Wilderness at 50: Love in the Great Gulf

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To celebrate, Orion will publish special articles in print and online, including a multi-part series of personal perspectives on wilderness, the second of which is below. Orion is a sponsor of the National Wilderness Conference, to be held from October 15 – 19 in New Mexico; learn more about the conference here.

I took a walk in New Hampshire’s Great Gulf wilderness this spring. At just over 5,000 acres, it’s small by some standards, a glacial cirque surrounded by the Presidential Range. Unlike many wildernesses in the eastern United States, it was designated back in 1964, under the original Wilderness Act. There’s a heavily used trail through the middle of it, along the banks of the West Branch of the Peabody River, which roars with spring rain. The trail rises slowly at first, and then seems to go straight up the Great Gulf Headwall to the flank of Mt. Washington. But I stayed low, watching the emerging flowers. The hobblebush was in bloom; the painted and red trilliums had come up. The yellow violets and the Canada mayflowers were all there after a long winter. The softwoods dripped from days of rain, the moss practically oozed. I wondered how many people had relished this beauty in the last fifty years.

Walking in the Great Gulf, it was hard to imagine that the earth was changing all around me. And yet every day we are bombarded with the changes: record drought and fire, tornadoes, polar vortexes, class-five hurricanes. The imprint of climate change is everywhere, while the global actions to stay its effects seem so minimal and half-hearted, so enmeshed in greed and ignorance.

Climate change: it’s the complete failure to heed science; the complete failure to follow a moral compass that says we should take responsibility for our actions; the complete failure to live by an ethical principle that includes other living creatures in our universe.

For those who think of wilderness as simply areas set aside from human influence, climate change is perhaps proof that the idea of wilderness is absurd at best. There is no doubt, now, that our imprint is literally everywhere. But as I walk through the cool damp of the Great Gulf, I am convinced that wilderness is not about setting aside a geographic area and keeping it free from all human activity. Rather, it is about delineating a relationship. Wilderness celebrates a relationship to the land in which we are not at the center. Climate change, then, is many bad things, but it is not proof that wilderness is meaningless.

As I walk the Great Gulf I am overwhelmed by my love for the land. I know that with love there comes commitment and responsibility. If climate change is a moral and ethical failure on a global scale, the only thing left to me is to respond on a personal scale. I can, and will, continue to do the best I can as a caretaker and guardian of this place.

Rebecca Oreskes spent over twenty years working for the Forest Service in a variety of positions devoted to wilderness stewardship. She is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Wilderness and currently lives and writes in Milan, New Hampshire.


  1. Beautifully put. I’m troubled by some of the current discussion about wilderness, putting down the concept. You are very right that climate change
    shows that there is no place where there is no human impact. Also, it is more and more evident that people have lived in places we see as undeveloped, and that they have influenced these places’ character. Of course, indigenous people must be deeply included in plans to protect undeveloped places. But this does not mean that we need to open all places to all development. One current example: it is one thing to say native people have a right to traditional agriculture, and a totally different thing to say that a rare forest in Florida should be cut to make way for a Wal Mart. I like your idea of wilderness as a place where we are not at the center. This idea should guide us in the future.

  2. Nice job with these ideas, Rebecca. As one of the original 1964 Wilderness Act Areas in New Hampshire’s Whites it is a fair question to wonder how many people have relished beauty of 5000 acres in 50 years – likely at least 25,000 @500 hikers/year. I think the subtleties of Wilderness areas are an acquired taste -moving past the politics and peak-bagging to aesthetics and spring wildflowers. Thanks

  3. Well said Rebecca. I am often overwhelmed by my feelings of love for the land and saddened by the lack of respect and care we show it. Making this all important relationship visible through awareness of our deep connection to and dependence upon the land is critical to wake folks up so thanks for this piece of writing which is a good waker – upper. Hope all is well in NH – been too long since I have taken a stroll in the Great Gulp.

  4. Beautiful, Rebecca — it warms my heart to see you have not lost your passion for these places.

  5. Well said, and I would add that for those that love the land–and the creatures that live within and upon it–that climate change is something we need to see as part of our work.

    For too long, land conservation efforts have seen climate change work as that of advocacy groups. Land conservation in the face of climate change will not slow it down much at all. For us to conserve what we love, and the wildlife and species that make up so much of the earth, we will need to prioritize building a community ethic and response to slow climate change down. Soon.

    It is not mission creep for nonprofit land conservation groups, it’s mission central.

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