If we define Wilderness as a place where humankind has no influence on the species or biological processes within it, one has to conclude that there is no Wilderness left on Planet Earth. Pollution, human habitat encroachment, and global warming have now reached every corner on the planet with such a pronounced effect that no ecosystem has been left untouched.
Herein lies the paradox of the US National Park Service, whose mission it is to preserve all aspects of our parks’ scenic beauty and biodiversity including the processes that sustain them. While this policy has strong historic roots and broad public support, it is increasingly unsustainable in the face of global environmental change and changing public attitudes about the relative importance of resource preservation.
This is the dilemma that William Tweed sets out to ponder on a 240 mile backpack trip along the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Route. A 30 year Park Service Ranger and Chief Park Naturalist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park before his retirement in 2006, Tweed describes the wonderous views and natural history of the region with a rich eloquence that has you pining to see what’s around the next bend and over the next hill.
While the story of his journey alone makes this book worth reading, Tweed explains the philosophical origins of National Park Service which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016 and its increasingly out-of-touch mandate to preserve our national parks as they were for future generations when global ecological forces such as climate change make this impossible. Plant, animal, and fish species are dying, migrating, or adapting around us and the nineteenth and twentieth century notions that humans can control these processes are historically out-of-date.
Our relationship to nature has also undergone widespread change with fading social interest in the natural world. Rather than viewing nature as a place to escape and recuperate from the overwhelming and rushed pace of urban life, park visitors bring it with them with phones and a myriad assortment of electronics to keep themselves amused when they’re in the backcountry. increasingly, today’s hikers view hiking trails as race courses rather than retreats, seeking to establish Fastest Known Times by hiking 30 miles days with ultralight gear, rather than experiencing the landscape in a Muir-like state of reverence.
How do such changes affect the future of the National Park Service, Tweed wonders. Should it detach itself from trying to control natural processes? Does it need to change its visitor policies to maintain relevancy in a world where there are so many other amusements for people instead of the outdoors? This is certainly not just an US problem, but a challenge for all national park systems worldwide. “The answer to these questions lies with those of us who care about these special places,” writes Tweed optimistically.
I enjoyed reading Uncertain Path – actually I couldn’t put it down – because it made me consider the futility of trying preserve our national parks and wilderness areas as islands to themselves. When viewed this way, it’s no wonder that our wild lands cannot credibly be called Wilderness Areas anymore. What will their future be, when they can no longer play the part for which they were cast?