Solitude No More?

by Tom Suk

Editor's Note: The author was asked to represent the HSHA at a gathering held in October 1998 in Seattle, WA (USA) to discuss wilderness management issues. The following article presents his impressions following that meeting.

As I flew north from California over the Oregon and Washington Cascades, and peered down on the checkerboard landscape of roads and clearcuts, I was overcome with gratitude to those who worked so hard to preserve the High Sierra. After all, how many places are left in the "lower 48" where you can walk for more than 200 miles in one direction without crossing a road?

Despite my birds-eye, clearcut-induced nostalgia for Sierra wilderness, it occurred to me that perhaps I haven't spent enough time in the great Northwest. Surely, there must be some "Big Wilderness" up here, and lots of defenders. Little did I know that my perceptions about the enlightened attitudes of our neighbors to the north would be abruptly shattered a few hours later.

I climbed the stairs from the parking garage to Seattle's new REI building—past constructed waterfalls and through halls of glossy, glittery, department-store style displays—and ascended to the second-floor meeting room for a four-hour powwow on the wilderness of the West Coast.

The meeting room had the look and feel of a Hollywood-set corporate board room: high ceiling, long rectangular table with muted figures staring across at each other, and large windows with sweeping views over the city and across Puget Sound.

I anticipated conferring with like-minded wilderness advocates, but I was soon surprised by the level of apparent disagreement. The most controversial topic of discussion was whether the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) should apply "social criteria" to protect solitude (i.e., prevent overcrowding) in designated wilderness areas. While I expected some contrasting views, the situation was far worse than I had thought.

A guidebook author based in Washington state (he has an obvious economic interest in keeping local trails unregulated) is leading a campaign to condemn the USFS for attempting to limit use of popular wilderness areas in order to prevent overcrowding. The author insists that recreation use should only be limited if the agency can assemble a compelling case that ecological integrity has become compromised. The anti-conservation 104th Congress had jumped on his bandwagon and attached a committee report to an appropriations bill which expressed the displeasure of the House Resources Committee with USFS attempts to regulate wilderness areas using "subjective" social criteria, such as solitude.

I had expected—going into this meeting—that conservationists and recreationists alike would support the USFS in adopting reasonable limits to prevent overcrowding of wilderness areas. But one by one, representatives of The Mountaineers, the Access Fund, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, et al., agreed with the guidebook author. Some were forceful; others were sheepish. But the prevailing view was that restrictions on wilderness recreation should be based primarily (or solely) on demonstrated biological or physical impacts to on-the-ground natural resources. These so-called leaders of the Northwest's conservation movement and spokespersons for climbing and mountaineering organizations apparently don't want their members' use of wilderness to be restricted unless the government can prove the existence of substantial environmental impacts. In essence, they agreed, one after another—some passionately, some passively—that the agency should refrain from adopting any limits on wilderness recreation in order to protect "solitude" or the experience of backcountry visitors.

Despite my initial shock, it wasn't difficult to discern that many in the room had arrived at this position purely out of selfishness—they simply don't want their own access to be regulated. Others claim to support unrestricted wilderness entry because they fear that public support for wildland protection will erode unless our ever-increasing population is provided with easy and unregulated admittance to designated wilderness areas. The latter reason seems noble at first glance, but those who posit that recreation management decisions should be based solely on bio-physical impacts fail to see the serious and unavoidable consequences of following that path.

First of all, such an approach allows (and in fact requires) damaging impacts to occur before any actions are taken to limit use. And once significant harmful impacts become apparent and are measured by scientists, it will often be difficult or impossible for managers to reduce the level of use in order to address those problems. This is because of the predictable tendency of established users to dispute the significance of the impacts identified by scientists, and to demand that their established uses be "grandfathered in" (i.e., allowed to continue regardless of the impact). At that point, the obvious path of least resistance for managers is to weaken the standard of "acceptable" impact and let the established uses continue. In contrast, if wilderness use is capped now at levels that can measurably and reasonably protect against overcrowding, managers in the future won't inevitably be faced with the dilemma of accepting documented resource impacts or having to make substantial cutbacks in recreation use.

Second, it is important to understand that decisions about biophysical impacts to natural resources are in effect social decisions. Scientists can measure biophysical impacts such as vegetation loss, soil compaction, multiple trail formation, etc., but the selection of standards for what constitutes "acceptable" impact is an entirely socio-political decision. The "bar" for what is acceptable is raised or lowered by managers (not scientists) based on social, political, and economic considerations. Thus, these criteria drive all management decisions, whether the objective is to protect biophysical resources or to enhance the experience of wilderness visitors.

Third, social conditions (e.g., visitor expectations and satisfaction) are often easier and less expensive to measure and monitor than the many potential bio-physical impacts. While some uninformed critics—including some in Congress—have generically attacked all regulations aimed at preventing overcrowding in wilderness as being "subjective," modern social science is equally or more quantitative and objective than many other academic disciplines. Social scientists have developed modern techniques to provide managers with sound, reproducible, peer-reviewed conclusions on which to base reasonable limits that will effectively protect the "wilderness experience" of backcountry visitors.

