A Question for the Wilderness

As the world turns to greet a new age, our natural places are once again questioned as to their purpose and their roll in the scope of humanity. Idaho, in particular, has moved like a shapeshifter through its various uses and identities as settlers have met this land. Fur trapping, Mining, ranching, sheepherding, and potato farming have all provided livelihoods, but a new perspective has swept across these jagged mountains.

As John Muir famously quoted: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.”

In the age of technology, those places devoid of it have gained a new value. Wilderness has been amended to exclude drones, bicycles, motors, and even wheelchairs. With a wariness for progress and the technological epoch, our wilderness act walks a tightrope strung across the sentiment that “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Edward Abby would be proud. Like the tens of thousands of sheep that once flocked to this valley, we travel to the alpine meadows to lie among flowers watered by snowmelt. As we pack up our Subarus, honda CRVs, monster trucks, and minivans with ramen, gas station blankets, Coleman stoves, and sporks, we envision our makeshift homes in the wilderness, even if it is just for a week.

As alluring as flakes of gold and silver, or as profitable as the ranching could be, we now visit for another reason. As the early morning sun comes to a halt on the stoic faces of vaulted granite walls and the mist settles on the Redfish Lake, our senses are opened by the beauty of the Sawtooth range. Awoken from too long a rest, our adventurous spirit is piqued by the long days of sunshine, the clarity of the high mountain air, and the miles of dusty trail. As for myself, I have had the chance to rekindle my adventurous spirit with my partner. To see him smiling is like the flash of a shiner in a stream, the glint of a gold fleck against black sand, or the Milky Way as it arcs across the navy blue yonder.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 goes on to state that “an area of wilderness is further defined to mean… an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence.” What is it about the primeval character of a wilderness that lulls us so? Perhaps it is because we have become accustomed to nature in fragments: city parks, ribbons of woods along riversides, and undeveloped properties. We have sliced our wilderness like a chess pie into countless, tiny squares. The Wilderness Act has many guidelines, one of which is a size requirement. To be considered a wilderness, the land must “have at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition...” A visitor to a wilderness may find themselves engulfed in a panorama of forests, mountains, and lakes, spared from the hard borders of pavement. Power-lines, gas-stations, subdivisions, and farms make no appearance – they were not invited.

Now it is up to us to decide what questions we ask our wildernesses. What is your purpose? How do we protect you? Where do we go from here? On the gentle, pine-scented breezes, the answers are sustained. It is up to us to listen and to understand our relationship with the wild places of this planet.