Archive for the ‘Wilderness Talk’ Category

Queensboro Bridge Sunset

The sun sets behind the Queensboro Bridge and Manhattan, the East River in the foreground, taken from Queens


The white glow of Times Square after midnight draws me forward like a moth, straight down Broadway.  I have this terrible feeling of being unmoored.  Where am I going?  What the Hell am I doing?  These are metaphorical questions, for life has changed drastically.

As I walk the pavement I remember a day in July, just a few short months ago, sitting on my backyard deck in Colorado. It was a perfect summer evening.  The sunset was particularly interesting over Longs Peak—lots of greenish-blue mixed in with the fiery oranges and reds and pinks.  I was content if not happy as I watched my daughter splash in her little water table while my wife sipped a drink.  She seemed relaxed and thoughtful, but I knew there was something simmering.

Now, in December, I’m a man heading for divorce, and a new project at work takes me weekly to Manhattan.  My home in Colorado?  For now it’s my Mom’s basement.  I shudder at the thought.  I am that guy.  I am 41 years old and living in my Mom’s basement while my soon-to-be ex-wife rattles around in our 3,700 square foot home.  I see my daughter, the sweetest little girl in the World, Friday afternoons through Monday mornings.

New York has been a blessing and a curse, and my life is like the opener in A Tale of Two Cities. At first it was an elixir.  It was the antidote to the grief and pain of divorce.  I met a nice, attractive woman to hang out with, and we stayed out late into the nights.  It was worth it, then, to be miserably tired at work during the day.  After work, I was freed from the chains of commitment, in the middle of a sea of women and possibilities.  There were no limits.  This was New York!

But, it was a temporary distraction. When you divorce, you grieve.   You can’t avoid it.  You have to go through the process.  And so, when the distraction ran its course, the extreme sadness, guilt, confusion, and, at times, even despair, set in.

Now, I walk the streets of New York City alone at night feeling a bone-numbing isolation. The people are all around, day and night–a crushing mass of human activity.  They are all in a hurry in their stylish black coats and severe hair.  They mean business.  Car horns blare impatiently for no reason.   Sirens pierce the air.  People yell and laugh and curse loudly.  Mostly people hurry, from one place to the next and to the next.  They hop on and off cold steel subway cars, run up and down dirty concrete, dodge taxis, take elevators, glance into glass storefronts and corner delis.  And here I am, just one soul of millions.  Alone.  Searching for my new trail; a new dock on the waterfront; my new rock in the sun.  I don’t belong here.

And, yet, I’ve come to appreciate this megacity and all the humanity.  In that buzzing hive of impersonal industry and commerce, there is the longing glance in my direction from a beautiful woman.  There is the mother laughing with her toddler.  There are men bantering jovially at the food stand.  I see a man just strolling, arms held out wide and a great big smile on his face, just taking it all in.  There is another man whom I see helping a random stranger pull a bunch of luggage up a flight of subway stairs.

I walked Central Park, amazed at the contrast between urban bustle and green oasis.  As soon as you cross the street into The Park you see the change in the people.  Those same severe professionals who lacked the patience to wait for the walk sign to cross the road now sit on the rocks of Central Park with their shoes off basking in the sun and filtered shade of nature.  Those same miserable, stressed-out looking women clacking their high heels down West 58th street now stroll in the grass in Sheep’s Meadow, or sit and meditate over The Lake on a park bench.

I believe, when this seismic life change is passed, and I’ve found my mooring again, I will look back at my time in New York as a transformational wilderness-like experience. They say wilderness can be a state of mind.  I believe that more than ever, now.  Here in New York, where millions of people bear down on each other, where steel and concrete and glass dominate the scenery, one’s mind can feel as isolated as if in the Alaskan tundra.  And, sometimes that isolation is just what is needed to heal.


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Sawmill Backpack 1

She looks up to me and exclaims with delight: “This is a nice one!”

“It sure is,” I respond encouragingly.

My daughter is proudly holding up a big pine cone. We are picking them up off the trail and then throwing them together into the grass down the hill. Soon she sees a trickle of clear water tumbling out of the hillside and across the trail. “Look, Daddy, a stream!” She then prances around in the water, too shallow to get her feet wet, for a few minutes.

In this manner it takes us more than two hours to hike the one mile from the parking lot to the Sawmill hiker campground in Jefferson County’s White Ranch Open Space, near Golden. Rule number one for taking a three-year-old backpacking: Patience.

