Supporting the Wilderness Climate

By Dave Johnston

The theme of the 2021 WVHC Fall Review was climate change. Global climate change is certainly affecting Dolly Sods, but in my presentation about Dolly Sods for the Fall Review I wanted to address a different type of climate: that of wilderness, or more specifically, “wilderness character” as it relates to Dolly Sods Wilderness.

It is no secret that Dolly Sods is a beautiful and unique natural area, and it is no secret that this has been “discovered” by an increasing number of visitors. But with a large influx of visitors inevitably comes impact, both on the natural area itself, and on the experience of other visitors. 

This would be of concern in any forest or natural area. But Dolly Sods isn’t just any old part of the National Forest – it is a congressionally designated wilderness. Wilderness areas have a special need for protection and preservation and special consideration in how they are used and how they are managed.

In the first part of this article, which is based on my Fall Review presentation, I want to review the key concepts of the Wilderness Act and how they define wilderness character, and relate these to the particular characteristics and conditions of the Dolly Sods Wilderness. In a second installment I will cover how the wilderness character of Dolly Sods has been impacted by the increase in visitation, and how the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards program was developed to respond. I’ll also cover the results and observation from the first season of activity by the Wilderness Stewards.

What is Wilderness Character?

The concept and definition of wilderness is enshrined in the Wilderness Act of 1964, which also sets forth the methods for creating, using, and administering designated Wilderness Areas. The “Statement of Policy” and “Definition of Wilderness” sections are shown as illustrations accompanying this article. Let’s walk through some of the key passages of each.

Purpose of wilderness…

While we tend to focus on the value of wilderness in preserving natural processes, note that the Statement of Policy is largely people-oriented. The goal of wilderness is to intervene in the encroachment of civilization on natural areas and instead create a system where natural conditions are preserved “for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.” There is inherent value in preserving natural areas in their own right, but it is not the purpose of the Act to sequester such areas and make them off-limits to people. Rather, such areas are intended to be visited and appreciated by people, and used, managed, and administered in a way that preserves them for future generations.

This complicates the task of land managers, who are charged with administering wilderness areas toward “preservation of their wilderness character” while also providing for their “use and enjoyment” by people. They can’t just lock up the wilderness and let nature take it from there. They need to provide access to people, while at the same time ensure that the provisions for and presence of people do not degrade wilderness character. That provides an obvious challenge for exceptional areas, such as Dolly Sods, that attract a lot of people.

But what are the essential elements of wilderness character that must be preserved? The Act does not define “wilderness character,” but the section defining “wilderness” provides some clues.

“…untrammeled by man…”

The word “trammeled” is not a common one and is often misunderstood, assumed to mean “traveled,” “spoiled,” or “trampled.” In fact, the word has more significance than all of those, and was carefully chosen and defended by the primary author of the Wilderness Act, Howard Zahnizer. “Untrammeled” means unconfined, uncontrolled, unrestrained, or unmanipulated. This is the key principle of wilderness: it is an area where natural processes are free to play out without influence or direction by humans. Even attempts by humans to make it “better,” “more wild” or to “restore” previous conditions are outside of this concept. As Zahnizer himself pointed out, managers should be “guardians, not gardeners” of wilderness.

Note that this concept does not exclude areas that previously saw great human impact. It is written in the present tense, to describe current conditions where man does not interfere in natural processes, whatever may have happened before. Humans and their works may have previously dominated the landscape, but no longer do so. The Act anticipates that humans will continue to visit, but neither they nor their vestiges remain.

Dolly Sods, or course, has experienced some of the most dramatic insults to its natural character imaginable. It was sliced up to make roads and railroad beds to allow nearly every tree to be cut and hauled out. The resulting slash fueled intense fires that burned even the soil down to bedrock. Given up as a wasteland it was used as an artillery range.

And yet, absent those deliberate depredations, Dolly Sods has evolved into an area of great natural beauty. It serves as testimony for the resilience of nature and a laboratory to observe the processes of natural restoration. Vestiges of previous human domination remain, but they inform, rather than detract from, the story of the reestablishment of the dominance of nature. The wilderness status of Dolly Sods humbles us, but also reminds us of the importance of avoiding further “trammeling.” 

Wilderness character isn’t defined as a “pristine” condition, never having been affected by humans, but rather by its present condition, where natural processes, including those of renewal and restoration, are allowed to carry forward without interference.

