Tongass National Forest. Photo credit: US Forest Service.
Removing the Wilderness Illusion: Emerging Professionals Explore Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in Wilderness
by AMANDA GRACE SANTOS, KEREN-HAPPUCH CRUM, CASSIDY MOTAHARI, MARGARET GREGORY, and KATHERINE HAVEMAN
Soul Of The Wilderness
December 2023 | Volume 29, Number 2
From the eyes of four emerging professionals in land management come four different wilderness stories that explore key questions about diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in wilderness; what is considered wilderness, what is not, and whose voices have been excluded from the wilderness conversation? With each new day comes new lessons we can learn – and unlearn – to develop a more inclusive, equitable, and diverse wilderness experience.
Wilderness is built on an illusion of untouched nature. This illusion of untrammeled wilderness not only erases the traditional management of land by Native communities but also proposes that any corner of the Earth, no matter how far removed from people, does not experience the effects of humans. The idea that wilderness exists for solitude and exclusivity erases diverse wilderness experiences and distances us further from the global community of nature of which we are all a part. Land managers can instead utilize diverse perspectives to legitimize a vast array of wild experiences to create spaces that encourage inclusive and positive human–nature relationships.
When we begin to see ourselves as more connected to the global community of nature, we can expand on what US federally designated wilderness, as well as other protected land designations, means to us as individuals. The following essays are written about diverse wilderness experiences where the authors explore what wilderness and wild places mean to them, revealing different wilder- ness experiences from those that the Wilderness Act was built upon. Santos asks who has physical and intellectual access to wilderness. Crum explores how the chaotic balance of natural spaces can transform and transport users. Gregory considers whether wilderness definitions created by those who no longer represent the diverse population of users are still relevant, and Motahari imagines a more inclusive wilderness culture. Through their stories, the authors seek to remove the wilderness illusion from their practice. In doing so, they hope to ignite authentic conversation about the many journeys toward wilderness stewardship.
Amanda Grace Santos
I grew up in the northeast United States immersed in the working-class Portuguese immigrant culture of Hartford County, Connecticut, where the outdoors was a place for gatherings, or festas, that often took place on the back lot of the Portuguese church. I did not experience federally designated wilderness until I was in my 20s. As a child, it was the woods behind my house that were my wilderness. To me, wilderness and the land were not disconnected from myself. Later, I came to understand this as the acute definition of kinship – the act of connecting to the circular nature of the world and our place within this system, rather than living outside of nature to exert our power over it. The former is what will move DEIA initiatives forward, while the latter embodies capitalism and the extractive propensities of settler colonialism – concepts I came to fully understand through extensive unlearning as part of my DEIA journey.
While at Boston University studying archaeology, I specialized in cultural resource policy where I became aware of the issues and injustices surrounding public lands. I struggled to understand how lawmakers considered whose history was worth saving. I became painfully aware of the constant erasure of Indigenous groups in the Northeast, and I wondered, how can we, as a society, continue to pretend that the land we live on in this dense northeast corner of the United States was never lived on before?
With this foundation, I believe we need to unlearn and subsequently relearn what we understand to be wilderness and how we can steward it. I feel the proper context and history of our public lands must be taught to avoid the continuation of stereotypes that harm Native American communities through erasure. To me, DEIA must start with critical place-based pedagogies that cultivate common humanity.
Unlearning begins with access. Access doesn’t just mean physical access – although ableism is as large a hurdle as any. It means access through education as well, a challenge given the shortage of educators in the United States and a disrespect toward the profession. Any steps toward DEIA in wilderness cannot begin until we first unlearn years of systemic oppressive thought – starting with educating our youth about the his- tory of our land and its original stewards. Critical place-based pedagogy can also help us move toward a world where “wilderness” is understood to be a result of the tending and purpose with which groups of Indigenous and other nonsettler residents cared for and continue to care for various ecosystems in North America.
As a professional archaeologist, I find myself in a unique position to feel incensed that Indigenous populations across the world continue to struggle to gain the recognition they deserve as stewards of wild places. To truly advance DEIA in wilderness, we must interrogate our perceptions of public lands as places for recreation since people from different ethnic groups connect to place in unique ways (Martin 2004). The dialogue around public lands depends on a dominant culture, one that exudes power over the landscape. To relearn, we should also find ways to support the original caretakers of our lands, including through the return of decision-making power, now being fought for by Native communities in the LANDBACK movement that seeks the return of decision-making power back to original land stewards. LANDBACK is, in my eyes, the ultimate expression of a safe, resilient, and decolonized land system in this country. DEIA in wilderness means putting those who are experts in charge, and in North America, the experts of what we call public lands, and what we call wilderness, are the Indigenous communities whose land it is.
