Are “Wilderness Trails” an Oxymoron?

Hikers on a trail in Dolly Sods Wilderness

By Dave Johnston

Nothing seems more fundamental to a visit to a natural area than a trail. We have come to take for granted that trails and nature go hand in hand. Trails provide access to areas that roads and other “civilized” transportation don’t penetrate and literally provide a means for us to “get away” and experience locations, unlike those of our day-to-day lives. They have become our muscle-powered roadways to the natural world.

We have become so accustomed to trails that we simply assume they belong wherever there are wild places, and we expect them to deliver us to the cool stuff and provide entertainment, or at least a pleasant experience, along the way. To a certain degree, we’ve come to feel entitled to trails and expect them to be designed for our convenience and pleasure.

This was not originally a given for our wildest and most primitive lands, the special areas set aside as designated wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System. In the early years after the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, there was considerable debate over whether designated wilderness should have—or even permit—established backcountry trails. 

It was pointed out that the key provisions of the Act called for wilderness to be “untrammeled [free of human control],” “retaining its primeval character and influence,” “managed to preserve its natural conditions” “with the imprint of [human’s] work substantially unnoticeable” and providing an opportunity for “a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” All of these seem to point to a vision where any evidence of human improvement or “infrastructure” must be strictly absent. And if you factor in the principles of Leave No Trace, what is more literally a “trace” than a well-worn pathway created by human visitors through the natural environment?

Under this philosophy, humans would be allowed in the wilderness, but no particular provision would be made for their access. Hikers would be free to roam—subject to limitations for sensitive areas—and enjoy a primitive experience without the benefit or intrusion of human installations such as trails. This was a result of the “purity doctrine,” a concept advanced, principally by the United States Forest Service in its early consideration of areas eligible for wilderness designation, that held that only locations that were pristine and previously untouched by humans could be designated as wilderness and that they must be managed and maintained that way.

Though not always acknowledged, one of the goals of the purity policy was to limit the number and extent of areas that could become wilderness, both by making initial selection highly restricted and by painting maintenance of such areas as impractical, expensive, and undesirable for visitors. One proposal would have excluded recreational uses of wilderness altogether and instead created a separate system of wild recreation areas.

The purity policy did not prevail, of course. In 1975 Congress decisively rejected it by establishing a number of wilderness areas in the eastern US, including Dolly Sods and Otter Creek, that had previously been degraded, even devastated, by human activity. It was confirmed that the intent of the Wilderness Act was not to exclude areas that humans had touched but ensure that they remained “untrammeled” and allowed nature to take its course going forward.

But what of the Wilderness Act’s apparent injunction against human control and evidence of human presence? Would that not preclude human-constructed and maintained trails?

The Wilderness Act is many-faceted and contains subtleties that sometimes defy a casual reading. It is also necessary to understand the intent, both that of the drafters of the Act and the legislative history and with the context of the words themselves. Above all, we need to recognize that the Wilderness Act represents not only lofty ideals but also pragmatic realities.

The Act provides, in several places, that wilderness areas shall be administered to preserve their “wilderness character,” and management agencies are mandated to make this their highest priority. Though the Act does not explicitly define “wilderness character,” it is generally recognized that the opening sentence of the definition of “wilderness” represents the essence of the character to be preserved: “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.” 

Note that the language does not exclude the presence of humans but provides that the “earth and the community of life” and not controlled, confined nor directed by humans; though humans are recognized as visitors, neither do they remain nor does their presence interfere with the expression of nature and the free operation of natural processes. 

The purpose statement of the Act is more explicit: the National Wilderness Preservations System is created “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness” and “shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.” In the section addressing uses of wilderness, the Act provides that “wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.”

The Wilderness Act is not built around the notion that the mere presence of humans is incompatible with Wilderness. To the contrary, the ability of humans to access wilderness and thus gain the benefits of wilderness character is the very purpose of setting aside areas of special value and mandating that they must be maintained as wilderness. Understood this way, trails themselves, though they may be evidence of human presence, are not inherently incompatible with the purpose and nature of wilderness so long as they advance the overall purpose of the Act.

The challenge it presents is how can the opportunity for humans to access, experience, and appreciate wilderness be preserved while also preserving the character of the wilderness as wilderness. That is, how can the intended value to humans be realized through trails while also avoiding the “trammeling” of “earth and the community of life” that resides there?

The Wilderness Act itself provides clues for how this is to be implemented, and a great deal of scholarship and practical policy development has led to well-accepted standards and techniques for best achieving the goals of the Act. We will take a closer look at how this plays out in a second installment of this article next month.