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Home » Community Blogs » Commentary on William Cronon’s “The Trouble With Wilderness” essay
William Cronon was recently featured in Ken Burn's documentary on the National Parks. Cronon is a well known historian but his knowledge of the conservation movement context is limited in my view. Cronon is part of new post modern movement that critiques the conservation movement as imperialistic or trivial--only concerned with setting aside places to hike. However, he appears to miss many important contextual aspects of the debate. Below is a critique of his essay "The Trouble With Wilderness" where he outlines many of his concerns. I originally wrote this critique shortly after his essay appeared in Uncommon Ground, but I feel after viewing Burn's movie it is still relevant to the larger wilderness debate today. Cronon's original essay can be viewed here.

Commentary on William Cronon’s “The Trouble With Wilderness” essay

A few years ago I heard Bill Cronon speak in Bozeman, Montana. His talk focused on the old controversy between Muir and Pinchot and the construction of Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park. I must confess I was bit disappointed in his talk. For a historian, he actually seemed to be ignorant of history. He didn’t seem to appreciate or mention the historical “context” in which the debate had been played out.

However, I chalked it up to the fact that he only had an hour to lay out the arguments. As someone who often gives abbreviated discussions of complex issues myself, I figured he just left much unsaid for the sake of brevity. But after reading his essay, The Trouble With Wilderness in the book he edited Uncommon Ground, I can see that Cronon is historically ignorant–a pretty tough accusation to make about a historian.

It is difficult for me to believe Cronon read the original source materials. I suspect he had graduate students do much of the original research and relied too heavily on their interpretations (a rather common method of producing published literature by many in academia). Rather than reviewing the entire body of literature, Cronon “skimmed” the source material. As a result, his historical analysis lacks contextual relevance. I will deal more on this later.

I also get the feeling that Cronon as well as the other post modern critics have only recently gotten interested in environmental issues, so there’s a profound ignorance of the internal debates, political considerations, and historical context to their interpretation of the events and issues.

For example, Cronon cites the Endangered Species Act and suggests that trying to protect landscapes on the backs of one or two endangered species is a “poor strategy” and is not a “holistic” approach to species preservation. But if he had a historical understanding of the ESA debate and how the legislation came about he would realize that environmentalists have always argued that one must protect habitat and ecosystems, and even ecological processes, not just individual species. Enlightened conservationists have always argued in one form or another for protection of ecosystems and ecological processes, not just individual species. We need to preserve the elk herd and the wolf together, for one without the other is no longer meaningful ecologically. Cronon appears to ignore this contextual perspective in his essay. The focus on single species as exemplified in the current Endangered Species legislation was all that environmentalists were able to successfully legislate, it is not what environmentalists wanted.

Furthermore he uses the tire critique about how places like Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, etc. are parks that though awe-inspiring, were set aside for “shallow” scenic purposes. Cronon complains that conservationists ignored less scenic, but biologically important areas. His evidence for his assertion? Well he observes there are no grassland parks. No deserts–at least not at first–etc. and concludes this is because environmentalists didn’t have a clue about biology or anything other than wanting to preserve nice places to vacation and recreate.

But if Cronon had done his homework, he would have discovered that many areas besides highly scenic landscapes were repeatedly identified as worthy of protection. The problem has been, and still is, that those in power have not permitted these kinds of places to gain protection. The preponderance of glaciated peaks in our early Park system was a consequence of political realities. Our parks and wildernesses were mountaintops, because that was the only places left undeveloped, and without powerful economic foes interested in keeping the land open for exploitation. It was the only thing that had “no use”. And “no use” was often the major reason for designation–and indeed the only argument that had any weight with Congress.

Even though early conservationists like John Muir wrote about sublime scenery to attract political support, he didn’t believe scenery was the only, or even the major justification for protecting landscapes. But from a historical context, it was the only argument he could use that had any merit–not because Muir and other conservationists were shallow thinkers–but because the people they had to deal with were.

Just as today many biologists use the argument that we must preserve such things as rainforests because there may be “drugs” found there we could use. While most biologists would not argue against the validity of such a rationale, it isn’t the only reason they would preserve rainforests. A deeper reading of the biological literature would demonstrate this, but if you look at only the superficial literature or perhaps even the reasons given by politicians when such areas are protected or preserved, you might get the impression that only forests with potentially valuable drugs were worth protecting.

There have always been more visionary proposals. When Muir first lobbied for protecting Yosemite, he wanted to see the entire Sierra Nevada from the foothills to the alpine from Yosemite south to Walker Pass all protected as a national park, not just the Yosemite Valley or even a part of Yosemite. He was thinking about landscape-wide protection, not just one scenic valley.

