December 14, 2019 | By:

From No Sense of Wild to a Need to Rewild North America

Featured Image: Jaguar © MasterImages

By John Miles

Ever since I read a book in college in the mid-1960s titled A Wilderness Bill of Rights by William O. Douglas, I have pondered, enjoyed, and advocated for wilderness. Growing up in New Hampshire I was unaware of the idea of wilderness though I knew wild woodlands, swamps, and meadows where I found wildlife and youthful adventure. Douglas introduced me to the idea of legislated Wilderness and the Wilderness Act of 1964. Since then I have believed in the idea of wilderness and have buttressed that belief with much experience of designated Wilderness and de facto wild lands.

The wilderness idea has been attacked over the decades by interests who sought to exploit the resources “locked up” there, and by intellectuals who have made various arguments against it. One such argument is that there is no wild, that indigenous people had no sense of wild and wilderness, that it is only an idea introduced by Europeans. As I’ve studied the idea over decades and seen Native Americans paraded out to claim they had no sense of wilderness, that it is only a cultural construction of Euro-Americans, I have been troubled. Many tribal people today do embrace the idea of wilderness. Euro-Americans did give that state of nature a name, bringing the concept with them from Old World roots, but colonists of the New World did not invent places where the works of humans were absent or nearly so. I have in the field experienced wildness, so I know it as a physical reality, not just as an idea or cultural construction.

In this essay I would like to review the history of the idea because now I am dedicated to rewilding parts of North America where wildness has been lost. Some have argued that the idea that there is wilderness erases history. I disagree and argue that history confirms, as does experience, that there is indeed wildness and wilderness and there always has been.

Much of what follows will be familiar to veteran wilderness advocates and rewilders. Parts of the story have been told in great detail, as in Roderick Nash’s classic Wilderness and the American Mind, but it seems important to review the path to a perceived need to rewild parts of North America and elsewhere in the late 20th century. We need to understand the historical context of rewilding. Hopefully this essay will inform young wilderness advocates and rewilders of the deep roots of what is happening in this field today.

The Skagit River in northwest Washington drains part of the very rugged North Cascades in Washington and British Columbia. The river drains into the Salish Sea and the upper reaches of the river were home to indigenous people since time immemorial. When archaeologists sought to learn of the prehistory of these people, they looked in the river valley and dismissed the likelihood that they would find anything of archaeological value in the mountains. Why would people blessed with the riches of the salmon runs on the Skagit, their thinking went, spend much time in the glaciated, steep, often snow-covered high country? Archaeologists initially did not even look up there.

Mt. Shuksan, Steven Mather Wilderness, WA © John Miles

Mt. Shuksan, Steven Mather Wilderness, WA © John Miles

Bob Mierendorf, who became the archaeologist for North Cascades National Park in the 1980s, thought that perhaps indigenous people had ventured into the mountains, that at least he should look there for signs of their presence. He found considerable evidence that ancient ones had indeed used the high country. These early human inhabitants had found and quarried and traded chert, hunted deer and mountain goats, picked for winter hair that goats shed annually in predictable places, and gathered abundant huckleberries and other native fruits. Much of the year the mountains were bathed in deep snow and people lived in the valleys, but in summer they ventured into the high country.

Today much of the North Cascades range is part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, protected – with both National Park and Wilderness designation – as much as any landscape in America can be. I studied and explored this region for many years, examining and writing about the way this land had been perceived and used by the people who lived on and around it. Though indigenous people had been up there, I found it wild and wilderness. As I became an advocate of Wilderness, I celebrated its designation anywhere but especially in the North Cascades. I read and thought deeply about wildness and its values to us today and this ultimately led me to rewilding, to a recognition that we must reverse the loss of wild places upon which many of our fellow Earth Travelers depend for their existence.

All of this has led me to ponder conceptions of wildness and wilderness in America, which began with indigenous people considering the nature around them as home, lacking any concept of “wildness” or “wilderness.”  Europeans arrived who perceived the New World as “wild and savage,” a condition to be corrected. Their missions were colonization and settlement of what they saw potentially as home but also as a resource bank to be harvested and marketed. Some of the colonizers gradually came to believe that wild land was necessary for survival and “conservation” emerged, a movement to protect wildness in Wilderness and to sustain “natural resources.”  Then, late in the 20th century, intellectuals critiqued a “received wilderness” idea and at the same time the idea of rewilding appeared. All of these stages of thought about the “wild” have been analyzed and described, but as an advocate of rewilding, I will briefly examine each stage as a way to understand how we have arrived at the idea of rewilding.

