Except for the Midwest, the South is the most wilderness-deprived region, with well under 1% of its landscape designated as wilderness (about 4% of the U.S. is so designated). As a child in Tennessee, spending summers exploring the Cumberland Plateau, I wondered why more of the South wasn’t wild.
The simple answer today is this: lots of people but little public land. For most of Dixie, wilderness isn’t even a consideration. Most of the South is farmland, towns, tree plantations, cities, and suburbs, laced with literally millions of road miles. Even within the South’s small domain of public lands, most of the acreage is officially roaded and developed, thus mostly open to resource extraction and off-road vehicles. What remains undeveloped—wildlands called “roadless areas”—could and should be designated wilderness.
Wilderness designation restricts resource extraction and destructive off-road vehicles, but it doesn’t restrict humans. Wilderness is egalitarian, accessible to anyone who can walk even a short distance. This is especially true in the South, where most existing wildlands are very accessible, and (unfortunately) small enough to cross on foot in a few hours.
Why wilderness? Because future generations deserve an enduring resource of untrammeled wilderness — of primeval nature where folks can escape the pressures of modern life. Nearly half the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of the Great Smokies, the South’s most iconic proposed wilderness. Existing southern wilderness areas—few and small that they are—are already overcrowded and damaged by too many humans on too few acres. To sacrifice more roadless areas to machines and development is folly; just from the human recreation standpoint, we need more designated wilderness.
Yet public lands are not just about recreation. They are about nature’s intrinsic value. Wilderness promotes humility, suggesting that we don’t know it all and never will. In wilderness are answers to questions we’ve not yet learned to ask. Wilderness is also about accommodating non-human life that’s free to evolve in wild places like those that shaped their genetic heritage. There’s a growing population of 318 million Americans driving machines nearly everywhere and radically altering nearly every habitat. As Edward Abbey wrote, “We have a right to be here, yes, but not everywhere, all at once, and in such great numbers.” Let’s leave as much as possible for the wild things. And for the wildness within us humans, too.
–Howie Wolke is an outdoor guide and the vice president of Wilderness Watch
When Congress designates wilderness today, it’s usually more restrictive than helpful, and more times than not, ignores the very premise that created the term “wilderness.” The original Wilderness Act of 1964 made good sense – let’s set aside large tracts of land for solitude and quiet recreation “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” A real wilderness was supposed to have minimal human imprint, opportunities for unconfined recreation, and be at least 5,000 acres in size.
Today, misguided politicians influenced by selfish exclusionary elitist groups are putting the big “W” in your backyard, and eliminating millions of acres of public lands from the general public. Public lands are already strained and at a minimal size. To lock up more lands would be shameful (unless they meet the criteria of the 1964 Act).
Wilderness means no motorized or mechanized (mountain bike) travel, period. It’s all about hiking.
My alternative to the big “W” is better management of public lands, with designations that fit the local economy yet protect the environment with common sense. Areas can be set aside for mountain biking, and different areas set aside for motors. Same concept goes for snowmobiles and cross-country skiing. We can share an area and even share trails without closing down our limited public lands. Our public land managers and supportive politicians just have to manage, and not restrict.
–Del Albright is a photojournalist and outdoor enthusiast