And Bob Marshall suggested in the 1930s that everything north of the Yukon River in Alaska be set aside as one grand park. Much of that landscape is flat, wet, mosquito ridden tundra–not exactly your dream “majestic landscape”, but again Marshall was thinking beyond just preservation of scenic splendor. Again Marshall had a visionary perspective.

And there have always been advocates for protection of the “ordinary” landscapes. Even the Great Plains had its supporters from very early on. In the 1830s Artist George Catlin argued that the entire northern Great Plains be preserved as a national park. And later, in the 1890s John Wesley Powell made a similar call to protect the northern Plains as a park.

And within ten years of Yellowstone’s establishment people were calling for a much larger park to protect ecological values. In 1883 General Phil Sheridan suggested expansion of Yellowstone to the east to protect the entire migration corridor and winter range of elk herds in the park. Sheridan was already advocating a “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” approach even though he didn’t call it by such a politically correct title.

Even eastern deciduous forests were not ignored. In 1900 there was a proposal to make a 2 million acre park in the Maine Woods that didn’t go anywhere. There was a call to protect the entire northeast corner of California as a Mt Shasta–Volcanic Tablelands park back in the 1930s, but it, like so many other proposals, was opposed by local interests and exploitive interests.

I could go on and on, but the point is that there is a long history of people advocating parks and protection for large landscapes, and even areas we traditionally do not consider majestic. But these proposals have continuously been opposed by development interests and rural residents. It’s not that conservationists haven’t argued for these proposals, it’s that society, and particularly the politicians that control Congress were unwilling to provide protection for any lands that had some other perceived productive use.

Cronon also argues that the idea of wilderness is a creation of civilization as if that makes it unnecessary. Indeed, I would agree that without civilization as a contrast, few would perceive a need for wildlands protection. Just as speed limits are a creation of the automobile–when we rode horses we didn’t need speed limits. Does that make speed limits somehow unnecessary?

The wilderness movement was created to counter the very real spread of industrialization and agriculture across the face of the earth. Cronon thinks he is making a profound observation when he notes that 250 years ago you didn’t find people wandering looking for wilderness on all parts of the globe. That’s in part, because wilderness was in fact in almost everyone’s backyard. The idea of wilderness is very much a product of its opposition–as wilderness advocates have noted for decades–see Aldo Leopold for instance.

But it is also a movement of humility. It is based upon a profound respect for all life–not just human life–and empowerment of other life forms. The problem with Cronon’s notions is that he displays a profound arrogance of humanism.

He brings up the issue of Hetch Hetchy–again without understanding or acknowledging the finer points of the debate. While Muir opposed construction of a dam in Hetch Hetchy Canyon, he was not against providing a reservoir to meet San Francisco’s water supply needs. He simply argued there were other sites to build a reservoir. He was saying Hetch Hetchy was a superb place that should not be destroyed to create a ordinary reservoir. There is no other valley in the entire Sierra that rivals Hetch Hetchy and the Yosemite Valley for dramatic effect. Yes, in this case Muir was basing his concern in part upon aesthetics–but what is wrong with aesthetics? What Muir was arguing is that it is a crime to destroy something unique for something that could provided elsewhere with less impacts. Is there really anything wrong with that?

He was also fighting the idea that parks could be developed. This may have been even more important. If parks were not off limits to commercial development than no place would be. And Muir understood that if Hetch Hetchy could be justified in a national park, than no national park was safe from exploitation and development. You have to frame the debate in that broader context to understand why Muir put forth so much effort opposing the reservoir.

Muir’s wanted to protect a humility before the land that at their best parks, wilderness, and other land preservation efforts represent. It’s a recognition that if we must develop the landscape, let’s do so with the least impacts. If we have made a “compact” with the land, let’s honor it. What is wrong with that?

That is, in effect, what sustainable development is about that Cronon at the end of his essay says we need. Just as Muir argued that it was a crime to dynamite 3,000 year old sequoia to make fence lathes–a practice that was common in his day–when there were other sources of fencing material that didn’t require destroying 3,000 year old trees, he was arguing that there were other ways to supply San Francisco with water than damming a river in one of the most spectacular valleys in the Sierra and in a national park to boot.