…area of undeveloped Federal land, retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation…”

The inclusion of the word “primeval” might at first glance appear to require that wilderness possess the character of some undefined but ancient, earlier age, before any human influence or at least that of European settlers. But this passage has a different purpose: to emphasize that wilderness remains free of development or evidence of ongoing human presence. This is part of the “further definition” of wilderness that is intended to provide guidance on how the key concepts of wildness (“untrammeled”) and “enjoyment as wilderness” by people can be understood and balanced. 

This passage clearly excludes buildings and other structures and installations such as roads, pipelines, and power lines. But it more subtly addresses other “improvements” that might be inconsistent with wilderness character. 

For instance, trails are generally considered to be an allowable improvement, consistent with the intended wilderness experience of people. But other amenities often associated with trails are, while not absolutely prohibited, discouraged or subjected to greater scrutiny. Blazes, signs, and other trail markings are not generally used in wilderness. Bridges and boardwalks are not permitted if only for the convenience of hikers are not permitted; they must be justified as necessary to preserve other wilderness values, such as preservation of habitat or water quality, or to address a safety issue. 

By the same token, modest campfire rings are permitted (though it is also within the purview of managers to prohibit campfires altogether where the risk of fire would threaten wilderness character). But elaborate “fireplaces,” Flintstone-inspired camp furniture, and superfluous rocks stacks would be inappropriate and incompatible with wilderness principles.

This passage thus establishes the concept of “undeveloped character” as an element of wilderness character. While it would be impractical to avoid any evidence of past or current human presence, limiting it to that which is compatible with an experience of an undeveloped area is envisioned by this passage. 

…protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions…

Together with the charge in the Statement of Policy that wilderness areas be “administered” to achieve the goals of wilderness, this passage makes it clear that management of wilderness is not passive. Land managers have an affirmative responsibility to actively work to ensure that wilderness is protected so as to preserve natural conditions.

This isn’t just a matter of noticing that conditions are no longer consistent with wilderness character and taking remedial steps. Wilderness management involves actively monitoring a number of parameters to identify trends that would threaten wilderness character, should they continue. Monitoring data is compared with standards established through analysis of impacts and determination of threshold levels after which natural conditions are degraded. There is a whole science built up around the need for visitor use management and the special considerations involved in the wilderness application.

It is worth pointing out that while visitors don’t “manage” the wilderness, the responsibility for “protecting and preserving natural conditions” applies to them as well. Wilderness, by its nature, is not a place where you do your thing and rely on others to clean up after. Wilderness is a place of self-sufficiency and acceptance of the consequences of one’s actions. That includes mindfulness of one’s own impacts, and “managing” one’s behavior to minimize them.

…generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…

Though evidence of previous human activity (see “logging, burning, bombing”), does not preclude wilderness designation, other evidence of human impact may be removed or minimized. Structures and installations remaining in a newly-designated wilderness will be assessed for the degree to which they are compatible with a primarily natural environment. The impact of removing or mitigating them will need to be balanced against the impact of leaving them be. They may be removed, or allowed to deteriorate from natural processes, unless of notable historic value.

Note the qualifiers in this passage: “generally,” “primarily,” “substantially.” While minimizing evidence of human presence if a high priority, it is not absolute, and the Wilderness Act does not require that such evidence be actively and completely erased. It does, however, direct that it be minimized, and only tolerated to the extent that it cannot be avoided without greater cost to wilderness character.

This section, together with other sections, also establishes the principles that guide management of human activities within the wilderness. Wilderness should be free of the “trappings” of civilization, including mechanical or motorized equipment, wheeled vehicles and aircraft. This includes bicycles, wheeled carts, and any equipment that provides a mechanical advantage. This section generally seeks to minimize the evidence of humans as “masters of the environment” by eliminating the advanced means by which humans manipulate and control nature. 

…outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…

While we tend to justifiably focus on the values of natural features and processes (and impacts on them), wilderness is not just about rocks and trees. One of the key values of wilderness is the experience it offers to human visitors. Humans are not meant to be excluded, but have the opportunity for a special experience not readily available in the “outside world.” Note that solitude is not guaranteed, but there must be a realistic opportunity for it.

Similarly, wilderness is meant to provide a chance for more primitive experience, one in which civilized assistance is not present or is minimized. In wilderness one must be prepared to rely on one’s own abilities and skills to travel, navigate, and survive. Wilderness provides an opportunity for adventure, self-discovery and exploration that is not present in civilized life and may not be available even in other outdoor recreation locations. 

This is another example of the emphasis that the Wilderness Act places on the human values of wilderness. Wilderness is created and maintained not just to preserve islands of nature, to be viewed through glass like a diorama. Rather, wilderness is meant to be participated in and provide an enriching experience for people. 

…contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value…

The unique natural features or scenic value of an area is usually what gets it noticed and proposed for wilderness. And indeed, wilderness is intended to preserve and protect those features. 

But also note the inclusion of “educational, scientific and historical” values. Wilderness can also be maintained as a laboratory for the study and understanding of the processes that have influenced it in the past, as well those that are ongoing. This provision is used to preserve historical sites such as Native American cultural features as an integral part of the wilderness.

Dolly Sods has unique value here, given its history of destructive human intervention and subsequent, and ongoing, recovery. This provides an opportunity for study of the processes of natural succession, and for the appreciation of the ability of nature to reassert itself even in the face of grievous damage. 

This is not just a matter of academic study. Knowledge of the history of Dolly Sods provides an additional nuance to the Dolly Sods experience, one that can both humble us and remind us of the need to protect it from present or future depredation. Rather than deny or paper over this history, it needs to be acknowledged and understood as a key factor in what we now enjoy as the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

Tying it all Together

The Wilderness Act uses the term “wilderness character” several times, and specifically charges the management agency with preserving it, but does not offer a single unifying definition of what constitutes wilderness character. Instead, all of the above characteristics of wilderness, taken together, embody the sense of what makes wilderness special and distinctive, and are used to guide decisions about whether wilderness character is being preserved or compromised. 

These characteristics are diverse, and there is an inherent tension among some of them. While the Act calls for wilderness to be substantially free of evidence of human presence, it promotes wilderness for its recreational value and ability to be a refuge for people. These values are not contradictory or mutually exclusive, but they do, apparently intentionally, set up a situation where multiple values must be addressed simultaneously, and each satisfied to the extent possible. 

In an attempt to pull all of this together, the US Forest Service has offered a restatement of the principles in the Act which intends to provide a more cohesive description of the overall intent of “wilderness character”:

Wilderness character is ideally described as the unique combination of a) natural environments that are relatively free from modern human manipulation and impacts, b) opportunities for personal experiences in environments that are relatively free from the encumbrances and signs of modern society, and c) symbolic meanings of humility, restraint, and interdependence in how individuals and society view their relationship to nature. [Applying the Concept of Wilderness Character to National Forest Planning, Monitoring, and Management, 2008]

Dolly Sods and Wilderness Character

In the next installment I will go into more detail about how the Dolly Sods Wilderness was created and how challenges to its wilderness character have developed. But for now, here are a few observations about how the wilderness character provisions of the Wilderness have particular salience for Dolly Sods.

  • A wilderness area is not necessarily “pristine” in the sense of never having been disturbed. They key value for wilderness is that it allows natural processes to move forward without further trammeling and allows nature to again assert dominance. Dolly Sods is a prime example how wilderness character can be restored through unfettered natural processes.
  • Previous depredation does not excuse current depredation. The history of human disturbance is sometimes cited to dismiss or minimize the importance of new impacts, to suggest that Dolly Sods isn’t a wilderness anyway. But Dolly Sods was designated as a wilderness precisely to prevent a repeat of that history. The history of Dolly Sods should remind us to redouble efforts to avoid or minimize human impacts, even those that are seemingly minor, as they accumulate and combine into increasing significance.
  • Human visitation is not necessarily incompatible with wilderness, even at Dolly Sods. Given that enjoyment of the natural character and challenges of wilderness by people is a key value in the creation of wilderness, visitors must be accommodated. But all visitors have impact. The volume of visitation, the amenities provided, and what people do in the backcountry must be managed in a way that preserves the very conditions that people seek.
  • Management itself must be compatible with wilderness. Management must not be passive, but it also must not be intrusive, either to the environment or to the wilderness experience. Actions taken to influence visitor behavior may impact natural conditions or divert user impact elsewhere, or may compromise the opportunity for a “primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” All wilderness values need to be balanced.
  • Visitors must be responsible. Especially in an era of limited management resources, we can’t rely entirely on structured regulation and enforcement to protect wilderness. The future of all wilderness, including Dolly Sods, will depend on voluntary adoption by wilderness users of practices and limitations needed to preserve the wilderness character which they presumably value. This starts with an understanding of what makes wilderness unique, and how each person has a role to play in its preservation.

Interim Conclusion

I hope that the above sets the stage for an understanding of what it is about Dolly Sods that makes it so special and so worthy of proactive efforts to support its wilderness character. In a future installment I’ll discuss the challenges facing Dolly Sods and how the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards are responding. But consider whether this discussion alone gives you reason to look into what we are doing and perhaps join our efforts – we will have a great need for volunteers for our ambitious plans for next year. To learn more or to join up, see this page on the WVHC website: