What do you think of when you hear the word “wilderness”?
Take a minute. Do you think of solitude or camaraderie? Of adventure or relaxation? Of wide-open spaces or deep down and forested places? Do you think of wild animals – big or small? Or does the word “wilderness” conjure anything at all? And does it mean anything different with a capital W – Wilderness?
Southwest Colorado is home to the Weminuche Wilderness – the state’s largest congressionally designated Wilderness (with a capital W) area – and contains 499,771 acres of untrammeled lands. Our home turf also hosts the 158,790-acre South San Juan Wilderness, the 41,496-acre Lizard Head Wilderness and the 37,236-acre Hermosa Creek Wilderness. That’s 737,293 acres. That’s 1,152 square miles! With all this Wilderness surrounding us, consider what you think you know about Wilderness and read on to see if you know your stuff.
The Wilderness Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1964 thanks to the tenacity of Howard Zahniser. Sure, myriad others contributed to the idea, but Zahniser rewrote the bill an astounding 66 times back in the age of typewriters. He often worked on it for 30 hours straight. He also patiently attended 18 public hearings involving about 16,000 pages of testimony. All of this was to create a federal land designation never before seen in the U.S. Sadly, the stress of this killed Zahniser just months before he could see President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the act into law on Sept. 3, 1964.
A great article on wilderness.org summarizes neatly that “Zahniser pointed out the law was intended to hold our expansionist tendencies at bay: “The nature of our civilization is such as to make wilderness preservation difficult at its best. That is the reason for wilderness legislation.” The main purpose of the Wilderness Act is to leave nature in, well, its natural state.
So, what can you expect when you venture into a designated Wilderness area? Perhaps most obvious is the lack of motorized and mechanized equipment. Human entry can only be achieved on foot or horseback. There are no roads, motor vehicles, bicycles, or even wheelbarrows. (People with disabilities are allowed to enter via wheelchair.) Land managers can’t even use chain saws to clear the trails. Wilderness rangers and partnering nonprofit groups use 6-foot-long cross-cut saws that take two people to use. These saws are remarkably efficient and very quiet. There is some pushback on the above regulations as well as much argument about just what “mechanized” means, but that is a topic for another article.
This lack of motorized equipment not only forces everyone to slow down; it allows visitors to experience only the sounds of nature. Wildlife is more at ease. One time, my dogs and I were walking so quietly through the Wilderness that as we stepped out of the woods into a clearing, we inadvertently sneaked up on a young mountain lion stalking a herd of cow and calf elk. As the Wilderness Act states, Wilderness must have “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
The Wilderness Act also mandates that there are virtually no permanent humanmade structures in designated 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.” The word “untrammeled” is often used by Wilderness devotees. Synonyms for “trammel” include drag, hobble, curb, inhibit, impede, obstruct and encumber. Inside a Wilderness area, you will find no fences, dams, outhouses, weather stations, corrals or shelters with the exception of some structures that existed before the area became designated Wilderness.
If some sort of structure is erected, including a tent, it must be dismantled within 14 days. However, bridges are allowed where deemed necessary for safety. Other structures may be allowed on a case-by-case basis so long as they are “substantially unnoticeable.” For more clarification about structures in Wilderness and more, read U.S. Forest Service Manual chapter 2320, “Wilderness Management” at this link: tinyurl.com/FSM2320-WildernessManagement.
Here’s something else to keep in mind: Many designated Wilderness areas have regulations that go beyond what is stated in the Wilderness Act. For example, campfires are not allowed in Chicago Basin and the entire Needle Creek drainage within the Weminuche Wilderness. In our four local Wilderness areas, dogs are allowed to be off leash as long as they are under voice control. However, in the Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Boulder, dogs must be on leash at all times. There are sections within other Wilderness areas where dogs are not allowed at all. Group size limits also vary. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the local regulations before visiting any swath of public lands, Wilderness or not.
Often, calling the main offices and talking to a real human being is the best way to make sure you have the most up-to-date information. Responsible use helps keep public lands open and beautiful for future generations.
MK Gunn is volunteer and education specialist for the San Juan Mountains Association. She helps manage a variety of volunteers who spend days out in the Weminuche Wilderness educating visitors. Contact her at MK@sjma.org.