The W Word

Wilderness sign trashedThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act—the first law ever to give nature priority over people. It defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . an area of undeveloped land retaining its primeval character.”

Fifty years since Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, only 2 percent of the continental United States is protected as wilderness. The United States has more theme parks than wilderness areas.

Wilderness areas are the last pristine pockets of nature. They sustain themselves, without human manipulation. Animals and their habitats are given precedence. Water flows freely and cleanly. Forests grow naturally, without logging or management. Natural fires are allowed to burn.

People can visit but not live in wilderness. No roads, vehicles, or structures are allowed. Logging, mining, and development are also prohibited. It is machine-free: not even bicycles or chainsaws are permitted. Simply put, wilderness is pure nature, where the human imprint is minimized.

Thanks to the efforts of Carol Ruckdeschel and her band of activists, Cumberland Island was designated a wilderness in 1982. Since then, the controversial W-word has ignited a firestorm of legal and political disputes between wilderness supporters and island families.

Perhaps in 2004, the wilderness on Cumberland Island can be celebrated rather than ignored, violated, and diminished. While it may not be popular with a handful of wealthy families, wilderness on Cumberland is a rare and spectacular protection for the most biologically diverse island in the country.

East of the Mississippi, there are more acres of pavement than wilderness. Now more than ever, wilderness is an endangered geographical species. And nowhere is it more imperiled than on Cumberland Island.