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Get Out of the Office—Why Wilderness is Not a Luxury

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Chair Mountain, Marble, Colorado

Whenever I fly, I prefer a window seat. Despite my excessive time in the air traveling for work (accruing an embarrassing carbon footprint), I marvel at the patterns of our world from 30,000 feet. I am particularly intrigued by empty spots—places where roads and towns and development do not exist. At night, they appear as dark, inky patches on the map that represent the last vestiges of potentially wild nooks on our planet. These days, they’re farther and fewer between. Nonetheless, I love to explore them, and always will. Who lives in those undeveloped corners? What creatures rule those kingdoms?

In the United States, these light-free locales are typically federal lands: the home of timber, fresh water, wildlife, even livestock. The darkest regions are generally designated as wilderness areas. Today there are roughly 110 million acres of wilderness in the U.S.—remarkable considering today’s ever-growing populace. When the Wilderness Act was first adopted by Congress in 1964, there were only nine million acres.

View this visual “thank you” to wilderness with words by Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir and Wallace Stegner. Video by Pete McBride and Vital Films.

By law and in theory, wilderness is supposed to be places we leave alone, places untrammeled by man. They are set aside for nature and evolution to run its slow course, for better or worse, so future generations can sample a world without pavement and intrusion. The goal is to keep our heavy human footprint to a minimum.

The paradoxical irony, however, is that we can’t keep our hands off. We “manage” our wilderness areas with the best intentions and the best knowledge of our times. For example, for decades we prevented wild fires. Today, we’ve learned how important fire is to ecological cycles so now we prescribe burns in certain areas. The same goes for wildlife. In some national parks, which are managed like wilderness, we introduce certain species of animals and plants to balance ecosystems that have been knocked off their natural kilter, typically caused by the tinkering of man at an earlier time.

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Colorado River, Grand Canyon, Arizona

In the Colorado River basin—an area that crosses seven southwestern states, connects nine national parks like pearls on a river necklace, and contains thousands of wilderness acres—we introduced a plant called tamarisk to control erosion half a century ago. To our surprise, tamarisk was so effective at its job it spread across the entire basin wiping out swaths of native species like willows and cottonwood trees. Call it just one of many environmental “whoops”.

Now we have introduced the “tamarisk beetle” to eat and remedy the pesky non-native, water-consumptive tamarisk problem. So far, so good. The little critters are doing their job without any ecological surprises—yet. But it is hard to say what unintended consequences are looming in the future as these imported beetle buddies take root. The patterns of land management continue.

In essence, these lands dubbed “wilderness” are not truly wild. On a certain level, they are anything but. They are manicured and managed as much as our farms and gardens. The main difference, of course, is scale.

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Maroon Bells Wilderness, White River National Forest, Colorado

That said, there one fundamental distinction we cannot forget: unlike farms and gardens, wilderness areas cannot change, nor are they allowed to be changed. No permanent buildings, no roads, no wheeled traffic. Their management plans might have adjusted over the last 50 years, but their undeveloped landscapes have not. A few trails may have appeared; a few trees may have sprouted skyward, crashed to earth, or even burned. Yet, what someone saw in 1964 is roughly the same today.

I grew up amidst wilderness in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Today, the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area, a place I’ve skied, hiked and explored for nearly four decades, is one of the most visited wilderness areas in the country. On some level it might be loved to death, tamed even, which exemplifies the words Edward Abbey penned five decades ago: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity for the human spirit.” I’ve seen people, from all walks of life, all cultures of the world, drawn to this pristine mountain landscape for one reason—its beauty. I suspect Abbey never envisioned the crowds that visit places like Maroon Bells or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.

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South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona

As a photographer and filmmaker, I’ve witnessed landscapes change around the U.S and abroad my entire life; forests become farms, farms becomes subdivisions, towns becomes cities, rivers run dry, and deltas become deserts.

Despite the increased traffic to certain natural spots, there is something notably hopeful knowing that a wooded trail by a lake below 14,000-foot mountains near my home in Colorado hasn’t changed much and won’t. In a world of rapid transition and growth, finding wild places unchanged—even if they are managed to compensate our ongoing, best-intentioned mistakes and challenges (climate change comes to mind)—is inspiring.

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Snowmass Lake and Peak, Colorado

Having worked in many of these wild spaces, I recently felt compelled to create a visual “thank you” to those that helped directly and indirectly establish the Wilderness Act. (View video above or here on Vimeo.) I reference a few poignant lines from some conservation authors I grew up reading. All of these authors used the power of their pens to speak up for the woods and the rivers and the hills. Someone has to. Call it a “pay it forward” message or tribute to the next caretakers of our untrammeled lands, whoever they might be, and as imperfect as the Wilderness Act might seem in 2014.

It feels good to go home—to the trails, the woods, the lakes and the meadows within those empty spots on the map. I hope they stay that way for more to explore.

As Aldo Leopold so eloquently wrote about such finite realms, “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow… the creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible.”

Pete McBride would like to thank to Duke Beardsley, a lifelong friend and artist, for his voice, and the team at Vital Films for their camera and editing help in making this short film.


Pete McBride chases rivers—because he loves river trips—and he fears people are not aware of freshwater and the watersheds that feed them. He has worked in over 70 countries, been deported from one, followed four rivers source to sea, had an accidental standoff with an Amazonian electric eel, and kissed a flannelmouth sucker fish. See more of his work on his website, Vimeo, Instagram and follow him on Twitter.

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