Jason Mark has long been in search of true, untouched wilderness. As the new editor-in-chief of Sierra Magazine (the Sierra Club’s nonpartisan magazine), longtime environmental journalist, editor of Earth Island Journal, and co-founder of San Francisco’s largest urban farm, he has seen firsthand how humans have encroached on just about every aspect of the world. In his new book, Satellites in the High Country, Mark goes on what seems to be a futile search for that pristine land. Part essay, part adventure log, Mark travels some of the most remote regions in the U.S., dealing with the elements, wildlife, and, of course, people. Following the lines of thinking laid out in A World Without Us, Alan Weisman’s revealing look at what would happen to the natural environment if humans disappeared, Mark argues in favor of something he has so much trouble finding, an unpopulated, self-willed place where evolution can freely occur.
You argue we need to redefine wilderness. Why?
In the U.S. we’re lucky enough to have a legal definition of wilderness, which was established in 1964 under the Wilderness Act [The act defined wilderness as a place “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and a “land retaining its primeval influence, without permanent improvements or habitation.”] But the question is, how well does that law work in the 21st century? Before, you could draw a line on a map and create a wilderness area. In the era of climate change, the threats are multidimensional and they can easily cross over lines on a map. Wilderness doesn’t mean untouched, it means undominated — a place that is self-willed. It should be redefined not as something that humans haven’t affected, but as a place that humans don’t control.
Given that definition, does wilderness even exist anymore?
Wilderness does exist. The wildest places remaining are big, open wilderness areas like the Gila wilderness in New Mexico or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It’s also important to remember that there’s also a lot of wildness that sneaks into the city, and manages to coexist with us.
What are the biggest threats to wilderness today?
Climate change is clearly the biggest threat that’s fueling the worry of people in conservation biology. We’re dislocating plants and animals from their homes and they’re going to have to find a way to move. The best way to do that is to have large, undeveloped places that are connected.
Another threat is increased technological connectivity. In American history, the wilderness has been important for political reasons, as a last resort for the dissident or the religious apostate. By increasing connectivity, we’re eroding wilderness values. The fact that you can raft down the Colorado River from the comfort of your laptop is a unique 21st-century threat to wilderness ideals, and people are still grasping with whether or not to have connectivity in the deep wilderness or not. I think the answer is no.
What should we do at this point given the damage we’ve already done?
I keep overhearing conversations and angry debates among conservation biologists about how to manage and whether to manage wilderness. There should be some places where we do nothing, where we see how nature rolls the dice. That’s hard because things are going to go extinct. It’s going to be a hard choice to be hands-off, but in some places we have to do that — to let evolution unfold.
A lot of conservation biologists don’t like this idea. They say we’re in the middle of an extinction crisis. But there can still be assisted migration and all sorts of work to protect species on Bureau of Land Management and national forest land. Only 110 million acres of the country’s land mass is wilderness area, and there should be some places where we don’t exercise our will, where we don’t intervene. We don’t need to domesticate everything.
How do we change our idea of wilderness so that it becomes something we want to conserve rather than consume?
You don’t work to protect what you don’t know and to a lot of younger people, and people who have not been in the deep woods, wilderness can seem esoteric. There is no substitute for getting people out into wild places. We don’t want the wilderness to just be a place where old dead white guys tromped through a landscape that no longer exists. People are only going to care about whether or not we domesticate the whole world, if they have some experience with nature, even if it’s just a local park or seashore.