Archive for July, 2012

The more one studies wilderness the more illusive the topic becomes.  What seems at first to be a straightforward concept is, after further inspection, a labyrinth of conceptual and perceptual nuances.  We have a legal definition of wilderness from the 1964 Wilderness Act, and through actions of government we put the “wilderness” label on lands that more or less meet that legal prerequisite.  But, there are roadless lands without legal wilderness protection that are more wild in nature than many designated wilderness areas.

Some would argue that there really is no true wilderness left in the Lower 48.  At the same time some would argue that a 200 acre island of forest somewhere in Iowa is great wilderness.  Some would also argue that wilderness is a state of mind as much as a physical characteristic of the land.

Regardless of the philosophical complexities of the idea of wilderness, some of the administrative labeling of designated wilderness areas have not helped simplify matters.  For example, Death Valley is officially the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, over 3 million acres.  But, a map of its boundaries looks like a shattered windshield.  This vast desert landscape is certainly wild, but it is not a continuous piece of land unbroken by civilization.  It is, instead, a web of primitive roads the margins between which are designated wilderness.  This particular case does a disservice to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, officially the second largest in the Lower 48.  The Frank Church, unlike Death Valley, is a contiguous block of 2.3 million acres of uninterrupted wilderness.  Only the primitive Magruder Corridor Road separates the Frank Church from the 1.3 million acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.  We could have easily given these two large areas the same administrative name and then called it the largest “wilderness area” in the Lower 48 at more than 3.5 million acres, and then Death Valley would have to settle for second place.

To me, a wilderness area is not the name that we have attached to its land, but the character of it.  “Wilderness area” is a singular term and, therefore, should represent a single continuous expanse of land that consists of a common wild and uncivilized character.  Often our administrative labels have the opposite effect of Death Valley’s spider web effect.  We assign multiple names to a single contiguous wild area.  This occurs in several areas around the country–I call them wilderness complexes.  To say that the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming is 428,087 acres in size does a disservice to our understanding of the true expanse of the Wind River Wilderness system, which represents a contiguous expanse of land that is over 725,000 acres not including a vast wild area of the Wind River Indian Reservation that likely makes it over a million acres.

To grasp the character of our national wilderness layout we need to understand, not wilderness labels, but wilderness lands.  In the interest of that effort, I have compiled a list of ten of what I consider to be our most significant Wilderness Complexes:

1.)  North Cascades Complex – Approximately 966,194 acres

The North Cascades, in my view, represent possibly the finest mountain wildlands in the country outside of Alaska.  That’s a bold statement, but I have seen parts of all of our major mountain ranges.  The North Cascades are phenomenal, under-appreciated, under-rated, largely undeveloped, and extensively protected.  There are more than 2 million acres of designated wilderness in the North Cascades of Washington, bisected only by the North Cascades Highway.  This makes for two significant wilderness complexes–what I call the North Cascades and Glacier Peak Wilderness Complexes.

  • The northern half of the Steven Mather Wilderness (which is itself a combination of the North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area) – Approximately 300,000 acres.
  • Mount Baker Wilderness – 119,989 acres
  • Pasayten Wilderness – 531,539 acres
  • Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness – 14,666 acres

2.  Glacier Peak Complex – 1,227,972 acres

South of the brief interruption of the North Cascades Highway, the wilderness expanse of this spectacular area continues.  It includes the south half of the Steven Mather Wilderness (primarily the south half of North Cascades National Park) and several other sizable named wilderness areas that share a continuous uninterrupted wild land:

  • Steven Mather Wilderness (South Half):  Approximately 300,000 acres
  • Glacier Peak Wilderness:  566,057 acres
  • Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness:  153,057 acres
  • Henry M. Jackson Wilderness:  103,297 acres
  • Wild Sky Wilderness:  105,561 acres

3.)  Olympic Complex – 934,449 acres

The Olympic Peninsula is Washington State’s other under-appreciated wilderness expanse.  It holds some of the largest trees in the world.  It’s climate and topography are exceptionally variable.  The long river valleys and jagged peaks above misty clouds is the classic image of Great Northwest wilderness.  The vast majority of this complex consists of Olympic National Park.  But, several other smaller wilderness areas have been designated around the perimeter of the Olympic behemoth, making the wildland of the Olympic larger than the number usually depicts:

