Desegregating Wilderness

I SAW SEVERAL BISON the other morning as I followed the usual left and right turns that take me to the rural outskirts of Enumclaw, a town forty-five minutes from my house in Seattle. The bison were actually boulders or bushes or clumps of hay that had wandered away from the stack. But I saw them as clearly as I did on mornings when I walked to my job along the lake in Yellowstone, following the gravel paths that passed dangerously close to the resting mammoths. Always, now, since leaving Yellowstone, I see shadows of wilderness wherever I go.

It is the same for my friend on the other side of the continent who, decades later, still sees the Beartooth Mountains in the jagged clouds above Philadelphia’s streets. It is also true for some of the teenagers, like Michael, who I camped and worked with in the mountains and lakes of the North Cascades National Park. One early autumn I ran into Michael in our neighborhood on a south Seattle corner, which was plump with fast-food chains and drug stores. He pointed into the greasy air above a discount food outlet. “There,” he said, gesturing more emphatically, “see it? It’s an eagle’s nest.” I strained, wanting to see the shadow of the wilderness cast so close to the intersection of honking cars, but I couldn’t see what he saw. Four years later, he still talks about it, still insists that it was there, and now he mourns, “They have torn up the path and removed the pole where it nested.”

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act both became laws that govern the land and the people of the U.S. The Civil Rights Act required the desegregation of our public accommodations including the “separate but equal” facilities, camping areas, and outdoor eating areas assigned to “colored” people in our national parks. The Wilderness Act protected large areas that would have been lost without laws in place to stop people from dominating every landscape. Fifty years later, the cool shadow cast by these two monolithic acts makes it possible for me to occasionally enjoy outdoor experiences in remote places that would be out of reach without the combination of their protections.

Yet, access is more than the permission to be somewhere formerly off-limits. The people accessing recreation in the wilderness are still predominantly white, and de facto segregation exists instead of a legal one. The protections of the two acts fall short of addressing the underlying land-use practices and attitudes that have resulted in a segregated wilderness, one in which the wild is hardest to reach for the people who, for historical reasons, still have fewer of the financial assets required to get there.

While the lack of access to wild places is beginning to be recognized as an issue of inequity, the absence of more than just a shadow of wilderness in and around urban places is not.

When President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, it legalized the segregation of wild places from the places where people remain. In doing so, it entrenched the cultural belief shared by Aldo Leopold and others that wilderness must be “segregated and preserved” from the areas where people live, including areas where indigenous people lived for thousands of years. Consequently, the protection of remote wilderness areas has meant the sacrifice and disappearance of nearby wild places, which, because of their smaller size and proximity to people, are not defined or protected as wilderness.

Segregating wilderness from people creates permission to deforest and devalue the landscape where people are allowed to “remain” while falsely defining the remote landscape as “pristine.” Desegregating the wilderness requires not only the laws that forbid discrimination but also the reintegration of nearby wilderness where people live.

Now largely white organizations and agencies are grappling with the dilemma of a segregated wilderness by working feverishly to get urban people out to remote places—because people will not protect what they have not enjoyed. But what if wilderness zigzagged through areas where urban people live? Then accessing the wilderness in our daily lives could be more tangible than wild shadows cast by memory.

At the signing of the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson said, “Freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.” I think the same is true for wilderness.

Jourdan Imani Keith is a playwright, naturalist, educator, and storyteller whose work blends the textures of political, personal and natural landscapes to offer voices from the margins of American lives. Keith has performed nationally and internationally, giving over 250 performances from Zimbabwe to Philadelphia, from Yellowstone and North Cascades National Park to Seattle.  Jourdan Keith has received awards from 4 Culture, Artist Trust, and Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs for Coyote Autumn and 2004 for the play and solo performance of The Uterine Files: Episode I, Voices Spitting Out Rainbows. She has received fellowships from Hedgebrook, Voices of Our Nations (VONA), and Jack Straw Writer’s program. Her poems, essays and articles have appeared in magazines, newspapers, radio, television and video, including The Seattle Times, Labyrinth, PUSH, Floating Bridge Press, Colors NW, Seattle Woman, and the anthology, Ma-Ka, Diasporic Juks, writings by Queers of African Descent. Jourdan Keith is Founder and Director of Urban Wilderness Project.


