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Historical and Cultural Benefits of Wilderness

Prominent wilderness author Roderick Nash suggests that early American nationalists minted new assumptions of the aesthetic, religious, and romantic significance of wilderness to the national ego in order to distinguish the colonies from Europe and its rich cultural past. "Americans, in the anxious early years of their republic, turned repeatedly to wilderness as a source of pride," he wrote in a 1969 article in Wilderness and the Quality of Life.

American artists began deriving identity from wilderness in the 1820's, ultimately forming new genres of nature art. Prior to the 1820's, American landscape painters painted in the English pastoral tradition. In the years following 1823, however, Thomas Cole captured on canvas the wilder parts of northern New York and New England by depicting raw wilderness without elements of human significance. His works won him artistic fame and launched the famous Hudson River School of American painting.

Today, visitors to wilderness areas often liken the experience to traveling back in time: into some more primordial landscape, one representative-to many-of a former world untarnished by the heavy hand of modern human society. A visit to wilderness does indeed touch upon multiple dimensions of time-as well as the varied cultural associations people throughout history have attached to these beautiful places.

Deep History

A collage of wilderness images showing pictographs and an overgrown cemetery.
Native American pictographs in the Bridge Canyon Wilderness and the overgrown Long Cemetery in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness are examples of pre- and post-european cultural treasures found in wilderness.
Much of the history of our great nation lies within the boundaries of wilderness, physically and figuratively. Cave paintings and burial grounds tell us a story about Native Americans who lived here before Europeans settled the frontier. Old cabins or homestead sites help us remember the hardships of early settlers. Archeological sites found in wilderness provide a more complete picture of human history and culture including clues to the lives of indigenous peoples, conquests, colonialism and independence.

America's wildernesses have deep and continuing significance for Indian cultures, and signs of indigenous presence-from place names to strictly protected physical artifacts-may date back thousands of years.

Rock art-petroglyphs and pictographs, for example-distinguishes a number of wilderness areas in many diverse regions of the country, from northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the San Rafael Wilderness in California's coastal mountains. Other archaeological materials also speak to longtime habitation or usage of present-day wilderness by Indians. A few old "wickiup" shelters, for example, dot the backcountry of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness fringing Yellowstone National Park. Some tree islands in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness of the Everglades mark ancient Calusa shell mounds, or "middens."

Wilderness areas also harbor plenty of clues to the country's Euro-American past. In the mid-20th century, the Charles C. Deam Wilderness in Indiana's hill country harbored scores of hardscrabble farms and a rugged network of roads. Now a quiet place of grasslands, pinewoods, jungle hammocks, and swamps, central Florida's Juniper Prairie Wilderness supported a number of homesteads in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the North Dakota badlands, meanwhile, the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness in Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects the former ranch of the nation's 26th president.

Modern-day wilderness trails often shadow historic traces: The High Ridge Trail in Oregon's Table Rock Wilderness marks an ancient American Indian huckleberry-picking and trading route in the Western Cascades, while old roads from bygone farming days offer hiking access to the Leatherwood Wilderness in the Arkansas Ozarks.

Cultural Values

Close-up of two girls.
Two friends take a self-portrait on top of Red Mountain in the Scapegoat Wilderness during an annual backpacking trip together.
The cultural values that wilderness areas hold for American Indians, it's crucial to note, are not consigned to the past. For one thing, many wilderness areas lie in close proximity to Indian reservations-for example: Washakie Wilderness near Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, or the Daniel J. Evans Wilderness near the Makah, Quillayute, Hoh, and Quinault reservations. And native peoples and tribes still derive part of their identity from wilderness regardless of geographic proximity.

South Dakota's Black Elk Wilderness, for example, lies in a region that remains hugely sacred to a number of Plains Indian cultures, the Black Hills, and is named for a revered holy man of the Oglala Lakota. In 1979, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation designated a quarter of their land base as the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness-which adjoins the federally established Mission Mountains Wilderness-where tribal members can gather medicinal herbs and roots and engage in religious ceremonies. The Gwich'in people, meanwhile, share an intimate relationship with the caribou that migrate and calve in Alaska's northernmost wilderness areas.

For many Americans of all backgrounds, wilderness areas continue to hold cultural resonance. Jeffrey J. Brooks and Daniel R. Williams wrote in a Forest Service report, "Similar to home, religion, career, family, or hobby we suggest that wilderness experience comprises a long-term source of identity for people who participate on a continuing basis."

Longstanding visitation can inspire cherished, even multigenerational attachment to a particular wilderness location. Friends gather for annual backpacking or hunting trips; parents introduce their young children-just old enough, maybe, to carry their own pack-to a remote lake basin deeply significant to them.