  • Olympic Wilderness:  Approximately 846,447 acres (Olympic wilderness is actually 876,447 acres, but approximately 30,000 acres is coastal and not contiguous with the Olympic complex)
  • Buckhorn Wilderness:  44,319 acres
  • The Brothers Wilderness:  16,337 acres
  • Mount Skokomish Wilderness:  13,291 acres
  • Wonder Mountain Wilderness:  2,200 acres
  • Colonal Bob Wilderness:  11,855 acres

4.)  North Yosemite Complex – 586,745 acres

No other region of the Lower 48 States has such an extensive array of different names for wilderness “areas” that have no civilized feature separating them.  In fact, fourteen named wilderness areas actually make up just two large contiguous wilderness regions.  The two regions are bisected only by the paved road cutting through the middle of Yosemite National Park.  I call the northern, and smaller, half the North Yosemite Wilderness Complex:

  • Yosemite:  Approximately 350,000 acres (this is the northern half of the park which is designated wilderness)
  • Emigrant Wilderness:  112,277 acres
  • Hoover Wilderness:  124,468 acres

5.)  South Sierra Complex – 2,504,734 acres

It is understandable that there be two different names for this vast area for Yosemite was our second national park and pre-dated any designated wilderness areas by many decades.  But, the numerous different names applied to the surrounding contiguous wildland diminishes the perception of the area’s true size and character.  When one reads, for example, that the South Sierra Wilderness is 60,084 acres, the perception created is that of a relatively small wilderness area.  There are, in fact, 165 other wilderness areas in the Lower 48 States that are larger than South Sierra.  But, the South Sierra Wilderness Area shares an invisible boundary line with the 303,511 acre Golden Trout Wilderness to the north.  The Golden Trout Wilderness, in turn, shares a boundary only on the map with other wilderness areas to its north.  In all, there are eleven different named wilderness areas here that are all just a part of one substantial chunk of wilderness more than 2.5 million acres large.  It will never happen, but I say give it all one name so those less obsessed with wilderness stats than I am will grasp the true importance of this national gem:

  • Yosemite:  approximately 350,000 acres (this is south half of Yosemite)
  • Ansel Adams Wilderness:  231,279 acres
  • Owens River Headwaters Wilderness:  14,721 acres
  • John Muir Wilderness:  651,992 acres
  • Dinkey Lakes Wilderness:  30,000 acres
  • Sequoia Kings Canyon Wilderness:  768,222 acres
  • Monarch Wilderness:  44,896 acres
  • Jennie Lakes Wilderness:  10,289 acres
  • Golden Trout Wilderness:  303,511 acres
  • South Sierra Wilderness:  60,084 acres
  • John Krebs Wilderness:  39,740 acres

6.)  The Frank-Gospel Complex – 2,572,623 acres

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, unlike the South Sierra region, has one name for its impressive 2+ million acres and hence it is often understood to at least be one of our largest wilderness areas.  But, there is another 200,000 + acres attached to this large expanse, an appendage to its northwest called the Gospel Hump.  Nothing separates these areas on the ground.  The Gospel Hump acreage allows this area to just edge out the South Sierra Complex as our nation’s largest contiguous wilderness complex outside of Alaska:

  • Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness:  2,366,827 acres
  • Gospel Hump Wilderness:  205,796 acres

7.)  Bob Marshall Complex – 1,535,992 acres

In Montana, they call it “The Bob” and when they call it “The Bob” they are often referring to the three named wilderness areas that make up the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.  This is one area, unlike some of the others, that is perceived, at least by locals, as being a single contiguous wildland.  So, why give it three different names?

