How Much Wilderness is Enough?
Do "Wilderness Fanatics" want it all!

by Arlin Hackamn, World Wildlife Fund
A Borealis Wilderness & Wildlife Classic

Arlin Hackman is the staff coordinator of the Wildlands, Wildwaters program at World Wildlife Fund Canada and a director of the Ontario Wildlands League chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

"Then love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth ... the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need -- if only we had the eyes to see."

Edward Abbey

At the heart of the debate over preserving Canada's shrinking wilderness is the issue of "how much is enough?"

Neither side in the issue wants to sell itself short by providing a specific answer. Instead, in the campaign for hearts and minds, pro and anti-wilderness forces attempt to grab center stage by accusing each other of wanting it all!

This war of words will continue, since it reflects fundamentally conflicting values.

Even New York's Central Park, hardly a pristine wilderness, is the center of a dispute over how an entirely artificial landscape should be managed.

As conservationists, we unwittingly aid our critics every time we call for a new wilderness preserve. Without showing how its protection will bring us closer to our goal, we do little to show how that acquisition completes an overall network.

One of the most strident critics to seize on this point is Ron Arnold, a former U.S. Sierra Club member turned strategic adviser to anti-wilderness groups on both sides of the border. Writing in the Logging and Sawmilling Journal, Arnold analyzes the tactics of the wilderness lobby. The strategy of environmentalists, in his view, is to create an "unfinishable agenda," goals for protecting wildlands which involve an ever-enlarging geographic claim. Every victory for wilderness protection is used as a springboard to press for more.

Arnold's use of cliches and inflammatory rhetoric in his portrayal of environmentalists as a small band of political subversives bent on destroying American enterprise, suggests he is out of touch with reality. In a recent Gallup poll, 95 percent of Canadians said they support increased government expenditures on wilderness.

Arnold has advised industry to counter grassroots environmentalism with grassroots pro-industry, anti-wilderness lobbies, and, for this reason alone, the issue deserves a clear-eyed assessment.

During our lifetimes we have crossed the final geographic frontiers and the major effort has been to reserve as much de facto wilderness as possible as quickly as possible. While the total area of reserves has grown, few of us would be willing to accept that we're even close to finishing the job.

In a crude sense, about 6.3 percent of Canada is contained in protected areas but when we remove from this list of "protected" areas, those where logging, mining or sport hunting are still permitted the figure becomes 2.3 percent. In fact, according to the federal government's 1986 State of the Environment report, much less than two percent of Canada is "adequately protected." This leaves in excess of 90 percent of the lands in Canada committed to industrial and other forms of development.

Wilderness is in the eye of the beholder and we can be sure that each succeeding generation will replay a similar struggle with whatever naturalness is available to it. People in Toronto already refer to the Leslie Street Spit as wilderness and want it left undeveloped, even though it was created by a landfill.

Conservationists also are moving to undertake the costly mission of restoring degraded ecosystems and although this may strike some as fanciful today, it will become increasingly feasible as our science evolves and increasingly necessary as development overtakes the last natural landscapes. To the extent that each generation keeps the notion of wilderness alive and the wilderness it inherits continues to shrink, pressure will grow for "more" of it to be protected.

This is precisely why Arnold's notion of an "unfinishable agenda" is dead wrong, since the fight to preserve wilderness is taking place in the much larger context of wilderness destruction. Our gains are only relative. It's like throwing a ball in an airplane. The most important measure of its speed is taken relative to the ground, not the airplane.

The real force creating Arnold's "unfinishable agenda" is not the insatiable appetite of wilderness fanatics. It is the relentless extension of industrial technology across the land. For every hectare of wilderness preserved more than nine are available for development.

A better response to Arnold's challenge is to base wilderness goals on the notion of preserving biological diversity. If the bio-diversity of Canada is to be preserved, we must preserve the ecosystems on which species diversity depends. Aldo Leopold's cryptic insight still says it best: "The key to intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts." We need to set our sights on establishing a network of reserves which protects representative samples of all the natural bounty endowing our country.

A number of provinces and the federal government already have park system plans which are designed to preserve portions of each distinct natural region. We now have the scientific techniques to identify and essentially limit the requirements for preserved areas.

This is not to say that one large park in each natural region will meet all of our conservation objectives. There are many ways in which representation targets can be set or achieved. In some natural regions, a large wilderness area may no longer exist. And there is no scientific consensus on the map of Canada's natural regions, though efforts are ongoing to arrive at such an agreement.

The point is, that we do have the technical foundation on which to base common wilderness goals within the conservation community. Once the agreement is reached, we will be able to present our critics with a finishable agenda. We will also be in a better position to identify priority sites from a national perspective and then to rally support for the protection of such areas.

Arnold's perspective in itself doesn't require that we develop unifying goals and strategies on a national scale, but other factors do. The window of opportunity to save representative ecosystems by preserving relatively large natural areas is closing fast as development and land use commitments reach the most remote corners of the country. A shrinking public purse and ensuing competition mean we have to be able to set defensible priorities and unite a large constituency behind them.

The ever so appealing philosophy of sustainable development will merely stimulate more insistent calls for multiple use if we don't build in an explicit commitment to completing a national network of protected wildlands.

We simply have to get to the point where we can turn away from fighting fires , which by definition is an "unfinishable agenda" to the challenge of finalizing a systematic plan for the protection of ecosystems in each jurisdiction. With these in place, we'll be much better positioned to assess progress, choose priority sites for action, organize ourselves more efficiently and to communicate our overall objectives more effectively to friend and foe alike.

A look at the Ontario experience shows what can be accomplished. Since, 1983, the province has established well over 100 new parks, including a number of large wilderness parks. This action resulted from a strong system planning effort in combination with a province-wide land use planning program, political leadership and a coordinated advocacy effort among conservationist groups. Ontario's system is not complete, but it has certainly taken a giant step in that direction.

As wilderness succumbs to land use pressures across the country, someone is going to have to answer the question "how much is enough." Shouldn't it be us?

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