And fourth, if we make a conscious decision to refrain from using social criteria (or "solitude") as a basis for regulating numbers of people allowed into wilderness, will it become necessary to rescind existing regulations—such as group size limits—which were initially based largely on social considerations but are also known to provide important protection for biophysical resources? Do the opponents of using solitude as a wilderness management criterion want to encounter organized groups of fifty people in their favorite wilderness? One hundred people?

Those who argue that solitude should not be utilized as a criterion for regulating wilderness use forget that social criteria are already the basis for restricting many uses of our public lands. Consider just one example: the National Park Service at Arches National Park has used scientifically designed studies to determine what level of crowding would create significant dissatisfaction among visitors to Delicate Arch. The trailhead parking lot was then sized to accommodate the maximum number of visitors at one time that could be allowed without resulting in overcrowding. Visitors must now move on (and return at a later time) if the parking lot is full. This protects not only the experience of the people already on the trail, but it assures that visitors who originally found the parking lot full will have a satisfactory experience when they return. This is just one example of the many ways in which social criteria are regularly applied to management of public lands outside of wilderness. Why should such fundamental principles for limiting use not be applied to wilderness as well?

To be sure, there are many potential wilderness uses and developments that can significantly affect the human experience but which may (at least in some situations) have minimal bio-physical impacts on the environment. A few examples might be the use of mountain bikes, helicopters, and power tools (such as chain saws for cutting firewood), and the installation of developments such as outfitter camps, communications antennae, cell phone repeaters, toilets, picnic tables, and other conveniences. It is unclear just how far the current opponents of using overcrowding (i.e., solitude) as a management criterion will take their argument. Do they oppose the use of social criteria for all decisions regarding the amounts and types of allowable uses in wilderness, or do they simply oppose using solitude as the basis for management if it might restrict their own personal activities? My point is this: if the evaluations of all uses and developments within wilderness are to be based primarily on biophysical impact criteria, it follows that it would be difficult or impossible to restrict uses that don't have demonstrable biophysical impacts, such as cell phone repeaters (some industry representatives say we need these every mile along the Sierra crest), or helicopter landing zones throughout wilderness (why shouldn't people be allowed to buy commercial drop-offs and pick-ups within wilderness if it has little demonstrable biophysical impact?), or pay phones at every trail junction (some say these are needed for public safety and convenience).

Perhaps this whole disagreement is really about the definition of "wilderness." The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as a place which has "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation." To me, "unconfined" means uncrowded. Others are adamant that unconfined means "unrestricted" or "unregulated." One thing is certain: debate over the intent of this section of the Act is likely to continue.

As the meeting progressed, I listened long and hard. It wasn't until the guidebook author and representatives of The Mountaineers and the Access Fund had bashed Forest Service managers for more than an hour, that I decided it was time to step in. I explained that current conditions in the Northwest seemed reminiscent of California about twenty years ago. In the 1970s, the booming population of the Golden State, and the skyrocketing popularity of High Sierra wilderness, prompted managers to institute trailhead entry quotas to prevent overcrowding. The concept of quotas is now widely accepted by hikers, climbers, and stock users in the High Sierra, and compliance is nearly universal. Sure, it's a hassle to get a permit, and it can be inconvenient to change plans if the quota for your preferred route has been filled. But there is always someplace to go. And once you have your permit and you're walking up the trail, you know that a reasonable degree of solitude can be found.

In contrast, the Northwest has few trailhead quotas. But as its population densities approach those of California two decades past, its people—or at least those representing its people in public forums—seem vigorously opposed to new quotas. Can they not see that in their zeal to protect their own interests, they are threatening wilderness throughout the nation? By enlisting the support of anti-conservation Members of Congress to attack Forest Service efforts to maintain solitude, these so-called conservationists are actively eroding the foundations of the Wilderness Act itself.

In the end, I advocated on behalf of the HSHA that wilderness should be reasonably regulated to preserve its solitude and uncrowded nature, as well as to protect it against biophysical impacts. I supported the use of quota systems to limit numbers of people in popular areas, and stated that hundreds of HSHA members are willing to be turned away from their preferred destination, if necessary, to ensure a true wilderness experience for present and future generations. Wilderness Watch (a non-profit group based in Missoula, Montana) agreed with these positions. All others, however, argued—or passively supported the view—that the numbers of people in wilderness should not be regulated regardless of how crowded it gets, unless the government can definitively prove that irreversible ecological harm is occurring.

One climber at our meeting—he represented the Access Fund—spoke with heartfelt conviction about wanting to go hiking with his three children, and not wanting to find a "closed gate" whenever he happens to go. I wondered what kind of experience his children's children will have if his group is successful in opposing any and all limits designed to prevent overcrowding of our wilderness areas.