Beyond that, Cronon doesn’t put Pinchot’s view within an honest historical perspective either. The reason Pinchot supported the damming of Hetchy is because he was very supportive of public works as a means of undermining the privatization of resources. Pinchot would be viewed as a radical today. He advocated the public acquisition of all forest lands in the nation, including all the private lands, because he felt private markets couldn’t protect public needs. The reason he supported the dam at Hetch Hetchy was that a private water company controlled San Francisco’s water supply at the time. He wanted San Francisco to publicly control its water as a matter of public policy. The Hetch Hetchy dam site would do that. The other dam proposals that had been considered would all be under private control–something he wanted to avoid. When you view the Hetch Hetchy debate from this perspective, you see that neither Pinchot or Muir were bad people with malicious intent.

Cronon displays his historical ignorance in another part of essay. It shows that he sits indoors too much, and doesn’t spend enough time out in the landscape he purports to be an expert on. He discusses Thoreau’s account of climbing Katahdin. The climb was difficult and Thoreau left little doubt of that fact in his essays. Cronon suggests this demonstrates that Thoreau didn’t really “like” truly wild landscapes.

But again Cronon fails to put things in perspective. Few people are at home on alpine mountains in a fog and mist. It’s not easy to claw your way up a steep mountainside through thickets of balsam fir without the benefit of a trail. That’s what Thoreau had to do. It wasn’t a fun task. Thoreau was one of the first European to attempt a climb of Katahdin. There were no trails to the top. Not even Indian trails. No one climbed up Katahdin. There were not even many game trails. In other words it wasn’t easy to get to the place he was describing. He had to canoe three weeks to get to the base of the mountain. Then he had to haul himself up through downfall and debris along an old avalanche shoot. Plus the weather was miserable–with clouds, fog, and rain part of the time. When Cronon suggests that the way Thoreau described Katahdin is surely not the way a modern backpacker or nature lover would describe because of our romantic notions of wilderness, he is deluding himself. The modern backpacker isn’t experiencing the same mountain as Thoreau. They are not pulling themselves up through an avalanche slide through the balsam fir thickets without a trail. And having had to haul myself up many of Alaska’ trail-less mountains through alder and devil’s club in pouring rain, I can attest that even a “modern” backpacker can complain about such obstacles—all the while loving the idea and very real existence of wilderness.

Even if Cronon is correct in his assertion that people’s view of wilderness is skewed by our ability to experience it in relative comfort doesn’t mean people don’t support the concept of wildlands preservation. Again most dedicated conservationists aren’t working to protect land so they can have a place to backpack and hike. They are trying to protect the land as a place for other non-human creatures to live, and perhaps on within a larger philosophical context of self imposed limitations.

Later Cronon talks about the frontier. He suggests that conservationists view wilderness as a place to maintain the “frontier” ethic. I would suggest wilderness preservation is actually in opposition to the values that is engendered by the “frontier”. Although no one would deny that a value of wilderness is self reliance, and self responsibility, that is about the only place where the frontier values of “taming” nature overlaps slightly with what most wilderness supporters see as valuable in wild country. What wilderness is about is exploring one’s own mind and body and seeking to control it–much as in Buddhist traditions–not in controlling the land or nature as is best exemplified by the frontier ethic.

I would suggest that protection of wilderness isn’t about preserving America’s sacred myth, but is in opposition to it. America’s myth and the one exemplified by the Virginian is control of nature. Not so much the control of the person–although there is some overlap. It is about humans shaping nature to human desires. The frontier ethic is about colonialism. Cronon mixes the two ideas inappropriately.

Cronon suggests that our national parks were part of the colonial expansion–a way to move Indians off the land so it could be appropriated for vacation sites for wealthy people in the East. It was the frontier ethic–the control of nature that moved the Indian out of the way. Most parks in the U.S. were not created on the backs of the Indians. The Indians were already gone–due to the very process that supporters of parks and wilderness were attempting to hold at bay–the rapid exploitation and domination of every last acre of land.

Cronon then chastises the Park Service for being insensitive to this colonialism and suggests it is still on-going by referring to Park Service attempts to halt hunting by the Blackfeet Indians within Glacier Park. What Cronon ignores is the park service’s commitment to the non-human element. Glacier National Park is supposed to be a sanctuary for wildlife. Whether the Blackfeet hunted there in the past or not is not reverent today anymore than it would be relevant to allow market hunters or beaver trappers to enter the park because they also operated in that area prior to park establishment.

Unrestricted hunting, aided by modern weapons and transportation has been so successful that there is almost no game left on the Blackfeet Reservation, and even on the eastern side of Glacier National Park (although recently the tribe adopted the western view of game laws there is now a growing but small herds of elk and deer). A modern hunter–whether he is Indian, white, Mexican or whatever, is different than people living under primitive conditions, with primitive weapons, with disease, starvation, and other mortality maintaining low populations. The reality of today is that people–any people–cannot expect to practice 18th century lifestyles with 20th century weapons and technology, without also accepting 20th century controls on behavior such as game laws, and other restrictions. The issue over “traditional” use is stretched thin by individuals who ignore “traditional” technologies such as hand making bows, arrows, and other weapons, but demand “traditional” unrestricted access and hunting privileges.

