Monday, March 31

The Misunderstood Wilderness: Give Me Zip Lines or Give Me Death!

And here is the long-awaited first part to a two part conclusion to my Misunderstood Wilderness series.  The final installment will come later this week and will be entitled "Understanding Wilderness."  I apologize, I got sidetracked by bike rides, wildebi, octopi, and lack of beddy-by.

The Red River Gorge is a focal point for the wilderness starved suburbanite zombies from the north who descend on the rural areas of the surrounding states each weekend. 

A generation or two ago families moved north for jobs from Appalachia but always seem bent on moving back because they want to live in the country where there are few rules. 

For those of us that grew up and have tried to make a life here it’s annoying as heck to have people move into the area with big expectations and then do nothing…nothing…but complain about all the things the area doesn’t have to offer.  They are as exploitative as the loggers who clear cut the area at the turn of the 20th century.  They want something from the land but offer nothing in return.  They’ll stay until they get tired of not having high speed internet or easy access to Starbucks and they’ll move on, leaving nothing but a bad taste in someone’s mouth.

And then there are the people who move to the area after buying a faltering local business with the intent of changing things to suit their business plan with no thought for the existing community or its needs.  They’re exploiters too.

Wendell Berry referred to these types of people as ideological heirs of John Swift.

Berry writes about John Swift in The Unforeseen Wilderness.  In the late 1700s John Swift supposedly came to Kentucky and discovered or was led to a silver mine in a region where no other silver ore has ever been found.  Being struck blind on his absence from the mine he could never return and find it, though many have searched in the years since.  Berry’s use of Swift is to compare his character and spirit to those that would come into Eastern Kentucky, particularly the Red River Gorge area, and see nothing but natural resources to be extracted or exploited.

I believe many of those now holding high the banner of Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development are economic and ideological descendants of John Swift.  They say: “we can be wealthy if we just follow the right path.”  But right in this case doesn’t mean morally right, but true to the target.  And the target is an end of riches with any means that is cheap, easy, and fast.  The cheap, easy and fast path bypasses the authentic experience that resonates with people.  

The end result of the aspirations of industry

How many zip line experiences can you have that enlighten you?  And why is zip-lining in the Red River Gorge better than somewhere else?  I’ve seen zip lines along I-70 in Colorado nestled amongst 13er and 14er giants.  I’ve seen signs for underground zip lines.  Is it the zip line that makes the attraction, or the place where some Swift-ite has strung up a cable?  So are zip lines merely entertainment for people who can’t be bothered to exercise their imagination and find something adventurous to do when they visit a new place? 

I would argue that we’re really looking for experiences, memories, and perspectives that are novel and which we believe are not to be found in our homes.  We want to learn something about the world beyond our property boundaries.  Even if all we care about is postcards to put on the mantel we still want it to be known that we’re well travelled and we know more than the road in front of our own house.  We want lives enriched by novel things.  It seemsinauthentic, but by using our experiences as a mirror to examine the mundane I think we do find value in “vacationing.”  Maybe zip-lining fulfills that need in some people.  I doubt a lifetime of zip line vacations would be satisfying to look back on.

The irony? It's not in the Red River watershed and most
definitely not in the Red River Gorge

Fifty years ago people like Wendell Berry (along with many others) were fighting to save the Red River Gorge because of its inherent value and so it could be enjoyed for generations to come.  It’s a resource that’s there for us to responsibly use as an economic tool.  The obstructionist policies and practices of the US Forest Service have played a big role in denying the locals the opportunities to profit from tourism or even to enjoy the jewel that’s in our own back yard. 

This might be a good thing.  While they are charged with preservation and not recreational management, I still think they could do a better job in enhancing the recreational opportunities in the Red River Gorge.  But maybe what the Red River Gorge truly needs is a fascist approach to preservation.  It would surely have been loved to death by now if commercial development had been allowed to overtake the region. 

I’ve heard more than one person suggest that the Red River Gorge National Geologic Area be turned into a National Monument.  I’m beginning to see the rationale, and I think in the end I’ll support that view wholeheartedly.

The Crash Test Librarian posted to a Kentucky wilderness themed BBS forum:

"…Rough annual permit sales [for the RRG a few years ago] from what I recall were something like this:

1 day passes: about 5,000

3 day passes: about 5,000

Annual passes: about 200

So, for the sake of easy math let's just say about 10,000 overnight parking permits are sold per year for camping in the Gorge. If you use the accepted average number of visitors per car (2.5) and apply that to the number of permits sold you're looking at 25,000 people camping for at least one night in the Red River Gorge each year.  Since half of those permits are three night permits (but we'll assume most of those are only used for two nights, Friday and Saturday) then you're talking approximately 35,000-40,000 ‘visitor nights’ each year in the Red River Gorge.   That's a whole lot of camping! And thus a ton of impact, particularly since dayhikers and climbers aren’t represented in that estimate. 

Even just 25,000 visitor nights in the Gorge is an incredible amount for such a relatively small area of national forest. Especially when you consider that the vast majority of that use is concentrated on just a handful of areas and some visitors don't even practice the most basic Leave No Trace skills.

For comparison in use, Mammoth Cave National Park stated that ‘Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, yearly recreational visits to the trails, including overnight stays in the backcountry, were reported in the 3,000-6,000 range. (These figures were obtained through voluntary registration at trailheads and by the issuance of official backcountry camping permits.)’  MCNP is roughly comparable in acreage to the Red River Gorge – 53,000 surface acres at MCNP and about 44,000 acres at the Red River Gorge if you include the Indian Creek area and other Forest Service land outside the Red River Gorge Geological Area and Clifty Wilderness -- but that’s about where the similarities end.”

It’s obvious the Red River Gorge area disproportionately absorbs recreational impacts in the region. And to summarize other conversations I’ve had with the CTL: there are lots of empty trailheads to arches, waterfalls and overlooks on other parts of the Daniel Boone National Forest while the Gorge is bursting at the seams with bellowing yayhoos in their suburban uhssault vehicles.

The problem with this is that the RRG has been less thoroughly developed to absorb those impacts.  It’s not suited to the obvious visitor traffic it receives while other places are overdeveloped or undervisited.  And the recent rash of asinine road closures (I'm for closing them all to motorized use) points to a FS agency that might be struggling to meet day to day operational goals.

Ultimately it’s a misunderstood place.  It’s misunderstood—I believe—by those entrusted with managing it.  It’s misunderstood by its geographic neighbors.  It’s misunderstood by the masses that visit it as is evidenced by online comments like this: 

“I love the Gorge, been going there for four hundred years.  But pleze be careful, don’t get bite by a snake or fall off a clift.”

Looking at the world as a place of doom and destruction makes everything beyond your threshold a place to be feared and avoided.  Looking at the world as a collection of places on maps, with clear boundaries and nebulous regulations leads to an ideological apathy that does not serve anyone effectively.  And looking at the world simply as the crabgrass under your own grill and everything else out of focus makes for a pretty hollow life.

Calling something wilderness does not make it so.  But wilderness is not just the part of the map under that word on a map.  And wilderness is not simply land segregated from civilization. 


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