Has Climate Change Cut Us Off From the Wilderness in California?


Firefighters have resorted to skirting giant sequoias with foil, including the 2,000-year-old General Sherman tree, which stands less than a mile off the park’s main entrance road, down a paved path. It’s the top draw for the roughly 1.2 million visitors to the park, few of whom ever venture into the backcountry.

As August ended, the overwhelmed Forest Service closed (temporarily) every forest it manages in California. Rangers intercepted backpackers who had committed months to walk the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which crosses some of the most remote wilderness in the West.

This is the second year the federal agency has closed enormous swaths of public land in California. You can call only the first one unprecedented. The second starts to look routine.

Maybe forest and park closures are a blessing. Public land deserves a break from the crowds that have forced major national parks like Yosemite to resort to shuttle buses. Even backcountry sites could use a respite from the relatively few, like me, who escape those crowds to backpack, climb or fly-fish in more remote areas.

But wilderness is aspiration as much as location, a quality infused in California’s restlessly inventive reputation. This is the place, Joan Didion wrote, where “the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”

Muir, a Scottish immigrant, turned back from the edge of the continent to the Sierra Nevada. His transcendentalist ruminations helped give birth to the nation’s conservation and environmental movement and pushed generations to turn toward the outdoors to rebalance what modern times throw askew. The wilderness, he insisted, was worth saving in its own right.

For decades, the environmental and conservation movements hammered this message home while they forestalled the incursion of roads, mines, logging and housing in the remaining patches of wilderness. Those efforts have protected more than 15 million acres of wilderness in California alone. That focus on salvaging the remaining wild spaces nonetheless rests on the notion that there is “unspoiled” wilderness that we can preserve for eternity — or at least multiple generations. The pervasive effects of climate change have laid that illusion bare.

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