On a map, they’re irresistible shapes of blue surrounded by uninterrupted green. They invoke feelings of solitude, adventure and days spent outside. The free-flowing rivers that cut through millions of years of mountain building, the pristine lakes that filled during the last ice age, and the untouched coastlines set the mind abuzz with menu planning and logistical wrangling. The only thing that beats daydreaming of the next wilderness paddling trip is the pull of the current or the glide of your boat as you set out on one.
Each mile on a river will take you farther from home than a hundred miles on any road.
Mostly on or abutting public lands, many of our undeveloped waterways have been given additional protection to preserve their primitive character as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). The NWPS was established 60 years ago on Sept. 3 by the Wilderness Act, which halted human progress on some of the last untouched places.
Today, designated wilderness means no roads, no permanent structures, no development or extraction of any kind–just the life we found when we arrived. And it may be accessed by primitive means only: the paddle, the horse, the foot.
Unique, still, is that not only are these ecosystems delicate and protected, so are the experiences only found in such vast and uninhabited places. But protecting these waters and their surrounding lands isn’t easy, and many wilderness areas are threatened. In this 40th anniversary year, it’s worth taking a look at some of the major threats affecting wilderness waterways around the country.
Airplanes in Alaska are like horses in the Rockies. As more adventurers become interested in primitive travel and seek bigger, wilder places, they head to Alaska’s 58 million acres of wilderness, where access is difficult and space is seemingly unlimited. To compensate, snowmobiles and planes are allowed to enter many of Alaska’s protected wilderness areas under the Alaskan Lands Act of 1980.
In many places, outfitting and behavior are relatively unregulated and planes landing on ecologically sensitive tundra leave behind scars. Perhaps these threats are no more apparent than in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge’s 8-million-acre wilderness, particularly on the Kongakut River, the only river in the United States that exists from source to sea entirely in designated wilderness. The enormous publicity over whether to drill in the refuge has stimulated more visits to see this place. At this point, there are no limits to the number of outfitters and no restrictions on the number of groups that float the Kongakut. Besides damaging tundra, uncontrolled human behavior chases wolves, grizzlies and other wildlife from riverside feeding grounds, and human waste, which doesn’t biodegrade in the Artic, is literally piling up. The whole idea of wilderness is that humans approach it with humility, respect and restraint. In places like the Kongakut, many people seem to be missing the point.
It’s easy to confuse designated wilderness with roadless backcountry, especially in the West. The Green and Colorado rivers through Canyonlands National Park, for instance, are not designated wilderness, while part of the Rogue River in Oregon is. Wilderness rivers are rare especially rivers that have multi-day potential for travel. Those in the West are often crowded during summer, and the ecological health of many, especially the desert rivers in the Southwest, is undermined by large dams. The premier “wilderness” run, the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, isn’t protected wilderness, though it’s held up in a process to move it from proposed to designated. For years, boaters have been awaiting designation along with a new Colorado River Management Plan, but motorized access, the presence of which betrays the government’s definition of wilderness, is a daily occurrence in the canyon, mostly by commercial outfitters who want to take bigger trips in less time.
Upstream, Colorado’s Gunnison River was once a premier Class IV-V self-support kayak trip. Now, thanks to the Bush administration, it has been dewatered, the once-minimum 350 cfs gone. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness is a little place with a little river. Three-hundred-and-fifty cfs shouldn’t be a lot of water to ask for, but I guess it is.
Farther north, the Salmon River in Idaho runs entirely through wilderness, but the river itself isn’t designated. People with inholdings have won the right to access their property by jet boat, and that privilege has been extended to outfitters and other recreationalists. The overseeing agency, the Forest Service, has done nothing in recent years to limit that use, meaning floaters often encounter jet boats. The Wilderness Act is awfully spiritual. That means it’s a little hard to define. But we know it means limited access, tread lightly, smaller group sizes and primitive transport. That’s threatened. In fact, in many places it isn’t even close to that right now.
Near the East Coast, wilderness areas amount to a handful of pinpricks on the landscape. Many don’t measure 10,000 acres. One of the stories about the East is that not only do we not have wilderness protection, we don’t have public protection. This is where all the water is, but our public lands are the size of postage stamps and access is often a handshake with landowners.
The predominant threats to wilderness waterways in the East are logging, dams and acid rain. New Hampshire’s Wild River Valley, the largest intact watershed in the state, offers great whitewater runs and is a proposed wilderness area. But it remains open to logging and could be hammered by the burgeoning snowmobile and ATV culture. One ridge over from the Presidentials, this is one of those really wild places left in New England.
The Everglades in Florida is called the river of grass. Once these vast wetlands flowed a half mile a day. In the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wildernes Area paddlers can set out on a multi-day float, yet development, pollution and draining threaten water quality and quantity. Similar threats remain in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, where you can spend five days paddling a 44-mile canoe trail, all through the Okefenokee Wilderness. There is a desperate need for more public land and more wilderness in the East. So maybe in the next 40 years, we’ll see that.
Wilderness isn’t limited to rivers, but includes spectacular reaches of coastline and systems of lakes. Archipelagos and ocean-dwelling creatures are protected from developed shores and high-traffic waterways. But these areas have their own host of threats, including problems associated with logging, motorized use and pollution.
Petit Manan off the Maine coast offers sea kayaking among 130 islands and a chance to see several rare sea birds, including razorbills and Atlantic puffins. You’re not going to get that wild until you hit Canada. The area is proposed wilderness and has some protection from motorized crafts, but big boats, careless recreation, creeping coastal development and oil spills continue to loom.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the most visited wilderness in the country. Its 800,000 acres sit in the middle of a 2-million-acre wildlands complex–large enough to handle crowds–but the border lands and lakes are often hit hard by logging and motorized use. It ruins the scenery, and sediment [from runoff] kills the lakes. Two large proposed clear-cuts on lands that border the wilderness could add to existing problems.
The blue among the green, our wilderness waterways, are more than the pearls of our public waterways. Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.Last modified: February 13, 2021