The wilderness. The backcountry. The out-of-doors. It has long been an American notion that we need to go back to nature at least occasionally to renew ourselves, to restore health or even sanity. Some of our very best literature reflects this idea. Thoreau's Walden is a classic, and the expression of one of the ethics Thoreau lived by—"In Wildness is the preservation of the World"—is among the most often quoted lines in American literature. Implicit in Huckleberry Finn, thought by many scholars to be the finest American novel, is the idea that while man may often be evil, nature is always good. Hemingway restates that theme in one of his most admired stories. Big Two-Hearted River. In it Nick Adams finds peace by returning alone to the wilderness of the northern Michigan woods to camp and fish. Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac—a book probably more widely read than Walden these days—presents outdoor experiences as necessary contrasts to civilization, contrasts that have become more beneficial as technology removes us from the land.
But this retreat to nature, whatever the reason, is becoming very difficult to accomplish. At Walden Pond, where Thoreau lived in solitude for two years, 11,000 tourists may now be found on a hot summer afternoon. Huck Finn's Mississippi River is horribly polluted. We are told in Big Two-Hearted River that "Nick did not like to fish with other men on the river. Unless they were of your party, they spoiled it." He would have an exceedingly difficult time finding an acceptable place to fish today. And Leopold would be the first to agree that the idea of contrast he espoused is not served by camping vehicles the size of railroad cars or by the trail bikes and snowmobiles that sometimes seem to overrun the countryside.
We are running out of room. Spokesmen for timber companies, mining interests and the like proclaim that there is more than enough wilderness in America. But those who speak on behalf of wilderness point out that while we have 263 designated wilderness areas totaling-about 80 million acres, this acreage is roughly equal to the amount of land we have already paved over.
The dilemma of increasing population and decreasing room is compounded by the fact that the most attractive natural places in our country—the wilderness areas, the national parks, the wild and scenic rivers—are deluged with visitors. Ironically, the designations meant to protect these precious areas are responsible in large degree for the pressures these preserves are experiencing: camping by reservation only, traffic jams, littered streams and meadows and steadily mounting crime. The national parks—particularly Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and the Great Smoky Mountains—have been overcrowded for years. But the real backcountry is relatively crowded these days, too.
April 20, 1981
Colin Fletcher, author of The Thousand-Mile Summer, The Man Who Walked Through Time and The Complete Walker, says, "Normally I backpack where I know I can remain alone, like the Sierra in the late fall. But I remember one time in the Sierra when I was off the trail, going cross-country, and ran into a young couple. They began to say how nice and peaceful it was off the trail; how back on the trail they'd met 10 people a day; that it was dreadfully crowded. And suddenly I realized that they just kept walking with me, chattering away. Here they were, following me along, talking constantly about how they wanted solitude."
I know the feeling. And it isn't always necessary to run into people to have an experience marred. A couple of years ago I backpacked into some rough and remote country with a friend and my son. Not long after I had joyfully concluded that in all likelihood no humans had been where we were in years, we came across a doe that had been shot and left to rot. A little farther, near a small creek, was a heap of empty cans and shattered whiskey bottles left by the hunting party that had apparently shot the doe. Experiences such as this have become the rule.
Is there a solution? Fletcher says, "Sometimes I think it might be best not to maintain trails...if trees fall across the trail, leave them. Don't make it easier for people, because visitors to the wilderness should pay in the coin of the realm—which is knowing how to do it. When the Yosemite Plan [to deal with overcrowding] was being revised, I wrote and said this. I never got any reply."
It isn't at all surprising that Fletcher's letter wasn't answered. Those in charge of what we might broadly call our outdoor recreation areas—the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management—certainly don't want to be accused of catering to so-called elitists. In fact, they measure their success largely by the number of users attracted to their facilities and to the sections of the country they administer. Crowds are their tangible proof that they're doing their jobs well.
Therefore, it's generally considered a good thing that America's "wild and scenic" rivers are so popular with rafters and kayakers that permit systems have been instituted to control the hordes. It's necessary to apply months in advance to get clearance to float down a well-known stream like Oregon's Rogue River. Commercial river-running outfits own a majority of the "starts" on the most popular portion of the Rogue, and there is something of a black market in buying, selling and trading them reminiscent of ticket scalping for the Super Bowl.
