Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Pete Nelson: The Myth of Pristine Wilderness

Our Christmas tree.  Forgot lights.  Oh well.  Nature does it best.Over the last couple of weeks I have noticed a substantial increase in reader comments on various posts claiming that environmentalists who are uncompromising about preserving or restoring pristine wilderness are absolutists, because there is no such thing in the Adirondacks.

The idea of pristine wilderness, they say, is an elitist fantasy.  The real-world approach, they suggest, is some common sense pragmatism.  When we don’t take that approach, residents suffer, recreationalists suffer, the economy suffers – in short, people suffer. 

This claim, whether made explicitly or just implied, is not uncommon.  You can see it embedded in the NYCO Amendment debate.  It is a constant presence in arguments over Article XIV; check out the comments on Phil Terrie’s column from last week.  Better yet, read the comments on Phil Brown’s post on the removal of Marcy Dam, also from last week.  One commenter used all the following terms and phrases to characterize opinions in favor of the dam’s removal : ‘a doctrinaire viewpoint to share (Viva “natural world”! Down with human alteration,’ ‘The idea that the Adirondacks are pristine and immutable is a dream,’ ‘The dear protected baby here is not a pristine Arden’ (I like that one best), ‘absolutist dramatics,’ ‘narcissism,’ ‘romantic dire notions,’ ‘hysteria of confused “scientific doctrines” that these edumacated elites think they “know”,’ ‘the simplistic bumper sticker doctrine of dogmatic anti-development,’ ‘self-centered-ness,’ and finally ‘this dogma about “protecting nature”.’  That stream is worthy of a medal.

The thing is, I agree that pristine wilderness doesn’t exist.

My own in-holding is as pristine as you get in the Adirondacks.  It was never logged and thanks to some luck with the weather patterns, did not burn to the ground in 1903.  Deep moss beds and trees with prodigious diameters proliferate.  The spruces show no outward sign of acid rain damage.  We draw water from Lost Brook untreated.  There is no trail to the land.  We have never heard a human-produced sound other than aircraft.

But we have heard aircraft.  We have built a privy.  The previous owners erected two lean-to’s, one gone, one rebuilt.  We have found garbage they buried as well as some equipment.  The area around the fire ring clearly shows human alteration, even a little concrete.  Acid rain, particulate pollution and human changes to the climate all have affected our land whether we can notice it or not.  We’re four miles from a hamlet, visible from our peak.  Lost Brook Tract is not pristine.

No place in the Adirondacks is pristine.  Many current Wilderness areas in the Adirondacks have been reclaimed  from heavy use – seemingly wild  today, but hardly untouched.  Logging roads, trails  and human-made structures are everywhere.  There are power lines, culverts, berms and hundreds of dams in the Adirondack Park.

So I grant wilderness deniers their point: pristine wilderness is a myth.

Does that mean their argument is right?  Nope.  As is often the case with deniers, they have it exactly backwards.  You see, the only people who embrace the myth of pristine wilderness are those who use it as a lever, as a wedge, as a way to make easy black and white definitions they can then dismiss.

Of all people, environmentalists and ecologists know how mutable wilderness is, how compromised it is already and how vulnerable to more human damage it is.  The same holds true for people who value wilderness experiences.  Does it matter to me that Lost Brook Tract is not pristine?  No.  What is the definition of pristine anyhow?  To make such claims about a thing – even for the purpose of then denying it – is to stake out the actual territory of the absolutist.

To quote an old aphorism, everything’s relative.  Lost Brook Tract has incredible value to me as wilderness, pristine or not, because in the grand continuum from paved-over to wild it ranks high.  It is wild biologically and ecologically: Lost Brook Tract is an intact, textbook montane boreal forest community, which makes it rare and valuable from a scientific perspective.  It is wild experientially: human visitation, activity and disturbance are minimal.  It is wild aesthetically: the feel of the place is as wild as I have ever felt anywhere.  There are lots of places just as wild in the Adirondacks.

All three of these perspectives – biological, experiential and aesthetic – are worth preserving and defending for myriad and overlapping reasons.  And all three of them require nuanced thinking to be fully operative.  Science is never absolute, nor is experience.  Certainly aesthetics are not absolute.

But nuance is not part of the absolutist’s mechanism of denial.  Instead, unwilling to embrace nuance, or perhaps unable, the absolutist turns the issue on its ear, painting the “other side” as extremist and uncompromising.  Popular examples of this technique abound, from the increasingly arcane objections to evolutionary theory, to denial of climate science, to deeper and harder problems like religious intolerance.

The Adirondack Park is itself a creation of compromise and nuance.  That is true of its evolution as well: the difference between a constitutional amendment to extend a town cemetery and an amendment to extend a mine is important and not trivial.  Absolutism is not helpful in these debates.

So next time you see “pristine wilderness” used as a wedge issue, think for a moment who the absolutists really are.

Photo: A post in the High Peaks on New Year’s Day.

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

16 Responses

  1. I agree that there is no such thing as pristine wilderness in the Adirondacks if you define it as zero impact from humans. Given that fact though I have a hard time understanding how anyone thinks that is a reason not to do all we can to protect what wild there is. Anything less is simply chipping away at what is left.

  2. Ryan Finnigan says:

    Pete – Thank you for articulating such a response. I wholeheartedly agree with the points that you make. You’ve done an excellent job articulating a view that I share, but am not be able to write in such an effective manner. Great post!

  3. Paul says:

    There are place with no impact from humans. But you won’t find them on public land.

  4. Paul says:

    parts of Pete’s land probably have had no impact. maybe not since it isn’t too big.