Stage One: No Sense of Wild
Before European colonization there were many indigenous cultures in North America and no single view of nature or way to interact with it. Some were hunter-gatherers who moved across the land with minimal impact upon it, while others were sedentary, practiced agriculture, and significantly modified the land. Interactions with the land were governed by geography and ecology. The Upper Skagit Indians, for instance, could establish relatively permanent villages along the river up which salmon would run each year. They could anticipate a reliable food supply swimming up to them, and their presence in surrounding mountains was seasonal. People living on the Great Plains, on the other hand, had to move with the bison herds upon which they depended. Woodland dwellers in the East modified the forested landscape to practice some agriculture, hunted and gathered on the surrounding landscape, and used the tool of fire to assure habitat for ungulates they hunted, especially deer.

One commonality of belief about nature held by these people was that the natural world was home; they lived within nature and were part of it. The natural world held spiritual qualities and values for them, which required them to respect nature. They were also at the mercy of this world, which required humility and often myth and ritual to demonstrate their respect and give them some sense of control over their fate. They used nature and manipulated it when they could. Human populations rose and fell over time, with greater or lesser impact on the nature they used. In the Southwest over millennia, for instance, lifestyles grew from pit houses to the great houses of Chaco Canyon, then drought and conflict depleted and redistributed populations to cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and other sites. Ancient Puebloans rebuilt their communities in new places and new ways. Through a vast time and space, change was constant, but indications are that indigenous people had no concept of wilderness or a “wild” separate from them. Nature was home.

Taos Pueblo Blue Lake Wilderness © John Miles

Taos Pueblo Blue Lake Wilderness © John Miles

Stage Two: Wild is Bad, Conquest of Wilderness a Duty
Roderick Nash, in Wilderness and the American Mind, explains at length how Europeans brought to America a dualistic sense of separation from nature and the idea that wilderness was “the earthly realm of the powers of evil.” Early colonists adhered to the scriptural admonition in Genesis to “Increase & replenish the earth & subdue it.” Their mission was to transform a “cursed and chaotic wasteland” into civilization.  Nash points out that colonists and settlers faced real dangers as they established civilization in the New World – Indians who resented their incursions and sometimes attacked them, wild animals who could harm them, and harsh environmental conditions that could kill them. Their attitudes toward wilderness, argues Nash, were primarily the product of Old World ideas about nature, but the conditions they faced added to their antipathy for the wild.

European colonization of the New World was a battle from the beginning for the Spanish in the Southwest and other European settlers to the east, a battle against “savages” and wilderness. Some came to make a home, to enjoy freedom and independence denied them in Europe, and some came for riches to boost powers of conquest. None of them came with a sense of nature as “home” in the way the indigenous people already living there saw themselves. Whereas native people exploited nature for sustenance and survival and considered themselves a part of the natural world, many of the newcomers saw nature as a source of riches, a provider of “natural resources.” The newcomers subscribed to the belief that land was property, could be owned, and all of nature was a commodity. Conquering the wild and the “savages” would bring civilization based on withdrawing commodities from the resource “bank” that God had made for them. They would be doing God’s work and reaping the benefits in this world and the next.

Rocky Mountain Elk © KIT West Designs

Rocky Mountain Elk © KIT West Designs

As Nash explains, these ideas prevailed from the 16th to the 19th centuries and to the present. They evolved into the idea of Manifest Destiny and of subjugating the wilderness as “progress.” Indigenous people were simply pushed out of the way by a genocidal wave of settlers pursuing their God-given destiny and expanding Western civilization, a familiar and sad story. Europeans saw the New World as a resource bank from which they could and should make withdrawals, the Spanish literally taking gold from the bank, or trying to, and the French and English withdrawing fur, which they could exchange for gold back in the Old World. Again, a familiar story – the modus operandi was to “subdue” the wild and take from it what they could. To be fair, many colonists sought only to make a living as small farmers. Thomas Jefferson thought the future of America should be a nation of small, self-sufficient farmers, but Alexander Hamilton had other ideas. As the country grew and the wilderness receded, the commodification of nature progressed with often devastating effects.

