Wilderness Ethics

When I’ve been asked to talk about what we mean by the “spirit of wildness,” the subtitle of our book Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness, I’ve found myself giving examples of the kinds of insights we – hikers and managers – need to keep in mind if our wild places – I’m talking about the ones visited by us humans – are to retain a sense of wildness.  For, when we come down to it, isn’t it for that wild feeling, to be found in the woods and on the mountain tops, that we go out there?

Here’s an example: Picture the popular trail to Lake Pristine (names changed to protect the guilty).  For long stretches, broad plank walkways have been laid down over the wet and muddy trailbed.  These are not rough-hewn logs from the surrounding woods, but standardized two-inch lumber imported from valley supplies.

The objective: to provide hikers with a dry-shod passage through mud patches, not so much for their convenience and comfort, but to put an end to the trail-widening, vegetation-destroying effect of hikers skirting the mud.

Continuing along the planks, we emerge from trees onto the shore of Lake Pristine, and head for the lakeside lean-to we recalled as being idyllic on an earlier visit.  At this now heavily used site, we note that wood railings have been erected to discourage hikers from cutting through the woods every which way.

The objective: to channel foot traffic in the area around the shelter into certain paths only, thereby allowing forest vegetation to regenerate.

Obviously, the objective of the planks and railings is to protect the resource from the damaging effects of hikers.

But some hikers are going to wonder about walking on planks of store-bought lumber.  Others will wonder about being fenced in as they stroll the shores of Lake Pristine.

It must be conceded that elements have been introduced into the hiker’s experience that have a taint of civilization, even of regimentation about them that do some violence to the hiker’s sense of being in the backcountry.

How much is too much?

Partly it’s a matter of management sensitivity to wilderness values.  We’ve all seen effective barriers around shelters in the form of dead trees or large rocks, so positioned as to encourage traffic to walk on certain paths – methods that blend with the wild setting.  For muddy trails, split-log or topped-log bridges hewn from trees on-site – or better yet, large stones pried from the nearby mountainside – can provide solid footing with less intrusion than store-milled lumber.

The clash of values here is obvious.  Without some degree of management, “wildness” cannot survive the number of people who seek to enjoy it.  But with too much management, or the wrong kind, we can destroy the spiritual component of wildness in our zeal to preserve its physical side.

Highly desirable goals can have a cost, which perhaps we, as outdoorspeople and managers, should not tolerate in their adverse impact on other, equally important fragile or vulnerable values.  And one of the values most at issue and most vulnerable is what Guy’s and my Wilderness Ethics aimed to focus on: preserving the spirit of wildness.

You can purchase a copy of Wildeness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness here.

Laura Waterman is an author, hiker, climber, Vermont homesteader and is the co-author of several defining books on backcountry and wilderness ethics.  She is also a founder and board member of the Waterman Fund.