  • Bob Marshall Wilderness:  1,009,356 acres
  • Great Bear Wilderness:  286,700 acres
  • Scapegoat Wilderness:  239,936 acres

8.)  Northeast Yellowstone Complex – 800,488 acres

Yellowstone National Park, unfortunately, does not yet have any designated wilderness land.  I think this has something to do with a tradition of allowing snowmobiles in the park in winter.  Regardless, it is perceived by many as a large wilderness park and this is an accurate perception.  Because its borders are surrounded by designated wilderness areas there is clearly an interpretation within our administrative circles as well that Yellowstone is essentially mostly wilderness and should be managed that way.  So, I’m making an exception here to my rule of only including designated wilderness areas in my wilderness complex list.  The list just wouldn’t be complete without including these areas.

Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres.  That’s pretty big, but its contiguous roadless land is actually divided into eight distinct segments by the looping highways that cross the landscape.  Acreage for the Yellowstone portions of the next two wilderness complexes were estimated based on this segmentation:

  • Northeast Segment of Yellowstone:  Approximately 450,000 acres
  • North Absoroka Wilderness:  350,488 acres

9.)  Yellowstone Trinity Complex – 1,839,512 acres

I have heard that the most remote point on the map in the Lower 48 states is in here somewhere, judged by the linear distance to the nearest road.  It’s an area full of grizzlies and wolves, geysers and springs, rivers and lakeshores.  A big chunk of Yellowstone is bear-hugged by two huge wilderness areas:  The Teton and the Washakie:

  • Southeast Yellowstone Segment:  Approximately 550,000 acres
  • Teton Wilderness:  585,238 acres
  • Washakie Wilderness:  704,274 acres

10.)  The Winds Complex – 728,482 acres

Southeast of the Yellowstone area is a glorious mountain range with 4,000 lakes.  They call them the Wind River Mountains.  A long spine of impressive granitic peaks extends into west-central Wyoming.  This is Wyoming’s rooftop with mountains approaching 14,000 feet and the most extensive glacier system in the Rockies south of Canada.  Three wilderness areas and a remote region of an indian reservation combine to form one contiguous protected wilderness land.  the 728,482 combined acres of the three wilderness areas does not include the wild side of the Wind River Indian Reservation.  The actual contiguous wilderness-quality area here is probably over a million acres when considering the reservation lands:

  • Bridger Wilderness:  428,087 acres
  • Fitzpatrick Wilderness:  198,525 acres
  • Popo Agie Wilderness:  101,870 acres

Honorable Mentions:

There are, of course, other large wilderness lands not mentioned here, like the Gila in New Mexico or the Cabeza Prieta in Arizona.  But, these are singular areas where the acreage listed is a more accurate representation of the actual size of the wild land that the administrative name encompasses.

Besides Yellowstone, mentioned above, there are other expanses of wilderness-quality land not included because they have yet to receive official wilderness protection.  The Grand Canyon and its surrounding wild land is one area that probably approaches 1.5 million acres.  The Grand Staircase Escallante National Monument is largely wilderness-quality land.  The Utah Wilderness Coalition is recommending 1.6 million acres here for wilderness designation.  Large areas of Northern Nevada, Southwest Idaho and Southeast Oregon are quite remote with little to no human settlement.  Some of these areas are grazed and contain large ranches.  A large wilderness complex could be conceived in this area near or around the Steens mountain or Owyhee River Canyons areas.  Colorado, in my view, has too many roads to consider any combination of its many wonderful wilderness areas to be wilderness complexes on the scale of what I’ve written about here.  The High Uintas range in Utah is home to one large wilderness area of almost a half-million acres and what seems to be some significant un-protected national forest lands around it.  One could make an argument for considering that area a wildland complex large enough to be noted.


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There were dozens of them.  Tall trees uprooted at the base or sheared off 30 feet up, resting prostrate across the trail and all around.  Big root balls and thickets of pine branches covered the earth.  The pine needles, still green, told of how recent the catastrophe was.

What a storm it must have been to cause this kind of mayhem in the forest of the Lost Creek Wilderness Area!

Dozer inspecting a couple of recently uprooted pines.

Dozer and I reached the blowdown after cresting the range.  We had come up Trail# 607 from the south side of the town of Bailey.  Our destination was Craig Meadows on the other side of the Platte River Mountains.  Our return would be the same way we came.

