Photo by Alan Majchrowicz

Reimagining the Wilderness

It’s happened to all of us. You head up to Heliotrope Ridge or Lake Ann for a refreshing hike. At the trailhead, you hang your Northwest Forest Pass from your rearview mirror to show you paid for parking. Like a good citizen, you sign in at the trailhead, just in case. You write down how many are in your party and hope no one will ever need this information. Then up you go.

Braided trails cause erosion and despoil meadows. Photo by Brett Baunton

As you head up the switchbacks, you notice deep ruts where some hikers have opted to shorten the climb. But you aren’t tempted to do the same. You sigh at the laziness and destruction and move on. You dutifully follow the trail, turn at each switchback, and avoid trampling the flora that surrounds you. As you emerge above the tree line, you stop for a drink of water and notice a faded square of dead undergrowth. Someone decided that this overview spot would be a great place to camp for the night. You sigh at the laziness and destruction and continue marching uphill.

You know that if you press on for a few more miles there are designated tent sites the rangers have set aside to be sacrificed for camping. They may not have the very best views and may be inconvenient sometimes, but you want to do your best to tread lightly and leave no trace of your arrival. At the campsite, you find some discarded trash. You sigh at the laziness and destruction and pack out as much of the trash as you can.
Most of us are good hikers. We want our wilderness areas to stay as wild and pristine as possible. We can’t imagine harming these wild places. We want next year’s visit to be as invigorating and awe-inspiring as last year’s.

Yet every year, we see signs of deterioration. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Don’t camp in the wildflowers! Photo by Brett Baunton

Our wilderness areas, forests, and parks get ever more visitors as the population of the Pacific Northwest steadily grows. People come here for the snow-capped mountains and the lush evergreen forests, not the suburban subdivisions. You can find a three-bedroom rambler anywhere in America, but finding one within an easy drive of the most majestic landscapes in the world hastens explosive growth in the Fourth Corner.
And so come the hikers. The vast majority of us conduct ourselves well and respect the wild places. But as any city planner will tell you, higher populations bring more of the good and more of the bad. And that means that our wilderness areas will face more challenges with increased traffic and lazy behavior. It’s apparent in the trodden shortcuts, the widened footpaths, the trash, and the vandalism.

The administration of our wild places is as varied and mutable as the places themselves. The biggest parks get the most attention and the most resources for obvious reasons: they have enormous numbers of visitors and it takes herculean efforts to keep these places relatively pristine despite the onslaught of visitors from all over the world. This is as it should be.

Camp near Hidden Lake Peaks. Photo by Alan Majchrowicz

It was Teddy Roosevelt who forged our National Parks. But in 1964, it was Congress (who voted unanimously – how often does that happen?) that created the Wilderness Act. This legislation enshrined into law the protection of vast swaths of wild places. These are places deemed too important to be turned over to forestry or left to the vagaries of private owners. The Act was meant to maintain these wild places in their “natural condition” in perpetuity. That means no commercial development, construction, or extraction. It also means no permanent roads—although there are exceptions, such as the road to Lone Jack Mine near Twin Lakes in the Mt. Baker Wilderness.

That said, the Wilderness Act does allow free movement throughout lands designated as wilderness. Researchers have rather free reign to sample and study in wilderness areas, and citizens have rather free reign to recreate there, as long as these activities do not harm the “natural condition” of the place. The Wilderness Act gave us over 100 million acres of pristine land to enjoy, from the Aleutian Islands Wilderness to the Florida Keys Wilderness and hundreds of other magical places in between, and Americans are ever more likely to visit them.Yet unlike our national parks, wilderness areas are not administrated by one dedicated overseeing agency. Instead, wilderness areas are resourced as a small part of the budget of four discrete governmental agencies: the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service. As you can imagine, sometimes the interests of these agencies overlap and sometimes they don’t. As a result, wilderness areas do not necessarily receive the same level of attention as our hallowed National Parks.

Campfires are prohibited in the high country. Scars from illegal fires last for years. Photo courtesy of USFS.