  1. The other group mostly excluded from “wilderness areas” are the Elderly.The absence of roads and the exclusion of motorized vehicles, in lands designated as wilderness,prevents most folks of age from using such wilderness areas.

  2. B. Rhodes completely misses the point of Jourdan’s entire article – I wish people would comprehend the depth of what she’s trying to say. I always respect people’s comments yet there’s no value to going on a complete tangent from the core content and messages being conveyed. Jourdan’s essay is outstanding and thought-provoking.

  3. I would add that there is economic segregation as well. I would guess that half of our population is excluded from national parks because of the heavy user fees imposed by the National Park Service (NPS) both for entrance (about $25) and camping (up to $37). All of this to fund an extremely bloated and poorly run bureaucracy. We are missing an opportunity to help create a Nature consciousness in our populations with these unconscionable NPS practices.

  4. I think there is confusion in both the article and the comments about the difference between federally designated “Wilderness” and other wild areas. Giving pristine areas special protection does not mean other areas should lose protection.These “best of the best” areas should be rigorously protected. I would want that to be so even if I could never visit them. And I probably won;t visit most of them.

    But as Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Not wilderness, wildness. And there are wild places all around us. We are not apart form nature – it is not something “out there” someplace else. Whether it is a city park, a local trail,a garden plot, or cracks in the sidewalk where the ants roam, there is nature all over, even the grittiest city.
    Groups like the Children and Nature Network, based on Richard Louv’s books are helping people find and appreciate these places. Read his books, look at the website.
    Let’s not exclude anyone but find out how we can include all.

  5. This is a great piece. Thanks so much for writing it! I encourage everyone interested in this issue to check out the work of Wilderness Inquiry ( who has been providing access to both Wilderness areas and other wild places to people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities for more than 35 years. Particularly, check out their Urban Wilderness Canoe program ( which is connecting young people to the wilderness in their backyard–much like the “wilderness zigzagging through our cities” as stated in this piece. This is a model than can and should be replicated!

  6. because of the expansive use of the term “segregation,” this piece has a lot of depth – and would be easy to misunderstand.

    new laws function within an ecosystem; by drawing lines around protected areas it sends the psychological signal that other areas are fair game for development. as a result, we have fractured landscapes and zoning laws that force even the most creative landowners seeking to bring the wild back into their recreating and growing spaces to abide by crude dividing lines.

    I would love to read a separate piece about how this affects people of color and/or those on the economic margins. so far the pattern I have seen is that economic engines have driven the destruction of wild places, and then the profits (incl. tax revenue) are used to buy up the remaining pretty places. this land may be public, but it is removed – available only to those who can afford to take time off of work at best, or buy up expensive gear at worst.

  7. While I agree with Bill Graham that economic segregation is barrier to wilderness access, NPS user fees are not the problem. Graham overstates the cost of entry fees – Mammoth Cave, for example, charges no entry fee at all, and Arches National Park charges $10 for 7 days of entry, to name a few. The cost of traveling to a national park is many times larger than the entry fee in most cases. Additionally, user fees go towards projects that directly benefit the visitor, such as maintaining visitor facilities and providing educational programs. At Grand Canyon National Park, one project user fees support is educational programming for underprivileged school groups from places like poor neighborhoods in Phoenix and Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico – in other words, CREATING opportunities to “create a Nature consciousness in our populations”, as Graham puts it.

    Going beyond the discussion of NPS practices, national parks are by no means the only places to find wilderness areas. In addition to the National Park Service, federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service all manage vast tracts of federally designated Wilderness Areas. And Cathy Meyer brings up a good point – places to do not have to be Designated Wilderness Areas in order to be wild, special, and important places. Access to wild, natural places is essential to the mental and physical health of all people, and I strongly support Jourdan Keith’s call to improve access for urban, poor, and minority groups. As Edward Abbey wrote, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.”

