Backyard Wilderness

Warning: long post ahead.

Last summer I read Backyard Wilderness: The Alpine Lakes Story by David Knibb. It was published in 1981, five years after the wilderness area was designated by Congress. I wrote this essay and have been sitting on it till now.

Backyard Wilderness is the story of conservationists, politicians, timber industry lobbyists, and private citizens. As I read, I realized that I was a witness to history when I was a teenager. Some of the people in the Alpine Lakes story turned up in my story, at least along the edges. Reading about the battle to preserve the central Cascades, I marvel that anything positive ever gets done in this nation. The process is so convoluted, so rife with money and politics. So much depends on a few persistent individuals.

In the fall of 1976, I joined the Wenatchee High School Alpine Club. Mr. Asplund, the advisor, led a few of us dedicated teenagers on weekend backpacks and snowshoe trips. We learned about what we should have in our packs, how to camp and travel, how to stay out of trouble in the backcountry. For me, it was an escape from my stressful family life, a way to connect with the mountain world I love. Those Alpine Club trips influenced my life in a way I could not have foreseen.

Mr. Asplund took us to the dedication ceremony of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in 1976. He had been one of the supporters and advocates for wilderness designation. We stood in a crowd at the Alpental Ski Area parking lot. The mountains rose up all around us. Speeches were given by prominent Washington State dignitaries. I don’t remember at all what was said. After the talking, we rode the chairlift with our backpacks and hiked to Snow Lake. We camped there overnight, and hiked out the next day. Beautiful spot.

I had many adventures with the Alpine Club. A couple years after high school, I met Bill and Peg Stark, who operated a small resort along the Icicle River outside of Leavenworth. Also mountain people and wilderness advocates, they had been involved in the Alpine Lakes story. Their annual pilgrimages to the Enchantment Lakes were the stuff of legend. I became their cook, and part of their community. From the Starks, I went to my first Forest Service job on the Leavenworth Ranger District trail crew. I believe that I was one of the first women to do that kind of work there. The next season I was a backcountry ranger and went to the wilderness every week. Mr. Reagan was elected late in 1979, and that was the end of my wilderness work for a long time.

For me, the Reagan years and most of the first Bush years were spent doing forestry-related jobs. Resource extraction was the carrot and stick of the Forest Service, with endless rounds of planning, roadbuilding, surveys, timber marking and cruising, logging, brush disposal and burning, replanting and more surveys. After eight years I grew sick and weary of working day after day in slashy clearcuts and nice pieces of forest that were about to get trashed. I was lucky to find a job on another trail crew, where I have been for the last 20 years. This brought me back to the Alpine Lakes.

I wonder if the proponents of the Wilderness Act and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness could have foreseen the growth and development of the past thirty years. Seattle was still something of a backwater in the late 1970s. The area boomed in the 1980s with the growth of the information technology industry. The city gained nearly 200,000 residents in that time, and the Puget Sound area is now home to over 3 million people. The Alpine Lakes is easily in their backyard. Anyone can leave home in the morning, latte in hand while they drive, eat lunch at a beautiful mountain lake, and be home for wine-tasting and dinner.

According to the 1964 Wilderness Act as passed by Congress: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his 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. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

The Act goes on to establish a national wilderness preservation system, and further specifies uses and management. Certain uses are prohibited, such as no commercial enterprises or permanent roads or structures. No temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport (except in case of emergency, and then special permission has to be granted).

What is amazing about this law is that we have more or less followed it. Efforts to establish new wilderness areas are hard fought, often languishing for decades. During the 1980s, there seemed to be momentum among some in the Forest Service to build roads into roadless areas to prevent them from being considered for wilderness designation. That came to an end when the bottom fell out of the timber market, and environmental groups stepped in as watchdogs of land management agencies’ every move.

Following this law has shaped my life. Without it, I would not have become passionate about old tools; the axe and crosscut saw. In the wilderness, travel is by foot or by horse. Work revolves around resourcefulness and solving problems with what the crew has with them. When insects surround me and I am soaked to the skin by rain and wet brush, I think of Lewis and Clark crossing the Bitterroot Mountains. They didn’t have Gore-tex clothing or mosquito netting. They didn’t have cell phones or GPS. They didn’t have enough to eat, and they weren’t sure where they were going. But they didn’t whine or quit (that we know of). They proceeded on. This, I think, is essential to the American experience in the landscape, and why we still need wilderness. I like to believe that any of us are still capable of traveling the way the Corps of Discovery and Native Americans did.

Man is still a visitor who does not remain, but the sheer number of visitors does leave the wilderness trammeled. It’s this nibbling away at the edges over time that has my attention. How can it still be wilderness? People who have studied this more than I insist that there is a spectrum of wilderness. Wilderness purists who demand the letter of the law come into conflict with others who call themselves realists. The people are here, the human influence on climate and planet are inescapable facts. Some wilderness areas are a sort of backpackers’ park. Others are what my friends and I call “The Big Wild”, places where solitude and silence dominate and being eaten by a grizzly bear is not out of the question. And I suppose there is everything in between.

One summer Friday I hiked the Snow Lake trail, which takes off from the Alpental parking lot where I stood in 1976. It’s a very popular hike, and I was passed by people in running shoes holding bottles of water in their hands. They hiked in groups, talking and chatting the whole time. When I started hiking down, I met an older couple wearing hiking boots and real day packs. They had looks of distress on their faces. When they saw my ranger uniform, they stopped and wondered if I could ask the people behind them to lower their voices. While I tried to explain to them that they were on one of the most popular trails in the Cascades, the noisy hikers caught up to us. The older man asked them politely if they could be quieter. “Oh, sure,” they replied and went on talking.

Wilderness is many things to many people. Some people use it as an outdoor gym where they work out and socialize. Others attend it as if it is church. And still others have no use for it at all, and resent that they aren’t allowed to use their machines in it or cut trees/mine/develop/drill for oil and gas. Nature is an inconvenience if it throws something in the trail that slows you down.

For me, that is the point. Slow down. Live more simply. Notice surroundings and yourself. Let ego fall away for awhile. Inhabit the body and mind directly. If you want to go to church, you will have to penetrate deeper into the Alpine Lakes or make a pilgrimage to the Big Wild. I concede that a backyard wilderness is better than no wilderness, and that people who go there are probably healthier than those at home watching television. And I remain in awe of the vision of the advocates and organizers who persisted until the Alpine Lakes was established. I’m watching that dynamic edge between wild public land and growing population and technology. As time goes on, I find it more and more unbearable. If wilderness is trammeled, then so are we. If wilderness is compromised and chewed around the edges, then so are we. Someday we may wake up and realize that we have lost ourselves as well as solitude and wildness. We need the humility of not knowing if we’ll die out there.

Someday I want to live in the wilderness’ backyard.

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