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June 22, 2022

From the archives - Wilderness Misconceptions

Supported as it is by the vast majority of Australians, wilderness nevertheless has some influential enemies. This is not surprising when one considers that wilderness protection is so diametrically opposite to the mainstream obsessions with economic growth.

Some influential people see wilderness as a barrier to their ambitions and it suits them to try to muddy the waters. In this climate honest misunderstandings over meanings also arise.

The following is a preliminary list in alphabetical order of some of the most common myths, and distortions. The list is by no means conclusive and there is considerable overlap between the entries. My comments are in italics.

■ ANTHROPOCENTRIC. Wilderness is anthropocentric, being concerned first and foremost with human needs. Although we still see nature as something separate from ourselves, a decision to deny ourselves access to all the available resources in large natural areas and to regard those places as places where natural forces will be dominant is a move in the opposite direction and could be more accurately be better described as ‘ecocentric’.

■ BIODIVERSITY. Being selected for their value for wilderness-type recreation, wilderness areas do not make much contribution to the protection of biodiversity, and in any case, without interventionist management, any biodiversity values present will be reduced. Wilderness areas are the last large natural areas and are chosen because of their potential for the protection of viable natural conditions. They have both biodiversity and recreational values. Their size provides the optimum geographic circumstances for the protection of biodiversity, geodiversity and natural processes. Additional reserves are necessary for the protection of the full range of environmental variety.

■ CONCEPT. Wilderness is a concept not a place. Wilderness is no more a concept and no less a place than any other term used by humans to describe spatial differentiation. As with words like ‘mountain’, ‘forest’, national park’, ‘rural’, ‘town’, the answer lies in community agreement on definition.

■ ELITIST. Wilderness is elitist because it is accessible only to those fit enough to walk through the natural areas and cope with their natural hazards. Wilderness areas are available to all those who are willing to tackle them on their own terms. They add to the range of experiences possible and hence to human freedom. They teach self reliance and improved understanding of the environment. Walking is the oldest mode of human travel and is that which is available to the greatest number of citizens. In its inclusiveness wilderness is the opposite to elitist.

■ HUMAN EXCLUSION ZONE. Wilderness is an area from which humans are excluded. Humans are prevented from exploiting resources in wilderness and from the use of modern technology (e.g. off road vehicles ) for travel but one of the main reasons for having wilderness areas is for people to be able to enjoy the special experiences they offer. Therefore, they are people zones. Wilderness areas are closed to permanent settlement.

■ LOCKED UP. Wilderness areas are ‘locked up’ and are therefore against the public interest. This claim is similar to that of ‘human exclusion zone’. Wilderness areas are locked up against materials extraction, and mechanised and other forms of damaging access but not to their highest public uses – nature conservation, scientific observation and enjoyment of the wilderness experience. Hence, the phrase inappropriate.

■ NOT AUSTRALIAN. The idea of wilderness conservation is an American import. The idea was developed in NSW by Myles Dunphy between 1914 and 1932 in response to what was seen as a local need. The National Parks and Primitive Areas Council (NPPAC – formed 1932/33) was the first voluntary group in the world to have wilderness conservation as a major objective. Dunphy and the NPPAC were inspired and encouraged by parallel developments in the USA.

■ TERRA NULLIUS. Setting aside areas for protection as wilderness is insensitive to the culture, rights, interests and needs of Aborigines and is an extension of terra nullius, implying that the lands were uninhabited. Terra nullius involved the notion that since Aborigines did not own land and occupy it in the European way it could be appropriated by colonists. Recent recognition of the existence of native title on tenures other than freehold has created a potential competition for land between Aborigines and protected areas. The wilderness movement knows that it has several things in common with the traditional Aboriginal relationship with the land including: a belief in sharing; ownership of land by the community; a sense of kinship with the environment; love of quiet contemplation of ones surroundings and an awareness of the spiritual quality of places. The conflict arises where Aborigines want to use the land for modern technological processes, have motor vehicle access or manage the land in a way which interferes with natural processes.

Note: Wilderness conservation challenges the conceit of humans which drives their superior exploitative attitude to the environment. The reversal of the older meaning of the word from something second rate – a  wasteland – to something of intrinsic worth – a goodland - is a significant development in human affairs. It lays down a challenge to the prevailing economic rationalist outlook and could become a standard bearer for a reorientation of our basic environmental value system.

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Australian Foundation for Wilderness Limited
ACN 001 112 143
ABN 84 001 112 143
Advocating as 'Wilderness Australia'
Formerly The Colong Foundation for Wilderness Ltd
Registered Office 8/154 Elizabeth Street Sydney NSW 2000
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