ORION, MAY/JUNE 2003
The Riddle of
How do you manage a wilderness full of human stories?
PHOTOGRAPH | LAURENCE PARENT
There is nothing especially dramatic about the Apostles. In some places, they meet the lake with narrow, pebble-covered beaches rising steeply to meet the forest behind. Elsewhere, they present low sandstone cliffs, brown-red in hue, that have been so sculpted by the action of wave and ice that one never tires of studying their beauty. In a few places where the geology is just right, the lake has widened crevices to form deep caves where kayakers can make their way into darkness and listen to the rise and fall of water on stone. Northern hardwood forest, swamp, marsh, and shore are the primary habitats, with nesting bird colonies in the cliffs and a peripatetic population of black bears that is surprisingly unfazed by the need to swim from island to island despite the notoriously cold temperatures of the lake.
For nearly thirty-five
years, these lands and waters have been protected by the federal government as
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore -- a legacy of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord
Nelson, father of Earth Day in 1970. Sometime later this year, the National Park
Service will issue recommendations for future management of the park. Although
the NPS study recommending wilderness designation for the Apostles (spearheaded
by another Wisconsin senator, Russ Feingold) has not thus far attracted much
attention, its implications reach far beyond the
In the 1970 act that
created it, the Lakeshore was dedicated to the "protection of scenic,
scientific, historic, geological, and archaeological features contributing to
public education, inspiration, and enjoyment." Since then, millions of
Americans have come to appreciate the subtle, ever-changing beauty of the
islands. Designating the Apostles as wilderness will be a milestone in the
ongoing effort to protect them for future generations, and will constitute an
important addition to our National Wilderness Preservation System in a region
where far too little land has received such protection. Look at a map of legal
wilderness in the
In the early twentieth century, this dock linked
PHOTOGRAPH | NPS ARCHIVES
On the surface, there seems little reason to doubt that many of the Apostles meet the legal criteria specified by the 1964 Wilderness Act. Most visitors who wander these islands, whether by water or land, experience them, in the words of that Act, "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." Permanent improvements and human habitations are few, and those that do exist are often so subtle that many visitors fail to notice them. Whether one sails, kayaks, boats, hikes, or camps, opportunities for solitude are easy to find. Wild nature is everywhere.
And yet: the
All of this would seem to call into question the common perception among visitors that the Apostles are "untouched," and might even raise doubts about whether the National Lakeshore should be legally designated as wilderness. But although most parts of these islands have been substantially altered by past human activities, they have also gradually been undergoing a process that James Feldman, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is writing a book about the islands, has evocatively called "rewilding." The Apostles are thus a superb example of a wilderness in which natural and human histories are intimately intermingled. To acknowledge past human impacts upon these islands is not to call into question their wildness; it is rather to celebrate, along with the human past, the robust ability of wild nature to sustain itself when people give it the freedom it needs to flourish in their midst.
Should Apostle Islands National Lakeshore become part of the National Wilderness Preservation System? Emphatically yes.
A young forest disguises an old road.
PHOTOGRAPH | WILLIAM CRONON
But to answer the question
so simply is to evade some of the most challenging riddles that the
If this is true, then the riddle we need to answer is how to manage the Apostle Islands as a historical wilderness, in which we commit ourselves not to erasing human marks on the land, but rather to interpreting them so that visitors can understand just how intricate and profound this process of rewilding truly is.
Among my favorite places
for thinking about rewilding is
But the path you walk to
reach this lighthouse is in fact a former county road. If you look in the right
place you can still find an ancient automobile rusting amid the weeds. Frank
Shaw homesteaded the southeastern corner of
How did Sand Islanders support themselves in this remote rural settlement? Fishing was of course a mainstay. Logging went on occasionally, and from the 1880s forward the summer months saw a regular stream of tourists. But for several decades islanders also farmed. Few who visit this "pristine wilderness" today will recognize that the lands through which they hike are old farm fields, but such in fact they are. Indeed, look closely at the encroaching forest that was once Burt and Anna Mae Hill's homestead and you will quickly realize that the trees are not much more than half a century old. Indeed, some of the oldest are apple trees, offering mute evidence -- like the lilacs and rose bushes that grow amid ruins of old foundations elsewhere on the island -- of past human efforts to yield bounty and beauty from this soil.
The old orchards are in fact a perfect example of rewilding, since Burt Hill's farm still shapes the local ecology. As James Feldman describes the process, "In some areas of the clearing, willow, hawthorn, mountain ash, and serviceberry have moved into the sedge meadow in straight, regular lines, following the drainage ditches dug by Burt Hill when he expanded his farming operations in the 1930s." Nature alone cannot explain this landscape. You need history too.
The dilemma for the Park Service, then, is deciding how much of the Apostle Islands to designate as wilderness, and how to manage lands so labeled. More bluntly: should Burt Hill's orchard count as wilderness? And if it does, should park managers strive to erase all evidence of the Hills' home so visitors can imagine this land to be "pristine"?