Stage Three: Wild and Wilderness are Good
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a countercurrent to all of this stirred. A romantic conception of nature emerged in Europe and was exported to the United States. Nash writes that “Enthusiasm for wilderness based on Romanticism, deism, and the sense of the sublime developed among sophisticated Europeans surrounded by cities and books. So too in America the beginnings of appreciation are found among writers, artists, scientists, vacationers, gentlemen – people, in short, who did not face wilderness from the pioneer perspective.”  Among such people were early naturalists John and William Bartram, artists Thomas Cole and John James Audubon, and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau pronounced “We need the tonic of wildness” and “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” He was a lyrical spokesman for a new concept of wild and wilderness, quite the opposite of ideas of most of his mid-18th century contemporaries, but his ideas would grow, as Nash says, in “the American mind.”

Most of Thoreau’s fellows held a strictly utilitarian view of nature; they saw it of primarily if not exclusively instrumental value. What could they make from it, do with it, gain from it? Along with his more utilitarian mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau emphasized instead the spiritual and intrinsic value of nature. These were radical ideas in the middle of the 19th century and remained so for decades until, late in the century, values of the wild and wilderness were discovered by many Americans. This discovery was fueled by a growing separation from nature as people moved from farms to cities, by the realization that subduing and commodifying the natural world was leading to undesirable consequences such as extinction of some species like passenger pigeons and near extinction of others.

Secret Mountain Wilderness, AZ © John Miles

Secret Mountain Wilderness, AZ © John Miles

Stage 4: Conservation
Americans pursuing their Manifest Destiny assumed that the bounty of nature was endless until they began running out. Some didn’t care, of course, but others started to worry. Hunters like Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell worried that game animals they preyed upon, but which they also loved, faced extinction – “The Great Slaughter” of bison in the 1800s a case in point. Bird lovers began to see more birds on hats than in the wild and decided something had to be done to stop the slaughter. Diminished pineries and severe wildfires in the Upper Midwest raised concerns about the future of timber supply. Painters and photographers portrayed remarkably beautiful places in the West and a scramble to protect these places from privatization and exploitation resulted.

All of this led to conservation which in the beginning was a movement with many faces. Forester, advisor to Theodore Roosevelt, and first Chief of the Forest Service Gifford Pinchot, said conservation “stands for development” and “The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives on.” His goal was efficient management of natural resources, his mantra “wise use,” and his philosophy anthropocentric and utilitarian. Roosevelt mostly agreed with him. Progressive conservationists like Pinchot sought to manage natural resources – forests, water, wildlife – so there would be a sustainable timber supply, wildlife in perpetuity for hunters, water to make the deserts bloom. A wilder face of the movement was John Muir, more an acolyte of Thoreau, who extolled the spiritual values of wild nature and advocated protection of “Nature’s sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world” as Nash summarized Muir’s contribution to conservation. Many others in the movement focused their energies on conserving wildlife (George Bird Grinnell, Frank Chapman, Willian T. Hornaday), water (WJ McGee), soil (Hugh Hammond Bennett), and scenery (Robert Underwood Johnson, J. Horace MacFarland). The goal of all of them was to assure future generations would enjoy the values of these resources whether the value be aesthetic, economic, or even intrinsic.

Stage 5: Preservation and Wilderness
Muir wrote and spoke often of wilderness. He wrote in his 1901 book Our National Parks, “The tendency nowadays to wander in wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” This wilderness was fast disappearing to the saws of loggers, to dam builders, and to other forms of development. Pinchot-style conservation, rather than slowing loss of wilderness, was increasing it by encouraging “wise use” and development. A resource not wisely used was wasted. Surprisingly, given their agency’s Pinchot-inspired mission, Forest Service leaders led advocacy for preservation of wilderness. Arthur Carhart, the first Forest Service landscape architect, was ordered to survey summer home sites around Colorado’s Trappers Lake, but concluded the place was too wild and beautiful to be developed. Carhart then shared his views on wilderness with another Forest Service leader, Aldo Leopold, who advanced them and successfully advocated for the first national forest wilderness in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico. Then, in the 1930s Bob Marshall, also of the Forest Service, nudged the agency toward expansion of its wilderness areas and outside the agency, he funded and founded The Wilderness Society. A preservationist wing of the conservation movement, initiated by Muir with a focus on national parks, took up the cause of preserving wilderness as an ever scarcer “resource.” The Wilderness Society and Muir’s Sierra Club would soon lead the push for wilderness protection.