Our local parks (North Cascades, Mt. Rainier and Olympic) consist of more than 95% wilderness, while Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has about 48% of its area designated as wilderness. Thus, a much larger portion of the overall budgets of the National Forests is directed to non-wilderness areas.

This is not to denigrate the work of those who administer our wilderness areas. Hundreds of people dedicate their lives and their labor to keeping our wilderness areas as close to their natural state as possible. It was Edward Abbey who wrote, “The idea of Wilderness needs no defense; it only needs defenders” and the folks who do the hard work of maintaining these massive tracts of land are its primary defenders: the boots on the ground.

Among those defenders are Barbara Richey of the Mount Baker Ranger District and Gary Paull, Trails and Wilderness Specialist for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. I asked them for their opinions about the challenges facing our underserved wilderness areas and they were glad to give some input. Richey gave me some invaluable sources to study and Paull was happy to share his thoughts as well.

I asked Paull about the problems and solutions.

“Recreation impacts including trail widening and soil erosion, large denuded campsites, campfire scars, multiple trails, user-developed trails, and sanitation issues have been noted in the Mt. Baker area and across the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest for several decades. In many cases these impacts have been mitigated through agency actions such as limiting group party size, establishing designated campsites, limiting the use of campfires, and restrictions on stock use. Some trail impacts have been minimized by hardening, or relocating trails onto more sustainable long-term locations such as the Yellow Aster Butte Trail. Trends in newer equipment such as lighter weight gear, along with agency actions have helped reduce the impact of current visitors over their predecessors.

Camp on dirt, rock or snow – never on vegetation. Photo courtesy of USFS

“That said, there are far more people on the trails than there were even a decade ago and we are seeing sanitation issues as one of the biggest future challenges. Demand for campsites in some areas is causing new sites to be developed, sometimes in inappropriate locations. Reduced road and trail access across the Forest is forcing more people into a smaller land base. The frequency of relocating backcountry toilets is increasing. Visitor use is expanding into the shoulder seasons as well as winter. Dwindling budgets are putting stress on a decreasing staff of agency employees. Their ability to patrol the backcountry for compliance with regulations and leave-no-trace practices is greatly affected.”

If our wilderness areas were as well financed as our military, we could all relax. But with four strapped agencies portioning out fractions of their budgets to protect our wild places, the need for a comprehensive solution becomes ever more paramount. Wilderness isn’t dispensable. It’s critical.

There are ways to resolve the issues facing our wild places. The most obvious one is to adequately fund the agencies that maintain these lands. At the risk of veering into cynicism, it seems unlikely that the current administration or Congress have any plans to ensure that the four departments involved will avoid huge budget cuts, much less enjoy enhanced revenue. This puts the squeeze on the defenders while they face ever more challenges and visitors.

Ever-growing numbers flock to the wilderness each year. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Without adequate funding on the national level, there have been calls to create various forms of user fees to apply to visitors. Right now, the only fees you’ll pay to visit a wilderness area are  parking fees. If there was a mechanism to charge for entry, overnight camping, or other forms of access, we could plug a few holes in the budget. But this approach has some fundamental problems. To start, charging fees requires an infrastructure to collect and process payments. Such infrastructure would cut into the new revenue stream and place even more responsibility on the already-stressed staffers.

There’s a more fundamental problem with user fees: the Wilderness Act was created to encourage people to freely recreate on their public lands. Charging fees might discourage some visitors and drive certain others to decry any fees as elitist. Small fees wouldn’t scare off most visitors, but now may not be the time to frame outdoor recreation as something suited only to people who wear Arc’teryx fleece and drive brand new Audi wagons. The Wilderness should be for all, not for some. User fees may be necessary at some point, but they shouldn’t be the first avenue we take.

Some wilderness experts have recommended a less onerous solution: partnerships between private organizations, non-profits, and volunteers to assist the staffers and rangers in the hard work of fixing trails and managing the land. This idea has a lot of merit. A group of people united for a cause can be a force to be reckoned with. Caring volunteers do tremendous work at the local level, relieving municipal budgets from some project costs and pitching in when the local government can’t be bothered. Backed by businesses that care and non-profits dedicated to the cause, an army of volunteers can do an awful lot of good. Not only can they relieve budget problems, but they can make the mission a more public one, raising awareness among voters, visitors, and the politicians who pay attention to the winds of public sentiment.

