Wilderness & Civilization

My name is Libby and I spent the Fall 2021 semester backpacking and camping throughout western Montana as part of the Wilderness & Civilization program. My theme is Resources and Sustainability, which pairs well with my major in Wildlife Biology. My major is a fairly niche field, but Resources and Sustainability encompasses a greater scope of topics that I was able to explore through this program, including wilderness ethics, nature writing, and land art.

Land art at Blackfoot Pathways sculpture garden in Lincoln, MT

What I really loved about this program was the way it balanced teaching us about big, abstract concepts driving discourse about the wilderness with learning practical skills for surviving in it. There were many days where I would get into heated discussions about the future of the Wilderness Act in the morning, then literally heat it up in the afternoon with emergency fire building. It challenged me to rethink my opinions on everything from land designations to the logging industry, and more importantly, to put those ideas into words and actions.

Logging site owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy in accordance with the principles of ecological forestry

One of the ongoing conversations we had in almost every class was about whether or not “wilderness” is even a worthwhile concept in the first place. “Big W Wilderness” as we called it is the strictest, most protected land designation we have in this country. It preserves landscapes in their most pristine condition, with no roads, motor vehicles, or extractive activities. However, it operates under the assumption that “pristine” means untouched and “untrammeled” by people. This is a very Western idea because it ignores a long history of active management by Native peoples in these landscapes. We spent over a month reading about the wilderness from the perspective of early foresters, indigenous leaders, nature writers, and modern scientists. At the end of the semester, we had to distill all of these conversations into a final essay defining our wilderness ethic and our hope for the future of wilderness. This is one of the hardest essays I have ever had to write. 

I learned so much this semester about the amazing place I live and the many perspectives and experiences that have made it the place it is today. But I also learned a lot about myself. I put myself way out of my comfort zone to do this program, and it was worth it in more ways than I can count. I realized I am so much more capable than I thought I was. I lived in the backcountry for 10 days, I navigated my trek crew through river crossing and bushwacking and trusted them to lead me in turn, I learned from indigenous voices and challenged my assumptions about industries I knew little about. And all the while, I was making friends for life. Thank you, W&C cohort of 2021. I will never forget you.

Admiring a valley in the Badger-Two Medicine, the aboriginal land of the Blackfeet Nation. The next day, we would hike past that furthest peak.

A Summer in the Frank Church Wilderness

To better understand my global theme of culture and politics, my summer was spent contemplating what differentiates big ‘W’ Wilderness from small ‘w’ wilderness. Big ‘W’ Wilderness is land specifically assigned the designation of Wilderness. It can be a state or federal designation, but once designated, management for these lands changes a great deal. I also observed how those statutes are interpreted based on need and human agendas. Wilderness is an interesting concept because its creation is based off the Wilderness Act of 1964, where Wilderness was officially defined as, “…in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, [Wilderness] is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” (Wilderness Act, 1964). It prohibits anything mechanized such as chainsaws, mountain bikes, or motor vehicles from being used within its boundaries. That being said, some Wilderness areas have some grandfathered in clauses that permit some of those prohibitions. For example, in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness—where I worked all summer—backcountry airstrips were grandfathered into its statute, and thus, airplanes are allowed to fly and land in that Wilderness. This is unusual for Wilderness as motorized vehicles (i.e., planes) are supposed to be illegal. I heard these planes all summer while we worked. There are a few contradictions like that in the Wilderness Act, and I have struggled with understanding them all summer. My conclusion is that in order to protect the majority of the land, compromises were made to sacrifice smaller sections for established commodities. It still sits uncomfortably in my stomach, but such is the way of the world.

I must admit, despite my discomfort with the ambiguity of the Wilderness Act, I had the opportunity to fly in a plane over the Frank Church Wilderness, and I loved every minute of it. Looking down upon the mountains and seeing where I had been working all summer from a birds eye view was simply spectacular. I wrote in my journal that night:

“There’s little more humbling than looking down upon mountains thousands upon millions of times larger and older than you are. And there’s something so delightful about looking down and seeing a backcountry trail. Not many have traveled it but it’s something you see as a member of a trail crew and think ‘my people have walked this, my people have worked this; this is why we’re here.’ These tiny ant lines cut into mountains and valleys, down to rivers and following ridges. We are so so small. But we are so so powerful.”

It was really inspiring and encouraging to be able to experience that. It was a highlight of the summer, and I am so grateful I got to have that opportunity—for work nonetheless!

The view from the plane as I flew over the Frank Church Wilderness. Photo credited to Jaime Breisch.

The cultural aspect of my internship was in working on trails and surviving in the backcountry, which was something I learned a great deal about firsthand. It can be tough at times, but if you can find your rhythm, make peace with the structure, and embrace being brought down to the simpler lifestyle of survival, it can be so rewarding. Being in the backcountry, you learn quickly there are a number of things that are out of your control: thunderstorms, where water sources are located, when trees decide to fall. All you can do is persevere through and keep in mind; these troubles will pass.  

People who do regularly work trails—trail dogs—are diverse. More so than I ever expected. That’s not to mention the community and comradery that comes from suffering with people. As a woman, you are warned of being leery of men and making sure they don’t walk all over you. The Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation—my employer for this summer—is an organization that does not tolerate or stand for that kind of sexism in the front or back country. Seeing as the majority of the organization is run by women and the president of the board for the organization is a woman, prejudice was never something that was an issue. Instead, the community is open, accepting, and non-judgmental. Being out in Wilderness for up to nine days at a time can be hard on a person mentally, physically, and emotionally. This isn’t work that’s cut out for everyone. To have such a community that is persistent yet patient as you discover where you stand on such work, is priceless. The connections I discovered this summer are ones I will have for the rest of my life.

I gained a better understanding of the diverse perspectives related to my theme and challenge, however, not in the way I thought I would. I never realized the importance of work culture and its relation to the success of a team such as the crews we worked on this summer. I was lucky enough to have a small crew and we all got along famously. Other interns in their crews, I came to learn, did not. Being able to work with people greatly different from yourself is critical. Adaptability is everything, and it’s important to be able to communicate issues that come up in a clear and succinct way, so problems don’t ruminate until someone blows up. I had ample opportunity to practice these kinds of skills throughout the duration of my internship. My crew leader made sure to offer opportunities for us to take charge and practice being the leaders for the day, including planning where the team would go and what we would do. My organizational, communication, and preparation skills also improved exponentially as it was critical, I be prepared for our excursions into the backcountry, and that I knew where things were should I need them quick. As a result, my confidence in my physical ability and my ability to handle emergency situations has increased as well.

Wilderness Stewardship is so important, and going forward, I hope to continue pursuing work opportunities in Wilderness.

Jaime Breisch filtering water on Marble Creek Trail (Trail #062). Photo credited to Parker DePond.

References

Wilderness Act of 1964, 16 U.S. Code § 1131. (1964). https://wilderness.net/learn-about-wilderness/key-laws/wilderness-act/default.php