The wild in wilderness
ESCANABA — Should Michigan pursue more “designated” wilderness acres?
Michigan already has 16 designated wilderness areas, in addition to millions of acres of wild lands.
There is a significant difference between “designated federal wilderness” and “wild areas.” Wilderness designation is highly restrictive and approved by an Act of Congress for particularly special areas on federal lands, in addition to some not so particularly special areas because a national forest is required, arbitrarily by law, to have a certain number of acres designated.
Alternatively, the definition of “wild” is far more fluid than that of a designated wilderness. Most of Michigan’s forest would probably be considered “wild” by the majority of Michiganders. Much of this “wild forest” is managed, meaning timber harvests periodically occur.
For some, a timber harvest incorrectly implies destruction, based largely on a visual quality metric, which is a particularly lousy forest health metric. However, the major threats to Michigan forests cannot, at all, be addressed by formal federal wilderness designation which excludes timber harvest.
The notion that forests left alone will gradually return to something similar to that of pre-EuroAmerican settlement is fanciful, at best.
To be more ecologically correct, in addition to economically correct, our northern forests should be managed, or tended. Forests are vulnerable to a range of human-induced factors that they did not face two hundred years ago. It behooves society to take care of these forests. Benign neglect, such as that of designated wilderness areas, will most likely lead to a damaged resource, as well as damage to society, in general, which depends upon the wood, water, and other services that forests provide.
Management is the means through which vital products and services are optimized. Management means harvest. It probably cannot be emphasized too much how important forest products and services are to our collective welfare, although such dependency seldom occurs in our collective consciousness.
Wilderness designation restricts use to a single purpose, mostly recreation, but also the “preservation” of certain high-quality characteristics which, if present, do indeed have value. Across the United States, there are over 112 million acres of designated wilderness. That’s five times the size of Michigan’s entire forest resource.
In Michigan, we have nearly 300,000 acres of designated federal wilderness, less than two percent of the forest area. That might seem low to some. However, there are also hundreds of thousands of similarly managed forests and wetlands that are not formally designated wilderness, such as the Porcupine Mountains, Seney Refuge, and Hartwick Pines.
Finding solitude in designated wilderness areas and parklands is becoming increasingly difficult, at least in the Lake States, due to their popularity. However, solitude is readily available across large areas outside formal wilderness areas.
There exist millions of wild forestlands that most Michiganders would consider “wilderness” as they drive through them, or hunt in them, or snowmobile, or practice other forms of outdoor recreation. This considers only the recreation component of a multiple-use forest.
Recently, certain advocate groups championed designating 51,000 acres as wilderness in the Ottawa National Forest. These acres have been managed for decades, meaning timber has been sustainably harvested and forests regenerated. Products have streamed into the challenging western U.P. economy and ecological services have been maintained or enhanced. There exists no substantive threat to these 51,000 acres that other forests don’t share, or wilderness designation would protect.
The U.P. forest ownership is unique in that there are roughly equal amounts of public, corporate, and family forest acres. Because about two-thirds are public or corporate, that means nearly six million acres are open to the public. Those same six million acres are also protected from human development, one of the primary threats to Michigan forests.
The areas are already used by outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
Working forests provide a full range of societal benefits, from wood (our most environmentally-friendly raw material), improved wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration, to a comfortable sense of solitude. This is what professional forestry is all about.
The fact remains that most tourists visit only a tiny percentage of the forests, leaving most of the forest open to those who seek a dose of the wild. You don’t need a designated wilderness to find wild. Consider the thoughts of Thoreau when he declared; “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” He did not use the word “wilderness” but, rather, was referring to a state of mind. Thoreau neither intended nor referred to federal designated wilderness, nor did he visit such places.
If you seek wild places, you will find them. In fact, you might just discover “wilderness areas” too busy to find the wild that you seek.