Thoughts on "Wilderness" / by sam taylor

Camp Site Epic - West Virginia

Good Friday Morning! 

As I briefly alluded to in the Seneca Creek writeup the other day, there were a lot of people on the trail with us.  (haven't seen that trip log?  http://www.samueltaylorphoto.com/blog/2018/4/23/seneca-creek

 Zion Narrows Wilderness

Zion Narrows Wilderness

While it was nice to see so many people enjoying their public lands on that fair, spring day, I'll admit a bit of conflict over the amount of foot traffic and camping that I was seeing along the stream.  Part of the attraction of wilderness and backcountry and roadless areas is that you can "get away" from the crowds, and have an experience - an experience in nature - self-reliant.  This has been a conversation I've had with folks about other wilderness areas in the east, notably Dolly Sods and Shenandoah National Park, both of which have become so busy and crowded with folks traveling out from the DC metro that it can be difficult to find a place to park on fair-weather weekends.  At what point does the crowd make the "wilderness" designation moot?  How many people can you crowd into a place, and it still be "wilderness"?

This isn't an abstract conversation to me, because on our travels across the country last year, and in the state over the last few years, there are several places at risk of being "loved to death". 

 Must be a wildflower, comes up every spring.

Must be a wildflower, comes up every spring.

Gridlock on the road in Yellowstone.  Waiting in line to rock climb in the New River Gorge.  Full campgrounds in Zion, crowded spots along the Williams River in fishing season - and while many of the people are conscientious, that wear accumulates.  Add in a few "bad apples", leaving trash and building huge fire circles, digging plants or cutting trees and squatting campgrounds, and the impacts become unsustainable.  Add in that park budgets for maintenance and repairs are low, and seem to be on the chopping block every year, and it's easy to see the impacts.

And still the demand for public lands increases, as private lands become off-limits to recreational use, and growing urban areas and folks moving to urban areas leads people to seek the woods and the wilds of this country of ours. 

What to do about it?  That is a surprisingly hard question to answer.  I have my own opinions, for sure, and have done a fair bit of research into the topic, but none of those answers are popular.  In West Virginia there was a push to have admission fees to the parks, which would bring much needed revenue for maintenance - and was hated by the public and never introduced.  There have been ideas for permits or permit lotteries for some of the bigger national parks - but those are also unpopular.  West Virginia has a law that limits liability - liability often being cited as the reason folks post property - to landowners who allow people to use their land recreationally, but still the signs and painted blazes pop up every spring.  (see WV Code Here:  http://code.wvlegislature.gov/19-25/).  Folks carving out their bit of wilderness to keep everyone else off of it.  The prevalence of posting is especially frustrating to us because in many cases there is no contact information, so there is no way to secure the "written permission" that the state requires legally - and I suspect that in many cases, that is intentional.

At the end of the day, I worry that it will all become a "tragedy of the commons" - where too many people take advantage, but don't want to pay for it, and the folks that can buy or rent their own will do so to get away from the crowds.  This is especially troubling for me, where we have a state that struggles with health outcomes and mental health outcomes - and getting outside, getting exercise, and being in nature, can help.  That's something this little outfit is built on, trying to inspire folks to come out and have their own experience; but it is also "for" us, and for our enjoyment - and I need that solitude. 

At a minimum, I hope having a conversation will make folks more aware of the impacts they are having, and maybe they will think differently about needing to clear a huge place for a camp, or about needing to dig that trash bag full of ramps, or about how that little bit of trash "won't be noticed".   It may also provide a bit of inspiration for us - we tend to consciously avoid taking pictures of "people" in our travels, if they aren't part of our group - but maybe that is exactly what I need to do this season, take photos of the "surrounds", and document the places that are busy, and the places that aren't. 

All of this, and I haven't even touched on the Supreme-Court-Case-Waiting-To-Happen that is "who owns the creek in West Virginia". 

Stay safe and be respectful out there. 

 Am I trespassing here?  What is navigable?

Am I trespassing here?  What is navigable?