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.