After a pause for World War II, work for wilderness preservation increased as did logging and other development in national forests. Demand for timber, suppressed by the Great Depression and the War, increased post-war road building and logging which rapidly reduced wilderness. On another front conservationists successfully confronted dam-builders on several western rivers, the Green River foremost. As conservationists gained confidence and energy, they launched a campaign to create a national wilderness preservation system. They succeeded in passing the Wilderness Act of 1964, and over the ensuing fifty years managed to build a National Wilderness Preservation System of 109 million acres and protect rivers like the iconic Colorado in the Grand Canyon.

This successful effort of 120 years and continuing, was driven principally by anthropocentric values, as John Muir expressed them in the passage quoted above. Wilderness preservation was sold primarily as assurance of a future for wilderness recreation. Shortly after the Wilderness Act was approved, the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973. This legislation recognized that many species were being pushed to extinction, and with its passage, another value of wilderness was more widely recognized – its value for wildlife conservation in general and endangered species protection in particular.  Conservation biology emerged when many scientists documented that biological diversity was declining worldwide. This mission-focused biology cultivated understanding of the consequences of habitat fragmentation, the need for functional connectivity between habitats, the need to focus conservation on large landscapes and predators, and much more. The value of wilderness areas as reserves and assets for conservation of biodiversity joined recreation as a principal goal of wilderness preservation.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, NM © Robin Silver

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, NM © Robin Silver

Stage 6: Critiques of Wilderness
The acreage in the National Wilderness Preservation System seems large yet is a bit less than 5% of the land base of the United States, including Alaska. This small portion of the nation is too much for some, and reactionaries began to publish critiques of wilderness and deconstructions of the wilderness idea in the 1990s.  Surprisingly, they were not the forces that had always opposed wilderness in the United States as a lockup of resources – players with an economic interest in exploiting the land that would become part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. They were mostly academics, historians and philosophers like William Cronon and J. Baird Callicott. They argued that designation of wilderness was “release” of land not so designated for development and abuse; that designation of wilderness was unjust, depriving people of resources they needed; that there was no such thing as wilderness anyway because much of what, in the Euro-centric view was wild and pristine, had in fact been inhabited by indigenous people; that the idea of wilderness was flawed because it sought to freeze-frame states of nature which are always changing; that the idea of wilderness implies separation of humans from nature, worsening a dangerous dualism.

Such critiques launched a Great New Wilderness Debate as it was cast in 1998 book edited by Callicott and Michael P. Nelson which presented criticism and defense of the wilderness idea. Critiques and refutations continue in the early 21st century as wilderness advocates and opponents fight over the last remnants of roadless and wild land in the American public domain. While the debate in academic circles was engaged, discussion and insight into the roles wild lands play in protecting endangered species and restoring biological diversity continued to grow in the scientific and conservation communities. Despite the critiques, more wilderness was added to the National Wilderness Preservation System with passage by Congress of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 which added 2,050,964 acres and the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019 which added 1.3 million. Smaller areas have also been added and more are being sought.

These significant additions to legislated wilderness would seem to suggest that the critiques and deconstructions of the wilderness idea have not had much effect on wilderness protection, but that remains to be seen. As population and demand for resources continues to grow, the power of the wilderness idea will continue to be challenged while the need for it will grow. Some critics argue that there is no wilderness, but this “no wilderness” is not a return to the “no wild” perception of the natural world held by indigenous people. Rather, it advocates that all nature should be accessible and usable by human populations, an anthropocentric, utilitarian, and supremacist view of nature which writer Eileen Crist calls “techno-managerialism.” She writes, “A diverse world infinite in beauty, mystery, interdependencies, sheer being, past heritage, and future evolution . . . is redefined and dissipated into just-being-for-using.”