This is exactly the immersion into nature that I want for my daughter. Her developing brain is soaking these sights, smells, sounds and experiences in like a sponge. I want the pure joy and blissfulness of these outdoor experiences to become a part of the fabric of her soul.

She proudly carries her own backpack with a few items of her own clothes packed inside. She takes two or three minor tumbles and, with my gentle encouragement, picks herself back up and continues on.

We finally reach the campground, which is completely deserted on this Monday afternoon. As we approach our site I spot a beautiful black Aberts squirrel near the picnic table. I kneel down to my daughter’s level and point to the squirrel, explaining what it is and that it’s such a beautiful animal. It saunters away into the forest, but we will see it again later that evening, and I will be proud when she tells me, from recollection, “that’s an Aberts squirrel, Daddy.”

As we set up camp, she helps with the chores. I lug a big piece of firewood and she picks up a smaller stick. “Is this a good burning wood?” she asks.  She helps me set up the tent, and then dances around with delight inside when it’s up.

As the shadows get longer on this sunny day we cook dinner over the fire and then roast marshmallows together. She is mesmerized and calmed by the fire in the evening just as many adults are. There seems to be something primal and innately comforting to a human being about a campfire.

As dusk comes we walk back to the trail where there is a sweeping view of the city of Denver and all its lights. She says nothing while looking intensely over the city and the plains beyond, and I sense the wonder that she’s feeling. I tell her that our house is one of those lights (even though I know our house is just out of view to the northeast), and this brings a great big smile. “Is Mommy there?” She asks.

As we sit looking at the city lights over the tops of Ponderosa Pines my daughter gives me a kiss on the cheek and says “I love you Daddy.”  She takes a deep breath of contentment and then a few moments later asks to go back to the campsite. She’s tired.

She sleeps like a log in the tent. She’s been car camping several times before, but this was a new step, and I’m pleased with how well she’s handled it. My hope is that these immersions into nature will become part of who she is. I hope it will create a natural comfort with being in the wilderness, a desire to be outside, to explore, and to respect the natural world.  And, when she’s older there will be an innate wonder and excitement for the wild in her soul.

The hike back to the car the next morning is as slow as the one to the campsite.  She pretends the sand on the trail is bug spray and gets the idea that she needs to protect the grass on the side of the trail from bugs and repeatedly sprinkles “bug spray” sand into the grass.

Close to the trailhead I spot a deer in the meadow up the hill.

“Look up there. See the deer?” I ask.

“Uh-huh.” She acknowledges that she sees it and watches the animal bound through the tall grass and into the trees.  She seems thoughtful for a few moments and then gets back to her game of collecting “bug spray” sand. With patience I just smile and watch.

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I look out my window to a foot of snow still on the ground from a series of late February snowstorms.  I absolutely love snow.  When it snows good and heavy, I turn into a little kid on Christmas morning, darting from window to window to watch the flakes fall and the ground whiten up.  To me, a good raging blizzard ranks very high in life’s pure joys.

But, it’s this time of year, at the tale end of the dead of winter and heading into the first green buds of Spring, that I get the “wilderness itch.” I like all seasons, but it’s the summertime that really hits my soul when it comes to wilderness in the West.  It’s when meadows are green, mountain streams run clear and the aspens shimmer.  When you can wear shorts and a t-shirt sitting on a boulder at 10,000 feet and be perfectly comfortable.  When trout rise in the evening on a creek riffle.  When sunbeams through the forest on clear mountain mornings bring pure happiness.

What new wilderness paradise will I discover this year?  In what cool mountain waters will I dip my feet come July?  Through which forests will I wander, up which valleys will I venture, over which passes will I crest, atop which mountains will I stand?  And, as my daughter turns four and begins to come into the ages where she can start to explore further afield with me, where will I take her to discover her own wonders of the wild?

So, my planning begins.  What Colorado wilderness areas have I yet to walk in?  Spanish Peaks?  Hunter Fryingpan?  Maroon Bells?  La Garita?  What about other states?  Utah’s High Uinta Wilderness is high on my wish list.  So is Cloud Peak in Wyoming’s Big Horns?  Then there’s the Gila down in New Mexico… One of these years I will get there.  Maybe it’s this year.

Water drips from icicles off my gutters.  The Indian Peaks are pure white with late winter snow.  But, the tulip buds are appearing, and I can sense the change of the seasons coming.  Soon.