Cronon goes on to suggest that wilderness leaves no place for human beings. Give me a break. Human beings already control most of the earth and have modified nearly every acre to some degree. Is wilderness protection and designation really a problem? Come on. Only 4% of the U.S. is designated as wilderness, parks, etc. Is he threatened by this amount? Even if we could protect 50% of the land in the country as some conservationists’ dream of doing, humans would still no doubt occupy the 50% most productive and desirable acres. Humans aren’t ever going to be displaced by conservation efforts, and he is disingenuous to even suggest this is the case.

I agree that we must see our homes as important as well, and not divorces ourselves from our immediate surroundings. Our cities need to be made more livable. But he should be honest. It isn’t environmentalists that are causing the problem, nor working against solving this issue. I don’t know any environmentalists who believe polluted water or air is acceptable as long as it is kept out of wildlands preserves. And it is not them who are advocating toxic dumps in poor neighborhoods. Cronon miscasts the blame for these conditions on environmentalists and ignores those most directly responsible for these decisions.

Wilderness advocates aren’t “fleeing” into the wilderness as Cronon suggests in his last lines. Most of them don’t get to the wilderness near enough because they have to spend far too much time debating with people like Cronon—who should know better than to focus on environmentalists while the developers, corporations and others continue to strip the Earth both of wilderness and human rights.

And I don’t think there are many who don’t recognize that some destruction of natural systems is necessary if we are to live. A farm field is a simplified ecosystem. It is not a self perpetuating landscape. It requires energy inputs and human care. But that doesn’t mean every last acre of the Earth should and must come under human control and manipulation. Wilderness is a place where human input isn’t needed, and indeed operates best without most human interference. We are talking about scale. How anyone can argue that with 5 billion people on the planet can exist without setting aside some areas from human exploitation is absurd. It suggests that humans “know” how to care for the Earth; that they have some knowledge about what is sustainable. I see no evidence to suggest that we do, and any humble and responsible person would suggest that it is entirely reasonable to place some areas of the earth off limits to human exploitation.

About George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner has published 36 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy

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  1. You are right about Katahdin. Even most today’s ‘modern backpacker’ thinks it’s a tough climb. Even though there are now several marked trails there is no easy way up that mountain. To do it the way Thoreau did would stop most people today a long way short of Thoreau Spring where he turned around. I climb it at least once a year and no matter how fit or how experienced I might be it’s still a challenge. Thanks for setting the record on Thoreau straight.

  2. Thanks George for your important insights. Please tell me where “Katahdin” is located.

    Agree w/Mike, the environment is the issue!!!!!

    George in your last paragraph you correctly acknowledge that there is a “environmental cost” of civilization that must be extracted from nature. Anti enviro groups often fail to credit enviro’s for always accepting this reality so that they can marginalize the enviros. By the way, I think there are 6.7 billion humans currently on earth & not 5 billion as you state.

    In the contemporary debate about health care, the “right” doesn’t miss an opportunity to accuse the left of wanting to “socialize” everything. And yet the timber, fishing, mining and other barons routinely–attempt–to pass on their industrial cleanup costs (exterialize) to the public. Isn’t this socialism?

  3. Monty

    Katahdin is in Maine. It’s the highest mountain. It’s located in Baxter State Park.

    You’re right about populaton.

    Yes it is is privatize profits, socialize costs.

  4. We’ve been watching the Ken Burns’ special about the national parks. I am feeling both pride and awe at what we’ve accomplished so far with the system, and shame and disgust at what had to be overcome to do so. I had no idea the struggle and undermining that occurred in the process.

    How sad is it that we face the same struggle with protecting our remaining wild places and their inhabitants.

    Where are the passionate people who take on a cause such as this? Can one person still make a real and lasting difference? Have we developed a society that is too comfortable and too busy with both careers and mindless pastimes such as TV to rise to significance? I put myself in that same sad category. Great deeds don’t have to be done by great men/women…just ones who have vision, passion and a commitment to something greater than themselves.

    Beyond the story of national parks, that is what the series is saying to me, and I find inspiration in the stories of those who took a stand for something good, lasting and as important as the national parks.

  5. I have Cronon’s “rant” in the hefty tome, The Great New Wilderness Debate, that I got about 6 years ago. It is a polemical nonsense, but it has received a lot of attention from those that want to knock wilderness because it appears to have an intellectual sheen to it.