Permit system or not, on any reasonably pleasant day from spring through fall, on any floatable stream, from the Colorado River to a nameless mountain tributary with just a few inches of water sliding over gravel, there will be crowds of rafts, inner tubes, canoes or kayaks drifting along. There will be fishermen, too, and the conflicts between river runners and fishermen have become increasingly hostile over the past few years. Shouting matches are common, and fistfights have occurred. The fishermen don't always get along among themselves, either. During salmon runs on the West Coast, bank fishermen and boat fishermen have been known to resort to firearms to resolve their differences. What would Nick Adams think of this?
Even if those of us who seek solitude in nature are sometimes branded as elitists by the people who are determined to measure success in terms of numbers, we can hardly be criticized if we point out that along with the growing crowds in the out-of-doors has come increased crime. Crime in our cities has been publicized—and exploited as an issue by politicians—for years, but crime in the woods and deserts and along the rivers has been largely ignored.
Most obvious and common are crimes against the land itself, which would include the hundreds of tons of litter deposited yearly in campgrounds, national parks and wilderness areas; the erosion caused by four-wheel-drive vehicles and trail bikes; and the millions of dollars' worth of trees that are stolen from our forests. "Thievery has increased phenomenally in the last two years as more householders have put in wood stoves," says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank A. Wilson. Many of these thieves cut wood only for themselves, but some cut it to sell at $100 a cord or more. A thief with a trailer can cart off 20 cords at a time, and few wood thieves are ever caught—less than 1% Wilson estimates. Also, the growing of marijuana on federal land is becoming an enormous problem for the Forest Service.
As more people visit the backcountry—for legal or illegal reasons—the risk of forest fires increases. Most fires are caused by stupidity or carelessness, but hundreds of thousands of acres are burned each year by arsonists, most of whom are never apprehended.
There is nothing new about poaching, but hard economic times have caused it to increase. Fish are illegally netted and dynamited, while hundreds of thousands of deer are shot out of season each year.
In national parks, where the increase in crime has been dramatic, there are not enough rangers to deal with the situation. "It seems to come in a wave whenever the economy gets bad," says Roger Miller of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. In that park alone, there were 220 incidents of theft from cars in 1980, as compared with 113 in 1979.
Obviously, crimes against people are more intolerable than crimes against property, and they, too, are becoming more common all the time. Women are raped on remote Hawaiian beaches, and campers and hikers are beaten and occasionally murdered.
The crime and violence in the backcountry is real, and nearly everyone I know who spends a lot of time out-of-doors has had a number of unpleasant experiences—and at least one frightening incident—in recent years.
The officials who are willing to discuss backcountry crime suggest that more law-enforcement officers and harsher punishment for violators is the answer. They often blame the "liberal Supreme Court," the same tired excuse often offered by officials explaining away their inability to control urban crime.
Honest acknowledgment of the problem must come first. Once that happens, more and stricter law enforcement might help to a degree. But I think education is the answer. Most people don't need their car or camper van, they simply have no knowledge of how to manage without such accoutrements. If they knew how to handle themselves in the outdoors, they'd be more willing to experience the wilderness in its pure form. And their enjoyment would increase, as would their appreciation. Beyond that, the advice offered by Colin Fletcher makes as much sense to me as anything. We should be making it harder, not easier, to get to most outdoor recreation areas. Those who really want to go will always find a way.
Wherever practicable—and that would be a lot of places—all vehicles except those driven by authorized personnel should be excluded. People in the woods for any illegal reason are almost certainly there in a Jeep or truck. Vehicles carry most of the people responsible for fires and can start fires themselves. But what about children and the aged and infirm? Edward Abbey addresses this question in his well-regarded book Desert Solitaire, in which he urges the banning of automobiles from national parks: "Frankly, we need waste little sympathy on these two pressure groups. Children too small to ride bicycles and too heavy to be borne on their parents' backs need only wait a few years—if they are not run over by automobiles, they will grow into a lifetime of joyous adventure.... The aged merit even less sympathy: after all, they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled. However, we'll stretch a point for those too old or sickly to mount a bicycle and let them ride the shuttle buses."
We will never get back to nature as it was experienced by Thoreau, but if wildness is the preservation of the world, we'd better guard what precious little remains.