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Wilderness turns 50 this year!  Actually, to be more specific, the Wilderness Act of 1964 turns 50 this year, in 2014. 

A group of wilderness minded organizations and individuals have formed a group called The 50th Anniversary National Wilderness Planning Team.  The team’s purpose, as stated on their website, www.wilderness50th.org, is to plan and implement events and projects specifically to “elevate the profile of wilderness during the 50th anniversary celebration.”

And, judging from the website, many great events have been planned all over the country.

I’ve added www.wilderness50th.org to my link list to the right of the blog.

Coincidentally, it is also the 90th anniversary of the designation of the Gila Wilderness as our first officially designated wilderness.  The Gila was established in June 1924 and remains one of our iconic wilderness units.

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Kayakers in the Nellie Juan-College Fjord - Courtesy of the Sierra Club

Kayakers in the Nellie Juan-College Fjord – Courtesy of the Sierra Club

Alaska contains our two largest National Forests.  The Tongass is the largest and covers the ancient forests of Alaska’s Southeast.  The Chugach is the second largest, located in South Central Alaska, in and around the Kenai Peninsula.  There is an oddity about the Chugach in terms of our wilderness preservation system:  it is the only national forest in the entire United States without a single acre of designated federal wilderness!  That seems odd considering it is in the state of Alaska, the land of true wilderness.

It makes a bit more sense if we consider how different Alaska is than the rest of the country in terms of its land and size.  First of all, there are enormous national parks all around the Chugach National Forest, all of which are largely wilderness and managed as such.  You have Lake Clark and Katmai to the west.  You have Glacier Bay and the immense Wrangell-St. Elias to the East.  And, on the Kenai Peninsula itself, you have the Kenai Fjords National Park, the half-million acre Chugach State Park and the nearly as large Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park.  Altogether, these areas total about 20 million acres of protected wilderness in the form of national or state parks.  There is less need for federal wilderness areas in an area with such enormous national parklands managed as wilderness outside of the juristiction of the national forest.

Second, wilderness in Alaska should be considered with a completely different perspective than wilderness in the Contiguous U.S.  In the lower 48 states wilderness areas are typically sanctuaries of wild surrounded by civilization and development.  That green blob on the map indicating a wilderness area depicts a zone of “untrammeled” land typically bordered on all sides by roads, farms, towns and cities.  To put it another way, the lower 48 States have pockets of wilderness within a sea of civilization.  In Alaska we need to reverse our perspective 180 degrees.  A designated wilderness in Alaska may be surrounded by an even larger area of true wilderness without specific designation.  Alaska, in other words IS wilderness.  In Alaska there are pockets of civilization in a sea of wilderness.  When you consider, for example, at the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, you have to understand that, enormous as it is with its 8 million acres, it is but a relatively small piece of a wilderness mega-region that is Northern Alaska.  Sure there are a handful of native villages and a couple of dirt roads.  But, these are the pockets of civilization that dip into this immense wilderness that is Alaska.

A designated wilderness area in the Chugach National Forest would certainly add value to our wilderness heritage.  But, in an area with such substantial wilderness already, whether officially designated or not, to me this designation would be more important symbolically.  We should not have a national forest without a designated wilderness area. 

So what is this Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area?  The Fjord and surrounding wildland is on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula and on the western shorelines of Prince William Sound.  The Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is 2.1 million acres large, the size of Yellowstone.  The WSA was established in 1980 with the intention of congressional action to make it a full wilderness area, but for some reason it has languished in limbo.

It is a sea-to-sky wilderness with extensive sea-level shoreline and the steep mountains of the Chugach Range rising to great heights above the sound.  Glaciers fill some valleys, and verdent old forests grace others.  Here we find the northernmost temperate rainforest in the world.  Life in the sound and on land is abundant. 

The map below illustrates where this is.  It’s amazing that a 2 million acre area seems so insignificant on the scale of Alaska, but this really is just a relatively small chunk of the Prince William Sound area of Alaska.  This would be a fantastic real and symbolic addition to our wilderness preservation system.

For more information on this and other Alaskan wilderness efforts, visit The Alaska Wilderness League at  http://www.alaskawild.org/, also linked on the right side of the Home Page of this blog.

