No Mark of Man : A Critique of America’s Empty Wilderness


By Audrey Kost for Environnementon.

I could hear the wind and snow whisper over the peak across the lake before. I felt it. It whipped through our small tent and sank bitterly into the openings of our sleeping bags. It was well below freezing, and my brother and I were spending a restless night perched at 2438m. We were in Desolation Wilderness, a 258 square kilometer federal wilderness area in northern California. In just a short 9 mile trek from our car, we had gone from warm temperatures and lush forest to barren granite and snow. Despite both being experienced backpackers, I was worried: the temperature kept sinking, the sun had already set, and we were without cell service, completely and utterly alone.  Desolation Wilderness, as its name suggests, is supposed to feel empty. Like many outdoor spaces in the United States, it regulates visitors through a permitting system.The local Tahoe Basin management unit claims that it uses permits “to protect its unique beauty and wilderness character.” The Wilderness is divided into 45 zones, each with different quotas for day-hikers and backpackers. At Dick’s Lake, the zone my brother and I camped in, there were no other backpackers. It was wonderful to be alone in nature, hiking without set trails, and hanging out with my brother. But nothing about the solitude of Desolation is natural.

In fact, the concept of solitude in American wilderness is artificial. Americans frequently define the “wilderness character” of public spaces as what we want to see rather than what is actually there. Professor Wendy Harding believes this began with the first settlers, who conceived America with disregard to “what was already there in favor of their visions of what it should be.” In the 1850s, John Muir, a naturalist and conservationist, explored the Sierra Nevada mountain range backing up to Desolation Wilderness and wrote that no mark of man was visible in the 500 mile-long strip of mountains. That is simply incorrect. In addition to many other tribes, the Washoe tribe inhabited the Greater Tahoe Area that includes Desolation Wilderness. They gathered acorns and pine nuts in Desolation during the summers. The notion of emptiness in American nature— specifically, the lack of other humans— erases Native American history. 

National Parks were established to “preserve un impaired natural and cultural resources and values of the NPS for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations,” (Burns). Public access to wilderness was one of the driving factors in creating the National Park System. However, as Muir marveled at the cathedral domes of Yosemite (one of the first national parks), his plans to protect the valley displaced the Native American Miwoks of whom the name ‘Yosemite’ comes from. Paradoxically, by increasing public access to nature, the National Park System barred Native Americans from living on their own lands. 

Although Desolation is not a National Park, the same thing happened. Logging and fishing industries left the Washoe people without natural resources and pushed them off of their ancestral lands.They were repeatedly denied access to reservation or rights, and forced to adopt white settler culture. In a case filed for $48 million over their wrongful loss of natural resources in 1951, the Washoe were only granted $5 million, and the money did not arrive until almost 20 years after the initial case was filed. 


So why do we let permitting and limiting human activity continue today? Broadly speaking, we accept it as an essential aspect of environmentalism because we believe that it will protect the natural environment. In Desolation Wilderness, there are black bears, marmots, pika rabbits, lodgepole pines, juniper trees, and scattered wildflowers. These animals and ecosystems need protection. Our relationship with nature needs to change, however. Rather than recognizing these natural spaces as special, desolate, and fragile environments to be protected, we need to coexist with them. Removing human bodies from the natural world reinforces the notion of the incompatibility between modernity and environmentalism. However, the Washoe people show that humans can indeed coincide with the natural world. Perhaps the most important step in changing our current relationship with nature will be realizing that the modern world and the natural world are one and the same. Letting the Washoe return freely to Desolation without permits— and considering similar policies in wilderness spaces throughout the U.S.— is not only a step towards reestablishing our relationship with the outdoors; it’s also the first step towards humanistic environmental consciousness.

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