Defending Wilderness and Nurturing the Next Generation of Wilderness Stewards

Guest blog post by Tobi Nickel, CMC Wilderness Trails Steward

Opening the tent’s vestibule, I gaze upon the light blue waters of Lamphier Lake reflecting the early morning sunlight. Beyond the lake, a craggy wall of granite rises against a canvas of blue sky. The morning air is cold and crisp, and the smell of pine needles permeates the air. As I go to retrieve my bear hang, I hear the cheerful chorus of birds chirping amongst the trees. A marmot perches on a rock, curiously observing my strange camping rituals from a distance. Preparing my cup of coffee, I relish this moment of solitude and wildness high in the mountains. I am absorbed in this landscape and get to humbly partake in its greatness. Away from calendars, clocks, and cell phones, it is here that feel most alive, most at peace with myself and the world.

I do not take these transformative wilderness experiences for granted. Growing up in Germany, I had few experiences camping and the idea of backpacking in wilderness was entirely foreign to me. Coming out to California for college, I immediately fell in love with the wide open spaces protected by public lands in the American West. The wilderness changed me, and I soon decided that I wanted to dedicate my life’s energies to the defense of wilderness and to inspiring and educating the next generation of wilderness stewards. After a few stints with the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, I moved to Gunnison to earn a master’s in public land management at Western Colorado University. Freshly graduated, I spent this summer working for the Colorado Mountain Club on visitor impact studies in the Fossil Ridge and Powderhorn Wilderness Areas.

Using CMC’s RIMS Mobile Application, I spent the summer inventorying campsites and assessing their aesthetic and ecological impacts along trail corridors and at popular lakes in the wilderness. I also facilitated Leave No Trace Backpacking Courses, teaching participants about minimum impact camping practices and helping them cultivate their own land ethics. Having completed my graduate research in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness, I have developed a special connection and deep appreciation for this landscape. The place feels like a part of me, and I can draw a detailed topographic map of its features in my mind. Every ridge and every drainage have a story to tell.

My data collection and analysis contribute to a larger effort of monitoring wilderness character over time and assist the Forest Service in meeting its Wilderness Stewardship Performance goals. Wilderness Stewardship Performance is a framework to track how well the Forest Service is fulfilling its primary responsibility under the Wilderness Act of 1964 – which is to preserve wilderness character. I encourage wilderness users and advocates to learn more about and to get involved in wilderness character monitoring and Wilderness Stewardship Performance, as these are excellent, forward-thinking programs that the Forest Service and other federal land management agencies have launched in recent years.

Wilderness is a place where ecosystems remain undeveloped and intact and where natural processes unfold without direct human intervention. As such, wild places have intrinsic value and provide a wide range of benefits, including ecological, aesthetic, recreational, spiritual, therapeutic, scientific, and moral values. Having had the privilege of visiting many wilderness areas in the American West, I have first-hand experienced the transformative power of these places to inspire, heal, foster community, and enable personal growth.  I firmly believe that spending time immersed in a wilderness setting can make us better persons and that wilderness education has the potential to play a key role in creating a more inclusive and caring society.

Together with Howard Zahniser, the principal architect of the Wilderness Act of 1964, I believe that “we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.” I also agree with Wallace Stegner, who famously wrote, “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Unfortunately, wilderness is threatened both nationally and globally. We are witnessing the accelerating disappearance of self-willed, non-human nature. A century ago, only 15% of Earth’s surface was used to grow crops and raise livestock. Today, more than 77% of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87% of the ocean has been directly modified by the effects of human activities. Worrisomely, these trends are continuing and even accelerating. Between 1993 and 2009 alone, an area of terrestrial wilderness larger than India was lost to human settlement, farming, mining, and other pressures. Furthermore, no wilderness area is immune to changes in atmospheric chemistry due to industrial and agricultural activities that have changed and will continue to change the global climate.

Even outdoor recreation, which seemed so innocent not too long ago, is increasingly recognized as a threat to the integrity of wilderness ecosystems and the wildlife that depend upon them. In this regard, I want to commend the Colorado Mountain Club for taking ownership for the impacts that recreational activities have on the landscape and for seeking to be part of the solution. The RIMS App is a user-friendly tool to engage the public in wilderness stewardship, streamline monitoring, and leverage limited government resources. It is clear that CMC staff have put a lot of thought and effort into the RIMS development process to make the App as useful for land managers as possible. I highly recommend recreationists and land managers alike to take advantage of this excellent resource. The future of the National Wilderness Preservation System hinges on strategic leadership both within and outside the federal land management agencies, on expanding partnerships across traditional and non-traditional boundaries, and on nurturing a new generation of wilderness stewards.

As humanity continues to inflict ecological wounds and wild places across the globe fall under the threat of resource extraction, energy and urban development, and privatization, it is my hope that our National Wilderness Preservation System can, with popular support, political will, and forward-thinking management, continue to form a refuge for plants, animals, and humans alike for many years to come. Wilderness is the most endangered landscape, the least-sized, the one in shortest supply. Already we have lost so much. We must grasp this opportunity to secure wilderness before it disappears forever. I think we should save all we still can.

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