Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2003

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Wilderness, the Wild and the Leave No Trace Ethic

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Wilderness, the Wild and the Leave No Trace Ethic

Wilderness, the Wild and the Leave No Trace Ethic
Katherine E. Jones ´03

“Wilderness” and “wild” are two words that can be defined in a number of ways and even evoke a number of different images, depending upon an individual’s imagination and past experience. A person who lives in an urban ghetto may consider the wilderness to be a completely foreign, dark, frightening place where backwoods hicks roam. A rural dweller may consider the wilderness close to home — perhaps even in his own backyard. A banker may only think of the wilderness in the context of President Bush’s environmental policies, while a teacher may think of wilderness as a large outdoor ecological classroom. Some may only think of wilderness in terms of the 1964 Wilderness Act that designated certain tracts of lands to be “wilderness areas.” Others might find wilderness in a national park, or in any unexplored (by that person) natural area. The point of all of these hypothetical scenarios is to suggest that wilderness and wild mean different things to different people — that wilderness is seen “in the eye of the beholder."

Roderick Frazier Nash, the author of Wilderness and the American Mind, says that “wilderness is not so much a place, but a feeling about one.” If what Nash says is true, and wilderness is not a place but a feeling, an intuition, then indeed what is wilderness to one may not be wilderness to another. This definition of wilderness is problematic as it raises questions when it comes to defending particular wilderness areas — if each person has his own definition of wilderness, then defining which areas might need to be subjected to some form of regulation will be extremely challenging. For these reasons we cannot accept this loose definition of wilderness, even if, for some people, wilderness may simply be a state of mind.

For those people who believe that they are experiencing wilderness if the place feels wild, the Leave No Trace or LNT ethic plays an essential role. One goal of the LNT ethic is to keep a place feeling wild, to ensure that no person will detract from another person’s wilderness experience. This goal is purely anthropocentric, but is nonetheless valid for those outdoorspeople who come to the wild to have a “wilderness experience.” The seven LNT guidelines all help protect the human experience in the wild in different ways. The guidelines encourage people not to take anything they find, to not make campfires or to keep campfire impacts minimal, to pack out all trash and to keep noise to a minimum. All of these guidelines come together to protect the individual’s wilderness experience, and if one of these guidelines is not followed properly, chances are that at least one person will feel an impact because of it. ...

The LNT ethic also has the goal of keeping the wilderness wild for its own sake. If people begin to take over the wilderness by overcrowding the natural environment and turning it into an extension of our civilization, the wilderness will lose its wild quality, the quality that is at the root of the definition of wilderness. Nash proclaims, “Wilderness has nonhuman significance. It does not exist for snowshoe trips or whitewater river expeditions. It would be important even if no humans ever visited. Wild places have intrinsic value as habitats for creatures with biotic rights equal to our own.” Whether creatures found in the wilderness have biotic rights equal to our own is a discussion that will be saved for another time, but regardless, Nash explains that there is something to be said for the mere existence of wilderness, whether or not humans ever visit it. The LNT ethic presumes that humans will visit the wilderness, but the recognition that wilderness has inherent value stands behind all of its principles. This brings us to an interesting conclusion — with every LNT principle, an element of anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism can be realized.

Because human presence in the wild inherently changes the dynamic of the wild, the LNT ethic aims to minimize the extent that humans “alter” the wild. The LNT ethic is based on the notion that we do want to permit humans to experience the wilderness and that wilderness areas should not be fenced off or made inaccessible to humans. But what the LNT ethic does suggest is a set of guidelines that will, if followed by everyone, minimize the extent that humans alter the wilderness. The change could be either a changed perception of the wilderness by a fellow outdoorsperson or an actual, physical change such as sawing down trees for firewood or leaving trash to decompose over hundreds of years.

When we value the wild for its natural, pure, wild state, yet also value human experience in the wild, we find ourselves faced with some tradeoffs. As soon as just one person enters the wild, some of its “wildness” is lost. When thousands of people enter the wild every year, much of the wildness of the wild is lost.

In recent years, there has been much debate on how humans should behave in the wild. The LNT ethic aims to resolve many of these issues, yet because it addresses some but not all concerns, it opens up a new series of questions. For example, is it acceptable for a person to talk on a cell phone in the wild? Some people would find it a great joy to call a friend from the top of a high peak — others, however, would despise the use of a cell phone in the wild and would consider this action disrespectful and completely inappropriate in a wilderness setting. A question that might stem from this discussion is whether or not carrying a cell phone is permissible when the person would only use it in an emergency.

Misanthropy and Wilderness

In her article titled “What is so bad about misanthropy?” Lisa Gerber provides an extensive and well thought-out reply to this very question. Her paper explores, as she calls it, the “vice of misanthropy,” and how it tends to manifest itself in environmentalists and those who love nature. Gerber defines misanthropy as a “mistrust, hatred, and disgust of humankind.” She explains that people who love nature often fall prey to misanthropy because the pollution, sprawl, litter, and wastes we humans create are so visible in our everyday lives. We see the many ways in which humans are “ruining” the natural environment, and it makes our eyes narrow and muscles tense up. We want to turn away from the awful sight that we know we ourselves contribute to. Yet Gerber proclaims that misanthropy is a vice and will only lead to a deadend, filled with paralyzing hate and despair. Gerber explains that in this state, an individual begins to view the human species as a mass, instead of seeing humans as individuals capable of doing good and having the capacity for making changes. She asserts that when one falls into the hopelessness of misanthropy, one loses the ability to advocate for moral and social progress.

Aristotle’s model of the Golden Mean, in which he asserts that every virtue is a mean between two vices, has an interesting application in this situation. If misanthropy is a vice on one end of the spectrum, surely excessive anthropocentrism would be the vice on the other end. It is certainly no better to egotistically love the human species and see no wrongs than it is to hate the human species and see no rights. An excessively anthropocentric individual would hold the view that the natural environment is completely subservient to the human species and is ours to do with as we please; a misanthropic individual would hold the view that the human species is completely subservient to the natural environment, and that humans do not have the capability to enjoy the wilderness without ruining it. Obviously both excessive anthropocentrism and misanthropy are vices, and what we should strive for is the virtue in the middle of these two extremes — but what is this corresponding virtue? It seems that this virtue would represent the tempered and balanced ability to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, and would maintain a careful balance between idealism and realism.

Author’s note: The quotations were taken from a survey I conducted on Leave No Trace in the summer of 2002. The survey was distributed to 59 participants of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mountain Leadership School. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 64 and had varying levels of knowledge about Leave No Trace.


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