In 1775, Daniel Boone and 35 axmen blazed a rough trail west out of Virginia into Kentucky. The trail — which cut through dense forests and traversed steep mountains — became known as the Wilderness Road because it was a principal access route for adventurous settlers seeking a new life where few people lived.
Nearly two centuries later, Congress approved legislation establishing a new definition for “wilderness” designed to prevent modern-day Daniel Boones and other citizens from entering certain public lands. The 1964 Wilderness Act established a preservation system on federal lands “where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In layman’s language, wilderness designation means an area is totally left to its natural state with minimal impact by man. This means no mechanized vehicles, including — but not limited to — cars, SUVs, off-road and all-terrain vehicles, bicycles and motorboats. If you want to personally visit a wilderness area, you can enter on foot or on the back of a horse or mule.
In a nutshell, wilderness areas are fine for the feathered and furred, but not so accommodating for homo sapiens.
It is interesting to consider than in the space of some 200 years, the policies of our government as they apply to public lands have gone from encouraging expansion, development and growth to those of exclusion and preservation. While Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road provided access, today’s Wilderness Act provides roadblocks to visiting our public lands.
This is not to suggest the Wilderness Act is a bad thing, because it isn’t. In a nation with topography as wonderfully diverse as ours, there are certainly areas that merit protection. But there should be limits to areas that effectively keep people out.
Since 1964, Congress has been busy expanding lands covered by the Wilderness Act. Today, nearly 700 tracts of land encompassing a whopping 106.6 million acres are in the wilderness system. To put that into perspective, it’s the equivalent of the total land mass of California and Maryland combined. And before the current Congress concludes its business next year, hundreds of thousands of additional acres of federal land could be classified as “wilderness.”
Nonetheless, as exclusionary as the wilderness designation might seem to those who yearn to visit these lands via more conventional forms of transportation, there have been some bright spots of late — some attempts to balance the wilderness designation with other types of recreational activities.
An example of this balanced approach occurred recently when Congress approved legislation creating the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act. Introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson, California Democrat, the legislation created a new wilderness area, but it also created the Cow Mountain Recreation Area of about 51,000 acres. This new recreation area will provide opportunities for off-highway vehicle use, mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking and camping.
Increasingly more of our citizens are taking to our forests and parks to enjoy recreational activities as they escape the congestion and stress of modern America. With more than 106 million acres already designated as wilderness, we hope Congress will spend more time looking for ways to encourage recreation on our public lands rather than placing ever more federal acreage out-of-bounds to most Americans.
Hopefully, the Northern California example can be used as a model. Its approach in designating an area open to a wide range of recreational activities deserves to be replicated elsewhere in the country.
Larry E. Smith is executive director of Americans for Responsible Recreational Access, that advocates for recreation as a legitimate use of U.S. public lands and waters.