    What would be interesting is for George to re-write this commentary, but without it being a critique of Cronon’s polemic. It contains many truisms about wilderness and how it should be regarded. Thus it is the best way of keeping out the predominant lifestyle and land use of the 21st century, references a “humans in nature” relationship with the land that has limits set to appropriate technology, and has a wildlands vision of public protection that perhaps future proofs our existence. It is the ultimate gift to wild nature from what is often a species inimical to it.

    I would add the additional information that Catlin is particularly interesting in being probably the first person to advocate a “first nations” protected area as a national preserve, but then he is also regarded as being the first to advocate a national park as a “nation’s Park”eg
    “It is a melancholy contemplation too, when one (who has travelled these realms, and can duly appreciate them) imagines them as they might in “future” be seen, (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a ‘magnificent park’, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A “nation’s Park”, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”
    Catlin, 1844

    Wildland Research Institute, Leeds University, UK

  6. I’ve been meaning to respond to this and am now getting around to it.

    I don’t quite understand why Cronon is made out to be “polemical nonsense.” I read the article referenced by Wuerthner and I actually think Cronon and Wuerthner actually agree on a good many issues. I think it’s unfair and unconvincing to criticize Cronon for being “ignorant of history” and to make baseless claims that he “skimmed the source material” and had his graduate students do all the reading. In fact, the subtleties of Cronon’s discussion reveal that his is in fact aware of much of what Wuerthner faults him for.

    A few brief examples:

    One point of contention is of Cronon’s use of a single endangered species as a method for wilderness protection. Wuerthner takes this to mean that Cronon is representing environmentalists as interested only in single-species protection rather than a “holistic approach.” And yet, Cronon says that the “terms” of the ESA have “often meant that those hoping to defend pristine wilderness have had to rely on a single endangered species […] to gain legal standing for their case.” Cronon implies here that although environmentalists are fully aware of the importance of holistic wide-spread protection, they are often pigeon-holed into weaker approaches that are easily attacked. In other words, Cronon and Wuerthner agree that environmentalists already wish to “defend pristine wilderness” in a “holistic” way, but are limited by the politics and by those with other viewpoints.

    Next on Wuerthner’s list is the implication that Cronon accuses protectors of Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, etc of having no motive other than “shallow” reasons. While Cronon does note that “scenic purposes” motivated conservationists in efforts to protect these wildernesses, his point is that these areas were, and still are, the reigning symbols of wilderness in America. These parks work as wilderness symbols because of the myth surrounding them. Nowhere does Cronon imply that environmentalists “didn’t have a clue about biology.” Wuerthner denounces him for not having “done his homework,” but the extrapolation that Cronon is unaware that other landscapes have been offered up for protection has no basis in his text, as far as I can tell.

    I could keep making these comparisons, but since I’ve already delayed this much, I thought it wise to stop myself here and go ahead and post this, as I think it makes my point.

  7. I completely agree with the points made by Katie. Furthermore, it’s important to note that Cronon is NOT opposed to the idea of conservation. According to Cronon, “It is not the things we label as wilderness that are the problem–for nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural word do deserve protection–but rather what we ourselves mean when we use the label.” What Cronon argues, therefore, is that all of us–not only politicians–need to view wilderness in a different way, and not disconnect ourselves from nature. Furthermore, as Katie notes, Cronon does not suggest that environmentalists are the problem, but that society’s conceptualization of the wild in general needs to be modified. It seems odd that Wuerthner would accuse others of not doing their research when he himself fails to take the time to closely read the essay that he critiques.

  8. Why stick up for someone who doesn’t want to be restricted by the discipline of rational thought and behaviour? Post-modernism thrives on the tosh that Cronon serves up. He doesn’t want to accept the reality of wildland that it endures through limits to humanity, and is an expression of the biophysicality of a self-will. Thus from Cyril Kormos and Harold Locke (2008):
    “Postmodern criticism [of wilderness] fails to address the biological component of the word wilderness, nor does it fully address wilderness as a description of land that is wild”

    “Thus, wilderness protected by law is not a place whose reason for being is to exclude people, but rather a formally designated place where only certain human uses are allowed in order to maintain its wild character. To be effective, a wilderness law must
    specify which uses it permits and which it excludes”

    Cronon just wants to do his own thing.

    Wildland Research Institute, Leeds University, UK

  9. I read Cronon’s essay and found it to be very weak, even silly. He wrote that his major objection to the concept of wilderness is that it encourages people to value some kinds of landscape more than others. Since we can’t preserve the entire world, what is wrong with protecting the most beautiful pllaces?