#23 Around the Campfire; Inhabited Wilderness?
The other day I was plowing through a stack of things to read and came upon an eye-friendly brochure about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the need to keep it wild and from being trashed by oil and gas drilling. As I was reading it, though, a line jumped out that made me blow my stack. My friends know it doesn’t take much to set me off. They like to laugh and say, “C’mon, Dave, tell us what you really think!” I am known as a man of few euphemisms.
What enkindled my brain-fire in the Arctic brochure? Just a little line, “The Arctic Refuge is an inhabited wilderness.” Why did they call it an inhabited wilderness? Because some folks “hunt and fish; gather plants, roots and berries; and travel on these lands.”
(I’m not going to name who put out the brochure, because I want this to be a wideswept rant and not targeted at one wilderness outfit. So, I’ll call them the “brochure bunch.”)
I could let this go by without saying anything, but it is a “teachable moment,” as I think the jargon goes.
To deal with this twisted thought of a wilderness being inhabited by people, maybe we need to know what acreage was being highlighted. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sweeps over much of northeastern Alaska. It is 19.5 million acres. That’s big. About the heft of Maine. Although the whole refuge is wilderness and cared for as such by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, all of it is not legally designated as a Wilderness Area—only 8 million acres are, which is still mighty big. We conservationists would like to have all of the refuge designated as a Wilderness Area, and of that we most want 1.2 million acres along the Refuge’s northern edge where the Arctic Coastal Plain (or North Slope) flows down from the Brooks Range to meet the Arctic Ocean. Congress left the coastal plain out of the Wilderness Area in 1980 because it could not make up its mind then whether to shield the North Slope as Wilderness or let it be industrialized for the oil and gas that might underlie it.
In a way, though, it doesn’t matter if the so-called “inhabited wilderness” is the whole Arctic Refuge, just the Arctic Refuge Wilderness Area, or the North Slope in the Refuge but not in the Wilderness. All of it is worthy of Wilderness Area designation. So, in what follows, I’m going to sweep it all together as wilderness.
For longer than I’ve been slugging it out for the wild, conservationists have thought of “Big W” Wilderness and “little w” wilderness. Big W Wilderness is what we call designated Wilderness Areas; little w wilderness is for lands that should be designated as Wilderness Areas but are not yet. Both kinds are wilderness on the ground, but only one is set aside, named, and shielded as such. New conservationists need to understand this, along with much more lore. All of the Arctic Refuge is either Big W or little w wilderness.
Reading this “inhabited wilderness” line made me wonder. Did the brochure bunch know what the word “inhabit” truly means?
Click on the attachment below to read the entire “Campfire.”
Dave Foreman is the founder of The Rewilding Institute, co-founder of The Wildlands Project and Earth First!, and author of several acclaimed books on wildlands conservation. Books: Rewilding North America | Man Swarm: How Overpopulation Is Killing The WIld World | Take Back Conservation …among several other Rewilding books you can find here. [Photo: Dave Foreman in the barren grounds of Nunavit, Canada © Nancy Morton]