  5. Lee Keet says:

    Pete, great piece. I suggest all parties could live with a principle of net gain. Forget the absolutism. NYCO was a net gain if you look at the six principles the Adirondack Council proposed and DEC accepted: the Park and wilderness won. Ditto for the recent Hudson and Essex Chain Lakes classification. Sure, a connector snowmobile trail on old logging roads was given up, but no one questions that the Park, wilderness, and even more important accommodation with the people who live here all were winners. If we stick to net gain I think we will avoid a lot of future angst and divisions between friends.

    • Alan Senbaugh says:


      You are using the term net gain in the most simplistic of terms, acreage gained vs acreage lost. The NYCO amendment was a fundamental betrayal of Article 14 in the selling of the Forest Preserve to a corporation for private gain. As far as the council criteria paper for land swaps, the questions they list are valid but the answers to them did not support their own position supporting the swap.

      You are taking too simplistic of an approach in your “net gain” mantra. Although your heart is certainly in the right place. Look deeper

  6. Pete Klein says:

    If you rule out impacts such as acid rain and climate change (which has always been happening and will always happen), there are probably many spots/places that have never been impacted by human boots on the ground.
    The thing about wild is that it is everywhere if your definition isn’t too narrow and you have eyes that can see and an imagination that still works.
    The wild is always waiting in the wings and is often able to intrude in places where we resent it.
    You can see it in all the other than human animals that have decided they can live quite well close to humans in suburbs and cities.
    If you want to scare yourself, you might worry they refuse to die and are just waiting for us to die so they can take back what was once exclusively theirs.

  7. Ed Zahniser says:

    Historian Paul Sutter put to rest the notion that wilderness advocates were interested in “pristine wilderness.” See his book Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement. The major motivation was concern over the carving-up by roads of the few remnant large blocks of roadless areas. Both Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall wrote about the distance across a wilderness, for example, not pristine nature.

  8. zyxw says:

    I have hiked on ground in a remote part of Canada that I am pretty sure had never been trodden on by a human because it was so difficult to get to and had nothing particular of value to make it a destination, or at least the humans had left no trace. But, who knows? I must admit there was a slight spiritual lift from thinking about it at the time, but on the other hand I do not hear cries from people that we need to protect “pristine” wilderness in the Adirondacks, of which there must surely be very little. Even if not pristine, I think there is still great value in the concept of wilderness, despite its patina of human interaction.

  9. Bob Meyer says:

    100% right on Pete Nelson!

    Pete Klein, a very interesting take i must say.

  10. joe says:

    The point about Phil Terrie’s article — he seemed to dress up the land that NYS was swapping as a special wilderness with immutable qualities that would be lost once the land was returned. There is a special quality to the Adirondack Park, it’s just not one of a preserve untouched by human industry.

    Saying this land is more special than that land is backward, especially when the special-ness is built on a late 20th century mythology that attempts to ignore the people that lived and worked on Adirondack land for a Century+.

    When talking about the aim of a nature preserve with delineated boundaries and a working goal of trying to protect more of the land within the space each generation, there’s no reason why an argument has to rely so heavily on outright fiction — that NYCO would change the spiritual/physical quality of that acreage in such a way that when it’s returned to NYS it won’t be as special as it was in 2013.

    There are better arguments against NYCO and land swaps than “NYCO is a corporation, a corporation that got NYS to sully preserve land for profit!”

  11. Tim says:

    Speaking of pristine, I was wondering, Pete, if you plan on using a chainsaw on Lost Brook Tract outside of chainsaw season, April 1 to May 24. You probably have the right to do so on private land but….What are your feelings about that?

  12. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:


    That is a great question, Tim. We plan to honor chainsaw season.

    So far we have done all our work, including rebuilding the collapsed lean-to and building a privy, with only hand tools we carried up. For cutting we have two saws – a Putsch two-person crosscut and Putsch timber saw – and a lot of saved bacon grease. Both saws are beasts. Amy and I have done enough with the crosscut saw to have started developing decent technique, which means a one-foot diameter log is a one or two minute job for us. Not bad, plus it’s good, hard, satisfying work.

    This spring specifically, with the amount of cutting we plan to do and a narrow window in which to do it we will use a chainsaw, which will give us a supply of logs we need, cut to the right length, and (finally) a large supply of firewood. That work will occur over nine days in April, right in the middle of chainsaw season.

    Everything else we plan to do – including building and supplying future stores of firewood – we will do with hand saws.

    We do have the right to use a chainsaw whenever we like and I am sure that there will be times when we have a particularly nasty problem where we might fire it up, but we will be keeping those kinds of exceptions to a minimum. That’s because we do indeed see the sound output of the chainsaw as a violation of our own wilderness aesthetic – and we don’t like the noise any better than anyone else!

    When building structures (including a new lean-to as the current one is probably good for only a few more years) we will be using the butt and pass method and not notching. That helps a lot, as there is a lot more drilling than there is cutting.


  13. Paul Johnston says:

    I think it’s disingenuous to claim that there is no puritanism, nor ever has been, in the preservationist side of land debates in the Adirondacks. Perhaps it’s been necessary in order to make the compromise position something that’s acceptable to those of us who value the Adirondacks as they are, but it’s certainly been there.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:


      Actually I agree with you. There certainly has been puritanism on the preservationist side.

      I’m merely saying that to broad-brush paint environmentalists – for example those who agree with the decision to not rebuild Marcy Dam – as absolutists is absurd and, quite frankly, calling the kettle black.

      Or have we all lost the capacity to live in the complicated details of things, to embrace and explore nuance and reason?

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