What makes these questions so difficult is that the 1964 Wilderness Act and current National Park Service management policies draw quite a stark -- and artificial -- boundary between nature and culture. The implication of this boundary is that the two should be kept quite separate, and that wilderness in particular should be devoid of anything suggesting an ongoing human presence. Under the 1964 Act, wilderness is defined as a place that "generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable." Strictly interpreted, this definition suggests that the more human history we can see in a landscape, the less wild it is. A curious feature of this definition is that it privileges visitors' perceptions of "untrammeledness" over the land's true history. It almost implies that wilderness designation should depend on whether we can remove, erase, or otherwise hide historical evidence that people have altered a landscape and made it their home.
A block of sandstone quarried at
PHOTOGRAPH | JEFF RENNICKE
Because this strict
definition can exclude from the National Wilderness Preservation System too
much land that might otherwise deserve protection, the
less-well-known 1975 Eastern Wilderness Act offers an important counterpoint
that is especially relevant to the
For instance, current NPS
management policies adopt a strict definition of wilderness comparable to the
1964 Act in declaring that "the National Park Service will seek to remove
from potential wilderness the temporary, non-conforming conditions that
preclude wilderness designation." The bland phrase "non-conforming
conditions" generally refers to any human imprints that diminish the
impression that a wilderness is "untouched" -- imprints, in other
words, that constitute the chief evidence of human history. As Laura Watt has
suggested in her valuable study of Park Service management at Point Reyes in
At both Point Reyes and Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Park Service managers have ironically become the principal vandals of historic structures -- tearing down ranches at Point Reyes, removing farms, fishing camps, and cottages at Apostle Islands -- in an effort to persuade visitors that land remains untrammeled. Park visitors deceived by this carefully contrived illusion not only fail to see the human history of the places they visit; they also fail to see the many features of present ecosystems that are inexplicable without reference to past human influence. As Laura Watt points out, although the Park Service has long opposed the reconstruction of historic buildings and sites as inherently false and misleading, it shows much less compunction about false and misleading reconstructions of "natural" landscapes.
NPS management policies do call for the protection of "significant" cultural resources even on lands designated as wilderness, but such resources must meet very high standards of significance -- generally, listing on the National Register -- to merit protection. As a result, NPS generally forces managers to choose between two mutually exclusive alternatives, wild and nonwild. One either designates an area as wilderness and tries to remove "non-conforming conditions" so as to manage it almost exclusively for wilderness values; or one designates an area as a cultural resource and manages it for values other than wilderness. The heretical notion that one might actually wish to protect and interpret a cultural resource in the very heart of wilderness so as to help visitors better understand the history of that wilderness is pretty much unthinkable under current regulations.
All of this may seem
abstract and academic, but it has very practical implications for how Apostle
Islands National Lakeshore and other parks are managed when designated as
wilderness. Under NPS policies, "improvements" are to be held to a
bare minimum in designated wilderness. This means that even if historic human
structures and artifacts are permitted to remain (most would typically be
removed or destroyed), the best one could hope for them would be stabilization,
not active protection, restoration, or interpretation. Trails would be kept to
a minimum, and their routes would emphasize nature over culture to encourage
visitors' perception of untrammeled wilderness -- even when, as at
Tourism has been a major force shaping the natural and cultural landscape of the Apostles.
PHOTOGRAPH | JEFF RENNICKE
Why does this bother me so much? Because I can't help seeing the straight lines along which willows and serviceberries are invading Burt Hill's orchard. I can't help caring about all the dreams and hard work with which he planted these apple trees so long ago. For me, Burt and Anna Mae's story makes this wilderness all the more poignant, and I cannot understand why we think we need to annihilate the record of their lives so we can pretend to ourselves -- pioneer-like -- that no one before us has ever stood here.
alternatives do we have? How might we combine designated wilderness with an equal
and ongoing commitment to interpreting the shared past of humanity and nature?
If we can answer this question for the
Most importantly, we should commit ourselves to the notion that Apostles Islands National Lakeshore is and always will be a historical wilderness: for centuries in the past, and presumably for centuries still to come, human beings have played and will play crucial roles in these islands. Visitors should come away from the park with a deepened appreciation not just for the wild nature they find here, but for the human history as well.
The interpretive framework that can best integrate the natural and cultural resources of this park is James Feldman's concept of rewilding. It should be at the heart of what the park offers to visitors. Here is a natural landscape that has been utilized for centuries by different human groups for different human purposes: first by native peoples for subsistence, then for fur trading, then in turn for fishing, shipping, logging, quarrying, farming, touring, and other activities. Natural resources here have long been exploited as commodities, and island ecosystems have changed drastically as a result. The shifting composition of the forest, the changing populations of wildlife on the land and in the lake, the introduction of exotic species, the subtle alterations of geomorphology: all of these "natural" features also reflect human history. Visitors should come away with a more sophisticated understanding of them all.
