Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Untying the wilderness knot Haydn Washington


Haydn Washington

What on Earth do I mean? Why is wilderness ‘knotted’, and how did it get that way? What is a ‘lanai’? What has this got to do with celebrating wilderness? Well – a first question we need to ask is ‘what is it we are celebrating’? What is ‘wilderness’? I used to think that this was obvious and was clearly answered by the formal definitions, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) definition that wilderness was: A large area of unmodified or slightly modified land, and/or sea, retaining its natural character and influence, without permanent or significant habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition.1
This is pretty clear isn’t it? How could one get confused? Sadly, it’s a bit more complex than that. In terms of my own background, I am an ecologist, and I have been a wilderness advocate for more than thirty years. I was a key person involved with the campaign for the Wollemi wilderness in New South Wales, and also was a lobbyist in The Wilderness Society for the NSW Wilderness Act. For the last few years I have been doing Doctoral research at the University of Western Sydney on ‘The Wilderness Knot’. As part of this, I helped to set up (and then worked with) the Blue Mountains Wilderness Network to try and gain meaningful dialogue around ‘wilderness’.
During the last thirty years, I have seen the meaning of ‘wilderness’ change. Wilderness now has many meanings, and some of them have very little to do with the formal definition above. Wilderness has become a knot - a tangle of confused meanings. To some it is ‘the original and best of planet Earth’, to others it is just a ‘Western construct’. This confusion has reached the stage where, despite the formal definitions of wilderness, some scholars can argue to protect large natural areas, yet be highly critical of the term ‘wilderness’. Clearly, we are not comparing apples with apples here, and when one person says ‘wilderness’, others are hearing various meanings. 
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