A place-based pedagogy program on public lands can engage communities at the most intimate level. Through this relearning, we can cultivate safe spaces for all types of interactions with nature, including subsistence gathering and hunting, gathering for medicine and art, medicine walks, and other nonrigorous activities that can foster inclusion across our wilderness and wild lands. To do this there must be education and understanding by land managers on the ground to ensure that communities are welcomed with compassion. It is about compassion and embracing common humanity; it is about kinship. Only by embracing kinship will we realize an equitable and inclusive wilderness.
How people define and experience wilderness is subjective, a personal three-dimensional landscape of emotion, ability, and knowledge. When I was young, I had a strong desire to understand and be part of nature, but as a white, suburban Chicago kid from a working-class family my concepts of wilderness were limited by my ability to access wild places. In my childhood, the “wild” places I visited were public greenbelts around Chicagoland and the mosquito-filled RV Park near Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota where my grandparents liked to camp. The wildlife I encountered were mainly habituated urban dwellers: deer, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, and crows, along with any fish we happened to hook from the piers of Lake Michigan. Due to my limited access, my understanding of the wild came mostly from my imagination fueled by books, folktales, and movies.
One story colored my early perception of the wilderness. My middle school art and outdoor education teacher, Mr. Paws, told us about a friend of his who could walk into the woods with nothing but a knife and come out months later fully clothed in deerskin, having survived on his knowledge, skills, and the bounty of the land. The idea that the land was a provider of sustenance and shelter, if the navigator had proper knowledge and skills, resonated with me. In my young mind, the wildlands were a magical, mystical place representing the true, unbridled potential of the Great Mother Earth—whose web of life and death connects all. Yet it wasn’t until I moved to the northern California coast, home of the great coastal redwood forests, where I began to build my wilderness skills and expand my knowledge.
Walking amongst the redwoods was like being transported to a magical land. The cool, wet, soft ground and thick, dark canopy of trees created a quiet hush that settled on my soul, like walking into a holy cathedral. When the fog descended, I felt that I was close to the realm of fairies. I half expected a pixie to be sitting upon the large spotted red amanita mushrooms or the Green Man to walk by leading a herd of elk. Being in the majestic redwoods induced many feelings, spanning awe, excitement, fear, empowerment, reverence, and a sense of both solitude and connectedness. Besides being a small part of a giant world, I understood myself as having value in this place as all living beings have value when they are where they belong.
I learned to camp, figuring out the appropriate gear, clothing, and amount and types of food and drink to bring. I practiced my orientation and map skills, learning to get lost and find my way back again. I explored my physical and mental boundaries, building my strength and stamina with every sojourn. My partner became interested in herbalism, so we began learning to identify plants, where they lived, and their medicinal properties.
I learned about the Indigenous people from the area who, unlike so many Indigenous people across our country, still had access to and tenure of a small section of their traditional homelands. I was surprised to learn from a young Native American woman that her people considered the redwoods a place of death because there is very little edible food available in those dark, damp forests. One would easily starve. Her perception of the redwood forests was so different from my own, yet was equally valid based on her own culture, stories, and experiences.
I wanted to understand the natural world better, so I pursued a degree in ecology in Santa Cruz. I learned that the interconnectedness of species and ecosystems is much more complex, full of competition, mutualism, succession—a chaotic balancing act. The more time I spent in the wild learning about natural history and ecology, the more my perception of nature and what is “wild” evolved. Nature became less of an abstract concept of perfect balance that is separate from humans and instead turned into a messy, complex, and ever-changing reality of which humans are an integral part. We shape our environment, and it shapes us; we all belong to this world, and we should all have a say in directing our future on this planet.
In reflecting upon DEIA in the wilderness, I believe that people experience different scales of “wilder- ness,” ranging from urban green spaces to uninhabited mountaintops. The importance lies not in the degree of wilderness that one is in, but in the action of connecting to the natural world and all the men- tal, emotional, and physical benefits of those experiences. Historically, people of color and disabled people have been excluded from these spaces, due to limited accessibility, or through discrimination, fear, and harassment. Making these spaces more accessible requires a combination of building inclusive outdoor communities, reasonably investing in infrastructure to make trails more accessible to those with physical limitations (e.g., wheelchairs), and providing outdoor educational opportunities for multicultural youth and adults. Improving accessibility is key to ensuring inclusivity in wilderness and the first step to encouraging people to protect our wild spaces.
