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Will There Be Any Wilderness Left?

6 minute read
Jon Krakauer

Bent like an arthritic thumb high above the antarctic ice cap, the mountain’s uppermost point was so small and precarious that it could accommodate only one person at a time. So I shivered on a ledge in the subzero breeze and waited for my partners, first Alex and then Conrad, to climb the final 20 ft. to the summit. We’d been on the move for 14 hours. My back hurt, and I had lost all feeling in my toes. But as my eyes wandered across the frozen vastness of Queen Maud Land, a sense of profound contentment radiated from somewhere beneath my solar plexus. There was nowhere on earth that I would have preferred to be.

The mountain, called the Troll Castle, is an unearthly fin of weathered granite that pokes a vertical mile from its icebound surroundings. Only a handful of people knew, or cared, that it existed; fewer still had actually laid eyes on the peak. Alex, Conrad and I were the first who had gone to the trouble to climb it, and the view from the top was ample reward. Countless other rock towers, equally strange and beautiful, rise from the ice in all directions, resembling gargantuan sailboats plying a chalk-white sea.

For a month we’d been climbing and exploring in this corner of Antarctica. To visit such a wilderness in the waning moments of the 20th century struck us as a rare and fleeting privilege–an incredible stroke of good luck. Keeping this firmly in mind, we went to extraordinary lengths to minimize our impact on the place so that others would find it in a similarly pristine condition. When we departed, we even packed out our accumulated feces. I couldn’t help thinking, however, that 100 years in the future, or even 50, a genuine wilderness experience will probably be hard to come by in Queen Maud Land. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

A few remote places like Antarctica still exist as true wilderness: the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Canadian Arctic, pockets of the Mato Grosso bush in central Brazil, bits of the Tibetan Plateau. Much of this wilderness is so huge and empty and emphatically inhospitable that it is difficult to picture its ever succumbing to the crush of civilization. But the same could have been said of the Grand Canyon in 1869, when John Wesley Powell braved murderous rapids and myriad other hazards to become the first man to navigate the Colorado River.

Powell could scarcely have imagined that a century after his feat, more than 2 million tourists would visit the Grand Canyon annually–among them families with small children who would float down the once fearsome Colorado as a summer lark. During the past 30 years, annual visitation to the Grand Canyon has ballooned from 2 million to more than 5 million. If you want to paddle down the Grand Canyon on your own, without hiring a commercial outfitter, the waiting list for boating permits is now so long that you won’t be able to launch your raft until 2012 at the soonest.

The destiny of wild places in the coming century can be read in the numbers. The 6 billion people living on the planet are projected to swell to 9 billion by 2050. The pressure to exploit the world’s remaining wilderness for natural resources, food and human habitation will become overwhelming. But bulldozers and chain saws aren’t the only threats. A new menace has emerged from the least likely quarter; in many cases, the very people who care most passionately about empty places are hastening their demise.

Not so many decades ago, those advocating the preservation of wilderness constituted a small minority and were considered to be on the radical fringe. Such pastimes as mountaineering and backpacking were thought to be the exclusive domain of outcasts, anarchists and social misfits. But there has been a broad-based shift in public opinion of late. Polls show that a majority of Americans now place a high priority on protecting the environment.

Backcountry activities have become extremely trendy, a fad that has been eagerly abetted by Madison Avenue. These days it’s impossible to turn on a television or open a magazine without being assaulted by a barrage of ads that use skillfully packaged images of wilderness activities to rev the engine of consumerism. In 1851, when Henry David Thoreau declared, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” he could not have foreseen that wilderness, as an idea, would one day be used to sell everything from SUVs to soda pop. Disconcerting though this development may be, it happens to come with a substantial upside; because wilderness is now esteemed as something precious and/or fashionable, wild places are more often being rescued from commercial exploitation. But if the wilderness fad has made it easier to protect wild country from development, it has made it harder to protect wild country from the exploding ranks of wilderness enthusiasts. Increasingly, places once considered enduringly back of beyond are now crowded with solitude seekers.

As more and more people flock to the backcountry, habitat for native plants and wildlife is inevitably compromised. To safeguard natural habitat, it becomes necessary for government agencies to exercise intervention and control. Inevitably, and justifiably, strict limits are placed on backcountry use. Camping, hiking, boating, hunting, fishing and climbing are restricted. Campfires are forbidden. Dogs must be leashed or are simply banished altogether. In the mountains above the Colorado city where I make my home, dog owners are now required by law to collect their pets’ excrement and carry it out. In a growing number of places, as previously mentioned, responsible behavior now dictates that humans carry out their own excrement as well.

Of course, when wilderness is so intensely managed, it ceases to be wild. It becomes a toothless simulacrum. It becomes a park. On an increasingly crowded planet there is probably no alternative. It is simply an unhappy fact of life on the cusp of the 21st century.

As wilderness dwindles and disappears, more is at stake than the fate of endangered species. Other, less tangible things stand to be lost as well. Empty places have long served as a repository for a host of complicated yearnings and desires. As an antidote to the alienation and pervasive softness that plague modern society, there is no substitute for a trip to an untrammeled patch of backcountry, with its attendant wonders, privation and physical trials.

In 1945 the influential forester Aldo Leopold wrote, “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” Fifty-four years later, it’s not so easy to find wild country to be young in. For now, however, a few tracts of wilderness still endure. We should be grateful for this and appreciate them as long as we can.

Jon Krakauer is the author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild

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