Green grasses on the ridge of a mountain. Two hikers appear in the foreground and multiple mountains appear in the background.

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Today, we have a question from one of our reporters, Charlie Adams. What do you have for us, Charlie?

Charlie: Last summer I spent ten weeks working in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It’s a slice of northwest Montana that’s over one million acres!

I’m from the East Coast, so the word “wilderness” used to make me think of pristine landscapes free of humans. Now that I’ve experienced it first hand, I think that’s not exactly right. Which made me wonder- what do we mean when we say “wilderness”?

Megan: We had Iman Khanbhai from our Possibly team help Charlie look into this question. 

Iman: Hello!

Megan: So what exactly do we mean when we say “wilderness”? 

Charlie: It’s a big question with many answers. To get a better idea, I asked rangers, conservationists, and tribal leaders. Depending on who you ask- it’s either a great idea, flawed, or a bit of both.

Megan: Alright, let’s get into it! 

Iman: We can start with The 1964 Wilderness Preservation Act. It calls wilderness “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Charlie: Many of us think about wilderness in a similar way, I know I did- it’s the legendary American landscapes home to grizzly bears and wolves, and for a few nights the brave backpacker. 

Megan: Right. Wide open spaces without humans. What’s wrong with that definition? 

Iman: Well, it assumes that there’s a big divide between humans and nature- that we haven’t always co-existed in some way.

Charlie: And that some ways of interacting with the land are more “civilized” than others. 

Iman: To learn more we spoke with Professor Bathsheba Demuth, an Environmental Historian at Brown University.  

Bathsheba Demuth: “The idea of wilderness is deeply tied with the settler colonial project of displacing indigenous inhabitants in North America by saying, Oh, this land is empty. It’s not being used. No one’s really here. And if settlers come in and transform it through agriculture and industry, then it will be inhabited for real.”

Megan: So, the idea of wilderness assumes that nothing’s happening there, so settlers can take it and do whatever they want with it?

Charlie: That was the original thought. But eventually, conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt worried about losing all of that wilderness. So, they worked to protect certain areas and keep them “wild.”

Megan: Like the national parks?

Charlie: Right. First came the parks, and then came a slightly different form of protection- wilderness areas. The US Government created these spaces to “maintain the wild character of the landscape” and they blocked humans from building or living there. 

Iman: But there was one huge problem- humans already lived there. This land belonged to Native peoples. And the government often removed them to make the areas “wild.” 

Charlie: In fact, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, where I spent my summer, was established on indigenous land. That was more than 80 years ago.

Iman: Smokey Rides At The Door, an educator and former Blackfeet Tribal council member, says native people are still deeply connected to the land they lost.  

Smokey Rides At The Door: “The protein that’s available there from the meat is very important for our health. The picking of wild berries is very important to us. Those are part of our ceremonies.

Megan: So, where do we go from here?  

Charlie: Well, we can start by reimagining what wilderness means. Maybe it’s not as clear-cut as civilization versus nature. Here’s Gabriel de Avilez Row-sha, professor of history at Brown with a thought experiment: 

Gabriel de Avilez Rocha: “When are you ever not in nature? Even when you’re sitting in your car? Or in your living room? How are you in wilderness in those moments? How is nature there? When we look around us, we actually are seeing nature that’s been transformed in different ways.”

Iman: But on a more practical level, wilderness areas can rethink this idea of excluding humans.

Charlie: Some places are already doing this. Bathsheba from Brown says people can enter wilderness areas in Alaska to harvest or hunt food for their daily needs.

Iman: And some park and wilderness systems are starting to do more to acknowledge indigenous people and their connection to these lands.

Megan: Thanks Charlie and Iman. 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of The Public’s Radio, Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society, and Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative

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