  8. Perhaps we’re on the next wave – to rebuild our natural spaces and connect our open spaces.

    While I’m not completely up to speed on what’s happening with the L.A. River, it seems like there is a lot of energy going into making that space usable, workable and enjoyable for all — quasi-wilderness in urban environs.

    I’m also excited about the incredibly ambitious plan to build a park over the 101 Freeway in Hollywood.

    And I’m most excited about a proposal to build a wildlife corridor at Liberty Canyon and the 101 Freeway – also in Southern California – that would help give passage to the mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains that have been cut off to wider range by some of the busiest freeways in the country.


  9. I will not join in the plaudits for this article nor most of the comments. However well intentioned they are misguided. NSR and Barlow Rhodes completely miss the point of a wilderness designation. Age has nothing to do with it. Do you want a tram to the top of Half Dome because you are too old to hike the trail? That is just too bad. Bill Graham, you are addressing a different issue, however valid.

    “But what if wilderness zigzagged through areas where urban people live?” Then it wouldn’t be a wilderness area. While there are very good reason for creating contiguous zones of travel between wilderness areas to facilitate the “natural” travel of wildlife, that too is a different issue.

    This article does a disservice to discussions of both racial discrimination and wilderness preservation.

  10. For another viewpoint on this topic, new at the Orion blog today Rue Mapp of Outdoor Afro says of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act that “While the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act might not have been conceived together, we have a chance today to make their real connections come alive.” Read on at the blog:


  11. DAVID, of course I know that designated wilderness and wildness are not the same. In the U.S., First Nations people WERE living in what got designated as wilderness. Wilderness was DEFINED to exclude humans, it can be re-defined as well. First Nations people managed the land in a way that allowed human habitation and non-human habitation to preserve, conserve and sustain ecosystems. Imagination requires seeing beyond what IS to what could be…i.e.,a new set of criteria that creates encompasses, expands and protects a new wilderness ( definition to be determined). We can (will) not restore the fullness of past in our puny lifespans but a desegregated future is possible.

  12. For others who are making comments, I found this article to be informative on the history of these 2 Acts and their implications to provide some context.

    Upon reading this I can see the historical piece of how desegregation came about and can somewhat see the distinction between governmentally designated wilderness and wild spaces. I think your point is that the governmental systems that choose which areas to designate or not need more focus on equal opportunity to access, which I would agree with given that many are remote to visit. I am still missing a piece of the picture here though. I would love to understand the other reasons for lack of access of colored persons to designated wilderness. Then I think I can fully understand the point of the article. Great piece though Ms Keith! You really have my mind working!

  13. Jourdan, wilderness is not defined to exclude humans. It is designated to exclude artifacts such as roads, permanent shelter and other similar activities. I have no problem with that. As for the First Nations, sadly that ship has sailed. Nor was that the point of this particular article. The Wilderness Act was not racist or exclusionary of people of color, no matter how much you try to make it.

  14. David, I think reading the lead article in Orion about what wilderness WAS and IS might be a good place to start as well as reading the Wilderness ACT itself which excludes roads from being built, etc. and it also requires that people not remain.

    Yes, many ships have sailed..the question is where shall we go from here? We are in the boat together and we are indeed in new waters. I think we can recreate and envision what seems impossible…hard, just like the people before us,i.e, the authors of the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act. What they understood and responded to created a better future for us. I think we can do the same thing, whatever that looks like is still to be determined through democratic discourse, hard work and compromise, as well as historical context.

    A painful past does not mean that we can not collectively create a healing and healthy future.

  15. Hi Diane, thank you for your question. One of the reasons for the lack of access to wilderness is the economic barrier. In the US, people were systematically denied access to land ownership POST Reconstruction after the Civil War. Access the wilderness is ALSO an economic issue.

    The article in The Atlantic explains how historical inequity plays out. It is NOT specifically about wilderness or wild places but it eye-opening.

    Thank you ~Jourdan

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