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Wilderness, Hidden Gems 10 December 2009

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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It’s occurred to me that I haven’t made you think in a while, at least not in any way that would have required you to weigh arguments and draw conclusions. In fact, intellectually, I’ve let this blog stagnate, preferring jauntier pursuits like the weather. My B, yo. Still time to fix that, though, so why not take a look at a subject near to dear to most Coloradoans? Wilderness. Of the federally-designated kind.

Although (because I am a nerd) I find wilderness etymologically interesting, it tends to warrant more scrutiny as it has been enshrined in American law, and amidst the legalese, you find this:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

And of course, the definition is all well and good and perhaps even lightly poetic to those of a certain disposition, but when realized, it also happens to bar most what most Americans consider staples of outdoor adventure. For example: driving. You cannot drive in the wilderness. Intuitive, no?, but since Americans spend most of their waking hours firmly ensconced in a seat of one sort or another, enticing them to enter the backcountry on foot remains a difficult proposition.

Thus, Yellowstone, which was at one point a wild a geologically tumultuous place, but today resembles the National Park Service’s version of Disneyland, right down to the tour buses. You can buy an Old Faithful sno-globe and feed bears from your car. To be sure, the habituated bears will raid your campsite, eat your sno-globe and potentially your toddler, and must then be airlifted east to the still wild and remote Absaroka Range. But this is the way of Yellowstone, where commercialism cultivates our concept of the natural world. We have created nature, the roadside attraction.

For the longest time, I loathed that kind of tourism, the kind that carved up what was ostensibly wild into a more palatable yet ersatz version. I cringed at interpretive signs and centers, and for three months at a Washington, D.C. enviro non-profit, I inveighed against any use of nature as “destruction.” Sure, you could don a backpack and some hiking boots without concern, but a mountain bike presented a serious threat. Moving to Colorado, however, has helped shift that perspective.

Around here, White River Wild,  backed by my former employer, I think, has pushed to include thousands of new acres in the federal Wilderness system. In general these places have remained largely untouched and feature some of the best, most primeval (if that word can take a superlative) lands in the state. They deserve inclusion in the system, to provide a buffer against developers’ caprice. And yet in places, the proposal goes too far. It closes down mountain bike trails in favor of preservation, cuts off enjoyment of the backcountry to serve a definition drawn up before mountain bikes existed.

Dedication to the idea of the wild — untouched, untrammeled — powerful a role as it may play for so many environmentalists, obscures that practical ramifications of wilderness’s exclusivity.  Fewer users means fewer supporters. It will be difficult to rally support for a product without value to a huge swath of the population. Regardless of whether the environmental community likes it, the median American doesn’t invest the natural world with intrinsic rights. She treats it as a commodity, which means we can ask questions like “How much would you pay to preserve another acre of wilderness.” Or more obliquely, “How expensive was your last backpacking trip?” And when we deny her access, that value drops commensurately. Why fight to save a product you can’t use?

In Colorado, the concern is all the more immediate, and even though the state boasts a huge population of outdoorsy-types, it’s also front and center in the debate over oil shales and extraction. If the plan establishes the Hidden Gems divides the outdoors community because of ideological concerns about mountain bikes, will that fractured coalition still come together when it faces much more real threats from extraction on the Western Slope?

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