and identity. And as such, they are a vitally important and valuable resource. But in a landscape that has so much to offer, we must be careful not to manage one resource – fish – at the expense of another – wilderness. The boat cruise, filled to capacity Tuesday night, stands as a testimony to how many people put value in the existence of these wild waters and forests of Alaska. Which is good news – because even 50 years out from the designation of the Wilderness Act, there clearly remain many natural and wild landscapes still in need of defense.
Information on the other boat cruises being offered by SCS this summer can be found on our website. And for a glimpse of even more Alaskan wilderness, be sure to check out The Meaning of Wild, a 30-minute documentary that brings you deep into some of the most remote areas of the Tongass. Interested in getting out there yourself? Head to SCS’s Wilderness page where you can learn about opportunities to volunteer for the Sitka Conservation Society and explore remote and beautiful places all while making a difference!