Alaska with inset for Prince William Sound and the Fjord

Alaska with inset for Prince William Sound and the Fjord

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Organ Mountains Area with a dusting of frost.  Photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society

Organ Mountains Area with a dusting of frost. Photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society

President Obama has, once again, leveraged the executive power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate another National Monument in New Mexico, and it’s a big one.  It’s a half-million acre (496,000 to be exact) designation for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in Southern New Mexico.  It appears that the monument will be managed like wilderness (although that’s less clear with National Monuments than with Congressionally-designated Wilderness areas).

This area had a long road of advocacy to this point and the designation appears to be supported by the majority of the local residents.  We see more of these designations being justified in economic terms and this one is no different.  The new National Monument is calculated to bring in over $7 million in tourism dollars to the area.  While that may sound impressive initially, it’s really a pretty meager number.  But, whatever works to garner local support…

The real benefit is priceless and immesurable.  And, that is precicely why I believe we need the independent executive authority to designate national monuments.  When Congress will not act in due time to protect certain areas from future exploitation and degradation, we need the executive authority available to do the job. Because once wilderness is developed and/or exploited it is rarely, if ever, recovered.  The executive authority provides a national long-term interest to counter the typically local short-term interests of exploitation.  Some think of it as a “land grab” but these lands are already under federal administration to begin with (usually BLM or National Forest).  I typically do not favor independent executive authority in government in matters not related to national security or foreign policy.  But, land conservation must have an independent executive path because of the generational and usually permanent and irreversable consequences of inaction.

I, for one, believe in balance.  I don’t believe that every single acre of remaining public land should be restricted as wilderness.  We need some of our public lands to be available for other uses including energy independence (including clean energy–you can’t put windfarms and solar arrays in wilderness either).  But, I also believe that the current mix of public lands designation still favors exploitation too heavily and wilderness preservation too little.  We need more wilderness designation to establish corridor linkages between wilderness hubs and to increase the diversity of wilderness ecosystems.

Back to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks–The area represents rugged mountainous Sonoran desert near Las Cruces, NM.  Aside from its stark beauty and wilderness recreational benefits, it harbors significant biodiversity including some plant species found nowhere else in the world.  It has significant archeological significance with hundreds of sites including petroglyphs and evidence of past dwellings dating back hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years.  It has historical significance as the hideouts of Billy the Kid and Geronimo.  It has cultural significance as the backdrop for Western movies.  And, above all, it has natural significance as a large desert wilderness in need of permanent protection.

Here is a short production from Pew Environmental on this area and its recent National Monument designation:


And here is a beautiful video from Amazing Places on our Planet demonstrating some of the outstanding scenery of the new National Monument:



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The largest as yet unprotected contiguous roadless land in America (outside of Alaska) is the Boulder White Cloud Mountains in South Central Idaho.  For several decades now, efforts and legislation to protect much of this half-million acre wonderland has languished in state and congressional debate, but the effort continues.  The addition of a 300,000 + acre wilderness to our preservation system would be one of the most substantial additions to our wilderness system since the 1980’s, and it should be done. 

The Boulder-White Cloud mountains are a bright and vivid Rocky Mountain environment.  It’s home to the headwaters of four rivers that run sparkling clear in this area.  Some of these waterways see salmon migration all the way from the Pacific, some of the longest salmon migrations on Earth.  Elk, deer, bighorns, bears, wolves, mountain lions, lots of trout, lots of trees, and soaring mountains.  It’s all there now and needs official protection forever.  However, the details of current proposals may be going too far to try to accommodate all interests.  Many wilderness advocacy groups are against CIEDRA (Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act) because it seems to be folding a more limited form of wilderness protection into a larger complex of increases in non-wilderness-like recreational and use designations.  But, this is the nature of wilderness preservation efforts in the 21st century.  It’s complicated.  More inclusive of different interests, more creative, more collaborative.  And, perhaps slower and more diluted from the original intention of wilderness preservation.  Can there be degrees of wilderness protection within the wilderness preservation system?  I tend to think the opportunity for that is limited before we begin to compromise what it means to call an area “wilderness.” 

But, some form of official protection for this area is needed.  The link below is a quality production by PEW Environmental on the efforts to protect this beautiful area:


Location of proposed Boulder White Clouds Wilderness - Courtesy of Boulder White Clouds Council

Location of proposed Boulder White Clouds Wilderness – Courtesy of Boulder White Clouds Council

Boulder White Cloud environment - Courtesy of Idaho Conservation League

Boulder White Cloud environment – Courtesy of Idaho Conservation League

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