Furthermore, these changes
have not all been in one direction, which is why Feldman's narrative of rewilding can be a source of hope for all who support
efforts at ecological restoration. Although parts of the
One of the most attractive features of Feldman's concept of rewilding is that it avoids the negative implication that past human history consists solely of exploiting, damaging, and destroying nature. As Feldman puts it, "rewilding landscapes should be interpreted as evidence neither of past human abuse nor of triumphant wild nature, but rather as evidence of the tightly intertwined processes of natural and cultural history." When we use words like "healing" to describe the return of wilderness to a place like the Apostles, we imply that past human history here should be understood mainly as "wounding" and "scarring." Such words do no more justice to the complexity of human lives in the past than they do to our own lives in the present. They implicitly dishonor the memories of those like Burt and Anna Mae Hill who once made their lives here and who presumably loved these islands as much as we do.
In keeping with the principle that the Park Service should not be in the business of promoting illusions about a pristine wilderness with no human history, the default management assumption should be that existing human structures and artifacts will not be removed even from designated wilderness. No erasures should be the rule except where absolutely necessary. Even in instances where there are safety concerns about a collapsing structure, other solutions for protecting visitors should always be sought before resorting to destruction and removal. In a rewilding landscape, old buildings, tools, fencerows, and other such structures supply vital evidence of past human uses, without which visitors cannot hope to understand how natural ecosystems have responded to those uses. Moreover, such artifacts today stand as romantic ruins, haunting and beautiful in their own right. Far from diminishing the wilderness experience of visitors, they enhance and deepen it by adding complexity to the story of rewilding.
Wind- and water-shaped sandstone formations such as this one beckon beachcombers.
PHOTOGRAPH | LAURENCE PAREN
Moreover, not all structures and artifacts should be permitted to go to ruin. The Park Service has already worked hard (with far too little funding) to preserve the beautiful historic lighthouses that are among the most popular destinations on the islands. But a grave weakness of current Park Service interpretation is its extreme emphasis on lighthouses and fishing as if these constituted the sum total of past human activities in the islands. Equally important phases of island history remain almost invisible. Ojibwe and other native histories are only beginning to receive the attention they deserve, and the histories of later island residents often go entirely unmentioned.
An NPS commitment to
interpreting all phases of
The bias of historical
interpretation in the
If I had my druthers, I would also permit limited signage and interpretation as tools for educating visitors and managers alike that the presence of cultural resources such as fishing camps and cottages in the midst of wilderness does not automatically degrade wilderness values or the wilderness experience. Does Aldo Leopold's shack or Sigurd Olson's cabin diminish the wild lands surrounding it? I honestly believe such cultural resources can enhance visitor appreciation of the complex history of rewilding landscapes. If we're to tell stories about ecological restoration, as surely we need to do if we're to envision a sustainable human future, we need to leave evidence on the ground that will bear witness to such stories.
I'm nonetheless willing to acknowledge that standardized bureaucratic rules and regulations may not easily accommodate the kind of interpretive ambiguities that I prefer. So the wiser, easier strategy is probably to think of wilderness in the Apostle Islands as existing along a continuum, from areas that will be treated as "pure" wilderness (even though they are full of historical artifacts that should not be removed) to highly developed sites like the lighthouses that are managed almost entirely for nonwilderness values.
I would argue for a few locations outside of the designated wilderness which, although still managed to protect wilderness values, could be modestly restored and actively interpreted so as to help visitors understand the historic landscapes of logging, quarrying, farming, and early tourism. One might consider designating them as "historical wilderness areas" to signal that they should be managed with an eye toward balancing natural and cultural resources more evenly than would typically be true in "designated wilderness."
Sand and Basswood islands are the obvious candidates to be designated as historical wilderness, because their histories are so rich and varied -- encompassing fishing, logging, quarrying, farming, and tourism in addition to Ojibwe subsistence activities -- and so can serve as microcosms for the whole archipelago. These islands could be regarded almost as classrooms for historical wilderness, where visitors can learn about the long-term cultural processes that have in fact shaped all of the Apostles. Then, when they visit the designated wilderness where much less interpretation is permitted, their eyes will be trained to see the rewilding process they will witness there.
What are the
this new approach to protecting wilderness might actually succeed in the
Like Krumenaker, I favor educating visitors so they will recognize that wilderness can have a human history and still offer a flourishing home for wild nature. If we adopt such a strategy for managing wilderness in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the park can offer a truly invaluable laboratory, with implications far beyond its own boundaries, for rethinking what we want visitors to experience and understand when they visit a wilderness that is filled equally with human and natural histories.
Indeed, among the most
precious experiences that Apostle Islands National Lakeshore can offer its
visitors are precisely these stories. Management policy in the National
Lakeshore should seek to protect wilderness values and historic structures,
certainly, but it should equally protect stories -- stories of wild nature,
stories of human history. It is a storied wilderness. And it is in fact these
stories that visitors will most remember and retell, even as they contribute
their own experiences to the ongoing history of people and wild nature in the