This was an up, down, up, down affair, and the ups and downs were pretty big for a day-hike.  2,000 feet up to the top of the Platte River Mountains then 1,500 feet down to Craig Meadows… then 1,500 feet up again and 2,000 feet down, over about 13 miles.  Not extraordinarily steep at any time, but in aggregate, this was a doozey of a day-hike.  At least it was for a normal non-uber hiker like myself and my old dog, Dozer.  An overnight in Craig Meadows might have been a better option, but family and work commitments only gave me the one day to be a beast in the forest.

The big, long ups and downs of this hike provide for the observation of two different Rocky Mountan climate zones.  You start in the ponderosa forest and climb into the spruces and the firs.  At the top of the ridge is a large aspen forest, then you see the show in reverse as you descend down to Craig Meadows.

On the hill down to Craig Meadows, past the blowdown, we walked through one of the finest mixed forests of ponderosa and aspen I’ve ever seen.  My two favorite trees, intermixed in a perfect harmony.

The rugged red, vanilla-scented bark of the ponderosa pine defines the West–tough, rough and beautiful.  The ponderosa graces the most pleasant of climate zones in the Rockies, that mid-elevation paradise above the hot dusty plains and deserts but below the “never-summer” harshness of the peaks.  Here they stand, sun beams filtering through their canopy, and here you stand in the essence of the American West.  When in the ponderosas, don’t long for the snowfields and spruces up high.  Look around, take it in, and love it.  I do.

My second favorite tree, the aspen, here adds her shimmering light green leaves and smooth white trunk–a perfect complement to the dark green needles and rough red bark of the ponderosas. Together, the blend of colors and textures is devine.  The tough with the delicate, the rough with the smooth, the red with the white, the needle with the soft leaf.

A match made in heaven–the Ponderosas and the Aspens.

At the foot of this wonderfully forested mountainside we reached Craig Meadows and looked for the stream.  The willows were concealing its clear cool waters, so we ambled down-valley, past a giant beaver pond, until finally there was a forest opening providing passage to the flowing waters of the tiny creek.

I sat against a Douglas Fir for a while, my eyes shut, listening to the gurgles of the creek and the rush of the wind through the aspens on the hillside.  I could feel the trunk of the tree moving, ever so slightly, as the gusts of wind swayed the tall tree’s top back and forth.  I dare say, I think I felt the big tree rejoicing in its subtle dance.

This is what I come here for.  This is my return, my salvation, my sanity.  This is the wilderness.

Homeward bound, we passed by the huge beaver pond again.  This time we saw it’s resident, a great big beaver, with a swim like the most pleasant of strolls.

Up the hill now, back up through the ponderosas and aspens, now into the spruce and fir, negotiating around the blowdown, into the high aspen forest atop the ridge.  Now down again, back through the spruces and firs.  To the wilderness area boundary and into the ponderosa once again, where a note posted to a sign told of a big bear here yesterday.  Through the ponderosas, Dozer, fourteen and mostly deaf now, begins to slow.  My feet ache as well.  We stop for a final rest as the day wanes and I look back to the ridge we came from–a dark drapery of conifer below a shrinking and rising band of sunshine from the western setting sun.  We’re out of the wilderness area now.  I smile back at it.  I’m glad it’s there.

Wilderness Area Info:

The Lost Creek Wilderness, in Central Colorado, was established in 1980 and now has a total of 119,790 acres.  It is one of the most unique wilderness areas in the country.  Not a land of 14ers and high mountain lakes, the Lost Creek instead offers an intimate wilderness of vast forests, spectacular granite rock formations, large mountain parks and disappearing streams.

The east edge of Lost Creek Wilderness is only 60 miles Southwest of Denver and about the same distance Northwest of Colorado Springs.  It is also crossed by the well-known and well-used Colorado Trail.  Due to these factors pressure is fairly high, but not as high as one might think.  Without the high vistas and lakes, many people bypass this area and leave it to those of us who appreciate what it has to offer.  To many of those who have embraced it, the Lost Creek Wilderness is revered as a truly special place for there really is nowhere else like it.

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