Besides the rather coarse discussion of budgets, there is another aspect of wilderness preservation that bears discussion: education and encouragement. The stomped meadows and litter aren’t created by magical beings; it’s our neighbors out there doing dumb, lazy things in the wild. The problem of damage to wilderness areas can be mitigated if fewer people did fewer dumb things. To that end, it behooves us to talk to our neighbors about our trips to the wild and how we practiced good stewardship while there. It suggests that we approach visitors doing dumb stuff by being forthright and friendly, and encouraging them to make a few small changes to their behavior. No one likes a scold and most folks like kind words. We were all young once, and we all remember someone who reminded us to treat wild places with sympathy and dignity when we had strayed from the path of “leave no trace”. It can be done with kindness, and it can make a lasting difference.

The North Cascades feature some of the finest wilderness areas in the U.S. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Gary Paull echoes these solutions and has this to say:

“Citizens and the government have to work together…on these issues. There are many great examples with our non-profit partners and outfitter/guides all stepping up with tremendous help both in active maintenance of our trails, advocating for funding, and promoting leave-no-trace behaviors. There are individuals and organizations that are dogged in their desire to improve the trail system around the mountain. The Skagit-Whatcom-Island Trail Maintaining Organization and the Pacific Northwest Trail Association are working to improve the Swift Creek Trail. The Backcountry Horsemen are leading the effort to replace the long lost bridge on the Elbow Lake Trail over the Middle Fork Nooksack. The Mt. Baker Ranger District’s Mountain Stewards program—funded by state grants—is an example of the Forest Service securing funds which then go towards coordination of a small legion of citizen stewards who hike the trails seeking opportunities to engage and educate their fellow backcountry enthusiasts. Advocating for appropriate practices in outdoor recreation product advertising, articles on appropriate behavior in magazines, such as Adventures NW, are all pieces to this puzzle.

“While the Forest Service can work cooperatively on many of these goals with our partners, ultimately, it will be up to the public to determine how they want to see this landscape managed. Limiting permit systems, fee systems, site reservations, trail hardening/relocation, will only be possible with strong public support.”

The High Divide Trail on Excelsior Peak. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Like most big multi-faceted projects, the need to maintain our wild places won’t be met with one bumper sticker solution. It will surely require solutions from every possible angle. A renewed interest at the federal level, a concerted effort by organizations and volunteers, and maybe even some user fees would help ensure that these “communities of untrammeled life” remain a fixture of our shared experience. And it would probably help if we each decided to find one “trace leaver” and convince them to change their ways.

Outdoor recreation in our wilderness areas will only expand. Every generation seems to produce ever more folks interested in seeing the majesty and glory of our mountains, meadows, and rivers. This is a growing market for a finite resource and we all know what happens when that process goes unchecked. We may sigh and groan when we see our most beloved places damaged by the herd of humanity, but we are not without agency. We can vote, we can volunteer, we can educate. So don’t just shrug and move on.

Nature rights itself. We can, too.

By the Numbers… 

Wilderness Trails are becoming busier and busier. Here are some numbers from the Darrington Ranger District, where some 35,544 hikers used the trails in 2011. By 2016 that number had climbed to 68,931.

Trail                                                    2011                2016    

Boulder River                                                                 6,055                       10,680

Heather Lake                                                                 4,030                       13,475

Gothic Basin/Weden Creek                                         1,472                        3,163

Lake 22                                                                            5,353                        11,471

Mt. Dickerman                                                              2,221                         3,686

As chairman of the Bellingham Greenways Advisory Committee, Ted Rosen aims to make Bellingham a greener and more desirable place to live. He’s passionate about non-motorized connectors and public forests. He can often be found on urban trails, complaining about dog poop and discarded cigarette butts.

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