What is Wilderness?
The etymological roots of the word wilderness mean “will-of-the-land.” Wilderness is self-willed land, a place free from human settlement and control, a place where natural processes direct the ebb and flow of life. Howard Zahniser, the primary author of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created our National Wilderness Preservation System on federal public lands, intentionally chose to use the obscure word untrammeled in the law’s definition of wilderness: “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.” A trammel is something that impedes free movement. Untrammeled lands are not necessarily pristine but are free, unyoked from human dominion.
Beauty. Solitude. Spiritual renewal. Muscle powered recreation in the great outdoors. These are some of the reasons people spend time in, and strive to protect, wilderness areas. But the values that wilderness provides don’t end with the experiential benefits to hikers, hunters, paddlers, and wildlife watchers. Permanently conserved landscapes without resource extraction offer a range of benefits to society: they provide wildlife habitat, climate regulation, clean air and water, and a scientific benchmark against which we can measure our progress toward sustainable use of the managed landscape. But perhaps most importantly, wilderness areas have intrinsic value: these sanctuaries of wild nature simply have a right to exist for their own sake.
A Brief History
Americans have been formally protecting wild places for nearly 150 years, initially as a reaction to the decimation of forests and wildlife as European settlement swept across the continent and the Industrial Revolution began to transform the American experience. Conservation visionaries such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold helped lay the foundation of the wilderness movement. Countless other individuals have been the “spirited people,” in the words of Wilderness Society founder Bob Marshall, “who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.” Marshall’s phrase “freedom of the wilderness” is notable, for freedom—not the absence of human history—is the defining attribute of wilderness. Indeed, one can find the remnants of past human activity, from stonewalls to mouldering settlements, in many of the Northeast’s recovering wilderness areas. The trajectory in these places is toward increasing wildness, letting natural processes and natural succession operate freely.
Wilderness, Logging, and Farming
Land conservation is a broadly inclusive activity. Some conservation projects focus on supporting human communities with a sustainable supply of forest and agricultural products (resource conservation). Others secure self-willed lands for wildlife to flourish unmolested and for ecological processes to unfold naturally (nature conservation). These two realms of conservation action are essential and complementary. The Northeast Wilderness Trust works exclusively on the latter, but regularly partners with other land trusts that focus on conserving well-managed timberlands and farms.
With the vast majority of land in the Northeast in private ownership, the opportunities to designate new wilderness areas on state and federal public lands are limited. Moreover, the bulk of land conservation work in the Northeast during recent decades has been oriented toward conserving managed timberlands and farms, not natural areas. The Northeast Wilderness Trust was founded to help restore and preserve new wilderness areas on private land, and work with landowners who wish to protect their property as forever wild. The Trust is pleased to be part of a grand American tradition—of individuals and groups who have worked to secure parks and wildlife sanctuaries for the full array of attributes they provide to nature and people, and thereby pass along the gift of wildness to future generations.