Wolverine © Susan Morgan

Stage 7: Need to Rewild
The idea of rewilding began to gain traction at the same time the deconstruction of the wilderness idea was launched. Conservation leader Dave Foreman came up with the term “rewild” in the late 1980s and it began to appear in print in the early 1990s.  In 1997 the Yukon to Yellowstone Conservation Initiative, or Y2Y, was established for the benefit of wide-ranging animals like wolves and grizzlies. Conservation biologists Michael Soulé and Reed Noss contributed an article to Wild Earth in 1998 focusing their approach to rewilding on the 3 Cs – “Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores.” Protected areas like wilderness and hotspots of biological diversity, they argued, should be connected in ecological networks restoring the functioning of natural processes on a significant scale. In 2003 Dave Foreman published Rewilding North America:  A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century. His vision for returning the “wild” where possible in North America would be based on six areas of ecological research: extinction dynamics, island biogeography, metapopulation theory, nature disturbance ecology, top-down regulation of large carnivores, and landscape ecological scale restoration. Such research would guide protected area design.

Soulé, Noss, Foreman and their colleagues were describing the ecological value of protected areas like wilderness. They were not focused on human costs or benefits of wild lands as were the critics of the wilderness idea, but rather on the benefits to ecological systems and the organisms of which they are comprised, many of which were on the way to extinction if something was not done to slow and stop their decline. While scientists dug into how this might be accomplished, the conservation movement responded as David Johns has described:

“As grassroots conservation groups joined together and sought to delineate a common vision for regional systems of protected cores and landscape connectivity, deciding which species to take into account became a very practical concern. A variety of approaches were taken, some relying on 20-30 focal species representing a wide range of life needs and processes and including keystone, umbrella, indicator, and iconic species. Other approaches focused on healing wounds to the land (e.g. fragmentation), recovering regionally extirpated species, and suppressing disturbance regimes.”

All of this came to be called “rewilding.”

The first stage of the evolution of the concept I have tracked here described indigenous Americans as understanding themselves as part of nature, considering it home, with no thought of separation from the wild world around them. Indigenous language had no word for “wild” or “wilderness,” no conception of it. Over the centuries Euro-Americans embraced a mission of subduing the “wild” and as they succeeded, it became scarce and morphed into “wilderness,” which was where creatures were not under human control, where life was “self-willed.” Out of this conception came a social movement to save this diminishing quality of the natural world. Ultimately a law was passed in the United States that defined wilderness “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” As human populations and their resource consumption grew, self-willed creatures went into serious decline, and conservation evolved to embrace a less anthropocentric “resourcist” focus. Wilderness became a “protected area” and such areas became “core areas” essential to maintenance and restoration of functioning ecosystems and species communities. The goal was to bring “wild” back into enough land to allow this to happen. In 2016 the eminent biologist E.O Wilson argued that this would require protecting half of the total area of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on Earth.

One current criticism of rewilding is that it embraces an unrealistic goal of “going back” to a pristine nature, to turning large areas into wilderness like those established under the Wilderness Act in the United States. The goal of protecting areas where the works of humans have not degraded ecological processes and extirpated species continues, and is part of the rewilding effort, and to that extent it embraces wilderness, but the main goal is not to “go back” to some imagined pristine past. As David Johns has noted, a thorny issue for rewilding is what in fact is the state of nature that would be considered adequately wild. And if rewilding has restored functioning ecosystems and species communities, what then?

The concept of rewilding has achieved enough recognition to appear in dictionaries. In the Oxford Dictionary it is defined as “restore (an area of land) to its natural uncultivated state (used especially with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild animals that have been driven out or exterminated.”) Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as “the planned reintroduction of a plant or animal species and especially a keystone species or apex predator (such as the gray wolf or lynx) into a habitat from which it has disappeared (as from hunting or habitat destruction) in an effort to increase biodiversity and restore the health of an ecosystem.” Rewilding Europe defines it as “letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems, and restore degraded landscapes.” This Rewilding Europe definition raises the question of what the active role of humans, if any, should be in rewilding and that is a controversial topic for another essay, but it reveals how far we have to go in figuring out what the verb “rewild” means and how we should do it.

There is no doubt that the human population will continue to grow and pressure on the wild will increase while we debate what to do and how to do it. At this point in the story of wild we understand that rewilding is emerging as an effective approach to conservation but that there are many questions about it to be asked and answered. The Rewilding Institute states that “Rewilding, in essence, is giving the land back to the wildlife and the wildlife back to the land.” A worthy and noble cause in these daunting times.


Spread Rewilding Around the Globe!
Subscribe To Comments On This Article
Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Linda Greaves
4 years ago

We need to save out earth

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x