A Multiview of Wilderness

My fellowship was inevitably going to require working on wild places from afar. Whether stationed at one Forest but working virtually with other distant Forests in a large state, or returning home to a different state to finish work remotely; my time in California and away from it were not all that different in how close I felt to wilderness. For the majority of the Pacific Southwest Region’s more than 60 wilderness areas, I was always going to be looking in from the outside: my view mediated by a glass pane or screen. Flying into San Francisco from my home in Dallas I came so close to, yet so far from, the granite domes and alpine lakes of the Emigrant. Traveling down the Central Valley on I-99, I could sense but not see the High Sierra of the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wildernesses through my window. Driving over Cajon pass into the rich chaos of Los Angeles, I looked for the San Gorgonio Wilderness off to the east but only found it as I left that beautiful tangle behind through the San Gorgonio Pass. Those areas and many others were always there on digital maps – fixed points that my own transient and seasonally-driven GPS point danced around or past. With only a few exceptions, my immersion in wilderness did not involve stands of Jeffrey pine, chaparral, or scree fields, but instead data-fields, myriad stores of virtual resources, and the emailed memories of others. I know names, email addresses, and phone area codes across the Region, and can even recognize “my” areas by contour as easily as by name. What does it mean to know a place? And what does it mean to value it? In this year and a half, my experience has been one characterized by a broadening perspective.

Emigrant Wilderness

Emigrant Wilderness out my window during a commercial flight.

During this fellowship, I’ve often reflected on the value of these places for those who are there and those who are not; I have been both. One can appreciate these places in the physical, bodily plane and one can appreciate them abstractly. In my own experience, the Pacific Southwest Region’s wilderness areas have become equal parts real and ideal to me. This pairing of sensibilities echoes the same dualism that underscores and permeates the Wilderness Act. By design and principle, these places are stewarded for the entire country: “the American people of present and future generations.” Wilderness (and all public land) is held in trust for everyone, including visitors in the real and imagined. Its benefits are intended to span the tangible and intangible. In 2018, standing on a terrace of the Getty Museum, that bastion of luxe L.A. style, I could see tiers of low-mountains in the Angeles National Forest breaking abruptly upward out of the city’s vast, flat sprawl. They extended east beyond a veil of haze and smog that obscured them and the skyscrapers of downtown, equally; something became so clear. Los Angeles, a city with international appeal, recognition, and influence, would not be the same without those surrounding lands. The benefits, reach, and implications of wilderness and wild places are not confined to their administrative boundaries. Then, and even now amidst fires making news far and wide, it was clear that the status and health of those places are inextricably intertwined with culture and humanity’s ability to thrive.

View of Los Angeles from a Getty Terrace in 2018.

What started me on this fellowship-journey to California was the value I saw in these places as preserves of a certain category of natural environment, history, and community. They are relatively protected from the rapid, lurching changes and demands of a growing, fast-paced, modern society. As an idea, I appreciated Wilderness. Life’s stories, those of prehistoric and historic humans, and those of other forms of life – the deep histories of place – have been written over in so many other places we occupy. If we consider humans to be just one member of the natural community, which I do, then wilderness areas are communal memory incarnate in the most inclusive sense of the word. Yet, as much as I hold these places in high regard, abstractly, I have developed a familiarity with and a devotion to the real, tangible, place-based challenges they face.

Even from afar, I have seen that these places, recognized and championed for their exceptional qualities, require real, measurable actions. After any lofty goal is set comes the work of implementing, of application, of problem-solving, and realization. Managers are expected to persevere as society, systems, cultural norms, technology, physical conditions, and theoretical ideals all shift. Preserving these places takes work, whether the kind that strains your limbs, eyes, or psyche. It also requires honesty about what is possible and what “preserving” means. It requires prioritization, value-judgments, efficiencies, and deft navigation of myriad hurdles. One nonindigenous plant can dramatically change the biodiverse character of a place, and hollow it out, but so can budget cuts. I work with truly impressive people who understand the ground and system-level needs generated by the ideal: the dream of communal restraint and preservation of these unusual natural places evaporates without tireless, continued effort.

Wilderness, as an idea and place, is a beautiful and complicated balancing of compliments and, at times, opposites. It can be contradictory. In this way, it is actually very human. It requires management and monitoring, yet restraint from interference. Wilderness, as imagined in the Wilderness Act, represents an ideal that in the age of climate change and truly ubiquitous human impact is not untouched but is, in fact, vulnerable to human influence. By law, it is a place where man is a visitor but does not remain, yet, we rightly celebrate the remnants of civilizations that persisted in these places prior to and even in early stages of the encroachment of modern, industrial cultural intentions. Wilderness, as defined by the Wilderness Act, stands “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape” and is “recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” The Act elevates the wild and shows glimpses of a worldview that is not anthropocentric, but it ultimately perpetuates human-exceptionalism. Wilderness is literally defined by its singular relationship to humans, and is a designation and physical place that is maintained by a very human and specific set of systems and intentions. These places are storied, dynamic, and rich in history: geologic, biologic, hydrologic, and human. Perhaps the current designation of these places is more of a human story than anything else.

A distant view of Lake Tahoe and peaks in Desolation Wilderness from Stateline, Nevada​.

As my fellowship comes to a close, I firmly believe that we can only realize the idea of preserving wild places when we sustain the systems that support those places and the notion that they deserve preservation at all. Though my primary focus here is designated wilderness as a place, I would be omitting something critical if I did not extend the application of these closing thoughts to wild spaces, which in the broadest sense I understand to include the wilds of our imaginations. Considering all of this, it is no surprise that what I have come to love about wilderness the most is the community of people who roll their sleeves up and hold the line for wild places by maintaining the integrity of their requisite systems. I admire the people who understand that the work they do is part of a lineage that will outlast them, and who understand that we are managing these places on a multi-generational schedule so their multidimensional benefits extend far into the future. Many of the people I distantly worked with, I'll never meet; much like the distant places I'll never see. I value them just as much. I stopped trying to convince myself that wilderness was not about people a long time ago because humans are at its heart. If we want to preserve thriving, wild places (and spaces) in the midst of all our human developments and built environments – whether those wild places are wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, parks, or community greenspaces – we need to value and invest in the people who are an integral part of those places.


Jessica Zehr is a Wilderness Fellow working in USFS Region 5.

Jessica Zehr is a returning Wilderness Fellow now in her fourth year of working in public land and resource management. Prior to working as a Wilderness Fellow, she was an ecological and social science research intern and a Directorate Resource Assistant (DFP) plant ecology fellow for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners. Jessica earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Syracuse University and, in 2018, a Master of Science in environmental studies at Green Mountain College. Jessica’s interest in wilderness areas and concepts is manifold, spanning conservation science, environmental history and philosophy, and the arts. On a personal level, she values wilderness and other wild places, big or small, for having fostered in her a lasting orientation to the environment that she can carry with her anywhere. After the completion of her fellowship, Jessica will be joining the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a fish and wildlife biologist. Outside of work, she maintains an active creative writing and art practice.

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