When I was six, I hiked Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park. My mom outfitted my brothers and me for the trek: fanny packs full of water bottles and trail mix, neon windbreakers, the sturdiest hiking shoes available at the mall. As we climbed, our surroundings shifted from concrete parking lot to montane wildflowers – drooping columbine, violet fireweed, star-faced asters – and windswept, unobstructed views of crags and valleys. A flatlander, my breath heaved in my chest as we passed 10,000 feet. As we neared the top, the ground on each side of the trail fell away; I would need to balance precariously to summit. Could I achieve such a feat without plunging off the cliffs? Could I bravely push ahead? Or should I admit defeat and return to the car, mere feet away from success?
I managed to summit Washburn, greeted by an interpretive center and flush toilet at the top. The “precarious” trail was wide enough to drive a car on. And overall, I only covered six miles. This trek barely graduated from a “walk” to a “hike” – but I’ve yearned for similarly manageable outdoor challenges ever since. Over the years, I visited national forests and parks across the western US. I summited more mountains (and wimped out on a few others), camped on public lands from my Nebraska home to California, and kayaked the wild and scenic Niobrara River while soaking beneath waterfalls cascading from bluffs.
Yet none of this counted as a wilderness experience. Federal wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Aldo Leopold, one of the pioneers of the wilderness movement, defined it as “the raw material out of which man has hammered civilization.” And popular culture suggests wilderness only exists for those with expensive backpacks and ample free time.
All the trails I’ve explored are certainly trammeled (and many of them paved). I’ve never hammered anything more than a tent stake into the ground. And despite those who argue that “man” encompasses all people, I fail to see myself represented in traditional wilderness definitions – despite being white and middle-class, the demographic who’s mostly shaped the current wilderness narrative.
I grew disillusioned with wilderness as I researched and wrote this piece, and I’m not the only one who feels gate-kept by the wilderness concept. In the spring of 2022, I helped moderate a DEIA in wilderness focus group for natural resource professionals. Before each person in the group spoke, they prefaced their statements with, “Well, I’ve never really been in wilderness…” despite spending their workdays on our forests, grasslands, and parks.
If the participants of my focus group feel removed from wilderness, then perhaps we need to rethink the concept. Our collective sense of “wilderness” developed before I was born by people who do not think like me and who may not have shared my values. Federally designated wilderness serves a purpose; it shelters threatened and endangered species, fosters biodiversity, and proves that humans have less dominion over the Earth than we like to think. However, the wilderness concept fails to acknowledge that these “untrammeled” spaces have been tended and shaped by Indigenous people for millennia prior to European colonization and few corners of the Earth remain unaffected by humans as climate change mars our landscapes.
I do not need “wilderness” to love the outdoors. As tame as my outdoor narrative might be, it encouraged me to major in biology and survey the prairies and forests surrounding my college. It inspired me to pursue a master’s in science writing, taking courses in communicating about public lands. It inspired me to leave an uninspiring job and pursue a career in natural resources. I currently work as a technical writer-editor for a land management agency, conveying to others the value and joys of the outdoors.
To love the outdoors, I simply needed access to any of its forms. Before I visited Yellowstone, I visited the wild through walks to the park near my childhood home. Before I joined a land management agency stewarding millions of acres, I stewarded the wild while tending my dad’s one-acre garden.
I want to hear everyone’s wilderness stories – from their “Mt. Washburns” to their neighborhood walks to their backpacking adventures. What, in the words of Mary Oliver, sparked their plans for their “one wild and precious life?” And Oliver wasn’t gazing upon a mountain vista when she wrote this; she was observing a grasshopper in her hand.
Not too long ago, I listened to someone recount a recent rock-climbing trip she took to a popular natural area not far from one of America’s most visited cities. As she and two other friends completed a short multipitch climb along the side of a desert mountain, a large group of hikers appeared below, hiking along the mountain’s base and singing together in a language that was not English. Growing annoyed at the singing, one of the three climbers turned his head toward the hikers below and, at the top of his lungs, shouted, “Can you shut up!”
I was not there. I cannot tell you if the singing was truly interfering with the climbers’ ability to communicate with each other, a legitimate and serious safety concern, or if it was simply an annoyance. I cannot tell you how many hikers there were, how loud they were singing, why they were singing, or what impacts the additional noise had in the already-crowded area. I cannot tell you if the climber’s response would have been the same if the hikers were singing in English. What I can tell is, on that beautiful fall day in the desert, the hikers had broken an unwritten rule of the wilderness elitist.
