Rarely do I get that feeling of oh-shit-this-is-going-to-change-everything from an article I read, but one year ago there it was, in front of me, in the NYT, and it was damning. So damning, I had to reread it 4 or 5 times to make sure that my mind wasn't playing tricks on me.
Before I throw out the link to the article, a caveat: If you care about roaming around wild places, this article may be the toughest text you'll ever introduce your morals to. Here it is.
I don't want to sugar-coat anything, but when it first came out, this article hit me really hard. Up until that point I'd been human-powering myself around the Northern Rockies for the better part of a decade, never knowing how much impact I could be having on the wildlife and land. Instead of peaceful and creative, my trips looked blatantly selfish and harmful. Where did I go wrong? Where had I mislead myself? And most importantly, why is not one person talking about these issues now?
While I still grapple with those first two questions, it's the third that feels most relevant today. Especially, as the 64ers entrench themselves in a resurgent battle against the bicycle. Until the above article was published, those dogmatic advocates of the 1964 Wilderness Act could hold onto the last best myth for keeping bicycles out: their prefered methods of mechanized and non-mechanized travel were less impactful for the wildlife, and thus the land, than others. If they now choose to acknowledge the hundreds of studies this article references, that hypothesis does not hold. In fact, it may actually be the quietest activities - ones that the Wilderness establishment continues to champion - that puts more stress on wild places:
The uncomfortable fact is, we’re all complicit. In a not-yet-published review of 218 studies about recreation’s impacts on wildlife, researchers found more evidence of impacts by hikers, backcountry skiers and their like than by the gas-powered contingent.
Cross-country skiers on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, for instance, can be more disturbing to moose than noisy snowmobiles, one recent study found. Grant Harris, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the main author of the study, explained that snowmobiles, while a noisy intrusion, announced their presence and then quickly departed. But cross-country skiers can sneak up on an animal without warning and then linger. Worse, animals “don’t know where the skiers are going to pop up next,” leaving them on edge.For years most Wilderness organizations have been using a fear-based, slippery-slope approach as the guiding-light reason to not open up the Wilderness Act to amendment, but in doing so could they actually be harming the land and wildlife by not advocating to limit the human-wildlife interface much more?
So, with all this in mind, if you are a Wilderness advocate who believes that the methods of mechanized and non-mechanized travel allowed by the 1964 Wilderness Act are as impactful as these studies suggest, should you not be advocating for humans to have a much-reduced presence in federally designated Wilderness? Or, total removal? If not, does it create an apparent advocacy stance to exclude forms of human-powered travel, not because of scientific conclusive harm, but rather faith-based opinions which value one experience over another?