CRM Journal

Book Review

The American Wilderness: Reflections on Nature Protection in the United States

By Thomas R. Vale. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005; published in association with the Center for American Places, Santa Fe, NM, and Staunton, VA; 320 pp.; illustrations; cloth $45.00.


The idea of wilderness is deeply engrained in the American psyche. Rugged, mountainous, verdant landscapes are seen as an expression of American national identity—a pioneering frontier spirit that looks to the untouched landscape to see the mind of God. "Americans carry in their head images of these parks: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Glacier. Each name resonates in the mind," says Thomas R. Vale, a past recipient of the James J. Parsons Distinguished Career Award, the editor of a Fire, Native Peoples and the Natural Landscape, and author of this book.

In this analysis of American approaches to wilderness, Vale combines a personal passion for wilderness protection with a critique of the multifarious ways that wilderness is defined and conserved. The book is not aimed at providing a history of the area, which has been well covered by others. As such, it presumes some basic knowledge of the nature protection movement in America. That being said, a lack of such background is no impediment to following the arguments of the book.

In the first part of the book, "Contexts," Vale outlines a number of meanings ascribed to wilderness, both positive and negative: sacred space, pleasuring ground, ecosystem, commodity, people's park, evolutionary arena, aristocratic garden, false idol, boorish Americana. In the second part, "Protections," he tackles the surprisingly difficult task of defining what constitutes a protected area, how much there actually is, and the extent of protection. This section exposes the often huge gulf between the designation of "wilderness" or "protected," and the degree to which industry, resource exploitation, and recreational use is permitted. Vale does not offer judgements about these issues, but through a careful comparison of protected areas such as national parks, national wildlife refuges, and national forests, he demonstrates that there are many historical and social factors that influence both their supporters and critics. In the third part, "Issues," Vale looks at some of the critical debates in wilderness protection today: outdoor recreation, conservation, biodiversity, and the "new" nature protection.

From a cultural resource management perspective, the value of Vale's book lies in the direct links he draws between certain approaches to wilderness and the management options that follow from that approach. One perceived meaning of wilderness is "spoiled nature"—that human modification of the landscape has effectively banished nature from wilderness. "The policy response to this vision," Vale comments, "is landscape management designed to re-establish and maintain a prior natural condition." Ironically, this idea may entail introducing active management such as prescribed burning or the reintroduction of predators.

Useful though they may be, it is discussions such as these that reveal the principal weakness of the book. Vale does not engage with the extensive literature developed in cultural resource management and archeology on the cultural landscape, which recognizes value in this very combination of human actions and nature. While heritage managers have engaged with geographical theories of space and place, this books shows that the information flow is still rather one-sided. Vale's considerations of American Indians in the landscape are tacked on as an afterthought rather than integrated into the argument.

Running through the book is the theme of reconciling social justice with nature protection. Vale characterizes the groups who want to protect wilderness and those against whom they wish to protect it. The drivers of wilderness protection have tended to be the educated, affluent, and white, while the opposition has been the poor, rural, and marginalised, who rely on resources in the "wilderness" for their livelihood. Similarly, environmental activists protecting the wilderness for future generations may also be depriving American Indians of traditional lands and resources. Some have argued that the creation of parks and wilderness areas is simply a new way to colonize tribal lands.

In the section "The 'New' Nature Protection," Vale explores more recent approaches to achieving social justice in protected lands by working with local communities. There is an edge of scepticism in his discussion: He warns that the new conservation "is not simply replacing the old traditions with something necessarily better. Glitz appeals mostly to the myopic eye." In terms of recognizing and managing heritage values within protected areas, however, it is perhaps this approach that offers the most latitude for the cultural resource manager.

In the end, Vale argues that wilderness protection, however conceived and executed, is a way in which people connect themselves to the natural world. Rather than severing people from nature, setting aside parks and reserves forges a new kind of bond. Parks, reserves, refuges, and wilderness areas are cultural artifacts in themselves. This book is a valuable overview of nature protection in the United States, and an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate on the relationship between nature and culture.

Alice Gorman
Flinders University, Australia