If you enjoy wild spaces and all they offer, you have likely met the wilderness elitist. The wilderness elitist believes there is a right way to experience “true” wilderness, which often involves multiday back- packing expeditions or technical alpine ascents. The core tenet of the wilderness elitist is the belief, conscious or not, that wilderness exists primarily for the privileged, experienced, and affluent. Above all, the wilderness elitist loathes nothing more than an infringement on the “pristine” wilderness experience. This perceived infringement often comes in the form of recreators who do not fit the narrow idea of what an outdoorsy person should be: namely, white, nondisabled, outfitted in the latest gear, and flawlessly proficient in outdoor skills and etiquette. And in a wilderness culture that values the illusion of solitude and “pristine” wilderness, an increase in outdoor recreation is an assault on this experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a reckoning for the wilderness community as outdoor recreation exploded in popularity. While National Park Service (NPS) visitation levels have not completely rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, the NPS experienced 297 million recreation visits in 2021, or a 25.3% increase compared to 2020. Forty-four parks, including Joshua Tree, Zion, and Grand Teton, received record visits in 2021. It wasn’t just national parks that experienced an influx of recreationists. A study examining data from Recreation.gov found that the average number of nights reserved at Forest Service campgrounds increased by 28% in 2020 compared to 2019 (Shartaj et al. 2022).
But was this increase in visitation experienced equally across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups? There is a lack of national studies on changes to the demographics of outdoor recreationists since the emergence of COVID-19. A 2018 study that compared Forest Service National Visitor Use Monitoring to US Census data found that, while people who identified as non-Hispanic white made up 62.6% of the national population in 2010, they accounted for more than 90% of national forest visits between the years 2010 and 2014 (Flores et al., 2018). This means that people like me, a Middle Eastern/white first-generation American, though privileged to come from a highly educated family and pursuing a graduate degree, are few and far between on the trails. Organizations such as Melanin Base Camp, Gear Fund Collective, Unlikely Hikers, and countless others are actively working to make the outdoors more accessible, yet people of color, disabled people, and other historically marginalized groups remain under- served and underrepresented in the wilderness community.
So what could a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible wilderness culture look like? I imagine a culture in which wilderness is viewed as a space for adventure, healing, and pursuing passions, regardless of background or ability. A wilderness culture that rejects the notion of an “untrammeled” wilderness and instead holds deep acknowledgment of the Indigenous communities who made their home in these places, including the painful history of their oppression and their removal from ancestral lands.
I imagine a culture of accessible information on wilderness safety and etiquette, where everyone feels empowered to protect the well-being of themselves and the wild spaces they visit; a culture where abundant opportunities exist for members of historically marginalized communities to pursue careers in all aspects of the wilderness economy, as guides, state and federal land managers, scientists, and outdoor educators; a culture that values all wilderness experiences, from the shortest of day hikes to multiday treks; a culture that encourages more people to fall in love with, and seek to protect, the endlessly beautiful wild places that remain. I could sing with the possibility of it all.
These short essays reveal that gateways to wild experiences are all around us. When we reduce barriers to wilderness, we can create transformative nontraditional wilderness experiences. As these authors have illustrated, the degree of remoteness or solitude of wilderness is less important than the existence of physically and emotionally accessible wilderness and wild spaces. The voices here represent only a small part of a greater community of users. Every day, new voices are being added to the wilderness conversation as guides, land managers, scientists, outdoor educators, and users of the outdoors, increasingly reflecting the diversity of wilderness users and experiences. But we must strive to bring even more voices to the conversation to ensure a sustainable future for ostensibly untrammeled spaces. Exclusivity is antiquated. Erasing the past is antiquated. People revere wilderness because it confirms we are connected; we are all of wild places.
About the Authors
AMANDA GRACE SANTOS is an archaeologist for Santa Fe National Forest. Originally hailing from Connecticut, she enjoys reading, running, and traveling; email:firstname.lastname@example.org
KEREN-HAPPUCH CRUM creates equity and environmental justice maps for the US Forest Service. She lives in Oregon where she shares her love of exploring the outdoors with her family.
CASSIDY MOTAHARI is an MA student at the University of Montana School of Journalism, where she is pursuing her dream of becoming a science and environmental storyteller.
MARGARET GREGORY works as a technical writer-editor for the USDA Forest Service Research and Development branch and runs, reads, and writes in the Nebraska National Forest; email:Margaret.gregory@ usda.gov.
KATHERINE HAVEMAN has her master of science from the University of North Texas and the Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza (CATIE). Originally from Washington state, she now works for the US Forest Service in New Mexico as a specialist in stewardship projects and volunteerism; email:Katherine.email@example.com
Martin, D. C. 2004. Apartheid in the great outdoors: American advertising and the reproduction of a racialized out- door leisure identity. Journal of Leisure Research 36(4): 513–535.
Shartaj, M., J. F. Suter, and T. Warziniack. 2022. Summer crowds: An analysis of USFS campground reservations dur- ing the COVID-19 pandemic. PloS one 17(1): e0261833.
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