By George E. Beetham Jr.
We think of wilderness as being a vast expanse of wild land. Indeed, Dolly Sods consists of many acres of land. At the same time we need to understand that this area is a unique ecosystem with finite limits.
Essentially the Sods is a dissected, sub Arctic plateau featuring high elevation bogs drained by a stream. There are limits to how much human incursion it can handle before the ecosystem breaks down. Erosion, pollution of bogs and streams, degradation of the land by over-camping take a toll on the environment. We don’t see it at first, but over time the abuse adds up. Ultimately we end up with results similar to what was left by lumber companies: an unnatural landscape that no longer functions as a natural biome.
We need to understand what nature intended for this fragile land where natural processes are already limited by weather and elevation. Is it a functioning ecosystem that lives and breathes or a trampled down city park that once had a biological purpose? More importantly, how do we enjoy the unique landscape while preserving its natural purpose?
Clearly we cannot stand by and watch this natural treasure degrade. If we are the animal that thinks, we must consider the effects of our use of the land. We have managed to save the Sods from mining, timbering, and development to preserve a natural habitat that invites people seeking to explore its wonders. Now we need to protect it from the “lovers of nature” who cut live trees for firewood, litter campsites, and neglect to dispose of human waste in a sanitary manner.
Our wilderness steward program was an important step designed to educate recreational users. Over time it should have a positive impact, allowing access to a wild land where natural extremes shaped the land and its ecosystem.
Ultimately, though, pressures will continue to multiply. The Sods is within a half day of travel from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, and Norfolk. It is a sought after wilderness destination. Yet it is a natural habitat where the processes of nature must prevail. If we allow the wilderness to be trampled, polluted, eroded, and destroyed we will not have a wilderness to preserve.
The National Forest Service will need to closely monitor wilderness usage, perhaps establish limits to how many people may access the land at any time. Registers at trailheads are a way of creating a database of wilderness use. Where are they going, where will they camp, how many in the party, how long will they stay are questions that will help the Forest Service protect the unique and fragile environment that draws so many people to the Dolly Sods. It will allow people to enjoy the fragile wilderness while preserving the natural processes that make it unique.