The 1976 Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, which officially incorporated unclaimed homestead act land into permanent federal ownership, included a charge to complete wilderness quality inventories—tools that turned out to be ambiguous, highly subjective, and shaped by political agendas. Because of these challenges, the implementation of these inventories has been onerous and glitch—often leading to litigation rather than wilderness designation. What is interesting about these inventories is that the variables use to evaluate an area of public lands do not seek to measure how “pristine”—non-human-influenced—a space is, but rather focuses on the visual landscape, evaluating how pristine it appears to be (Rogers 2012). Thus, the designation of wilderness spaces through this mechanism, when that does happen, utilizes Romantic wilderness aesthetics to demarcate space falling under special use limitations or protections.
I felt this emphasis on “wilderness quality” spaces in October 2017 when I participated in volunteer trail work on the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, an area the colorful, sweeping landscapes of which have become iconic in public land debates. It turns out, our trail work was un-trail work…that is, the group’s goal was “wilderness rehabilitation.” Using rakes to break up and blur the straight lines between dark microbial soil and light sandy worn paths and placing rocks and dead wood artfully on bare areas, we labored very humanly to “erase” signs of human movement across a section of the monument. As we sought to replace the geometry of human activity with the geometry of wilderness visual aesthetics, the BLM ranger leading the event encouraged us to think on the landscape scale, telling us to make it so that from a viewpoint up on Highway 12 you couldn’t see the informal paths that had developed from people exploring the area.
Managing the visual is not the only target of public lands management and pro-wilderness activism. In addition to the aesthetics embedded in our wilderness rehabilitation work—and other disapproval of visual signs of human presence such as powerlines, roads, and—to some—even wayfinding cairns—there are qualities that appear to offend other senses, namely auditory and olfactory ones. For instance, while the erosive effects of ATVs are indeed an impact of their use, wilderness advocates often highlight the cacophonous presence of the machines, describing them as noise pollution—a noise that is one of the numerous sensory experiences that ATV users get a thrill from. Another site of aesthetic offense lies in the Forest Service’s and BLM’s role in permitting and managing cattle grazing. Many environmentalists argue against cattle grazing due to its ecological impacts, such as reduction in vegetation and increased erosion. However, along with this ecological argument, anti-grazing narratives highlight the olfactory offense of encountering cow manure when one is seeking a wilderness experience. Expressed with visceral disgust, one such perspective from a seasonal resident of Escalante was a warning given when I asked for hiking recommendations: “From this junction here until about 9,000 feet is grazing country—cow shit everywhere, smells awful, and you have to pay attention to not step in it. It’s really a pity—just destroys the sense of really being out there, you know?” I believe that for many environmentalist types, the presence of such a material as cow manure is not simply indexical of an ecological health argument, but rather offends the senses and is one of the sensory aesthetics embedded in calls for specific types of regulation.