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.