Freedom of the Hills?


“We can have wilderness without freedom; we can have wilderness without human life at all, but we cannot have freedom without wilderness.”
Edward Abbey

People journey into the wilderness for a vast multitude of reasons, but one common thread among our various motivations is the pursuit of a sense of freedom. Our aim is to place ourselves far from the literal and metaphorical noise of the city. We seek to remove ourselves from the artificial constructs of society and immerse ourselves in a lifestyle that is simple and pure.

To me, it would appear that this fundamental ideal, one which forms the foundation of our experience in the wilderness, has and continues to be slowly eroded over time. The administration of our wild places has faced various problems in previous years, catalysed by the surge of participants in all outdoor sports and activities, from hiking to mountain biking to rock climbing. Effort has been made to effectively manage these areas by introducing a framework of regulatory measures, but in doing so have we partially destroyed that which we sought to protect? Are the hills places of freedom, of solace, any longer?

I recently spent around a month in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, climbing route after route on beautiful Aztec Sandstone. The fact that our party of three managed to stay a whole month indicates that some vaguely nefarious shenanigans were afoot, as it is policy that groups may stay no longer than 14 days in any 28 day period. The Red Rock Campground, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is a highly regulated institution. For $15 a night, you get a pigeon-holed plot in what is essentially a tightly clustered, subdivided neighbourhood of tents. In front of each site is a numbered post where you clip your permit which is regularly checked by officials. Backcountry camping is prohibited unless above a certain altitude, limiting such activities to small tracts of remote territory. Competition for campsites is ruthless and constant.

Red Rock Canyon is by no means the only place suffering from what I view as bureaucratic hegemony. Maple Canyon and Moab, both in Utah, are each run in a similar manner. If your dream is to paddle the Grand Canyon, you’ll need to reserve a spot with a guided company some two years in advance or enter a lottery to gain a permit for a solo trip. Gone are the days of dirtbagging for months on end at Camp Four in Yosemite National Park. You’ll now need to line up amongst other would-be campers in order to gain a permit which will grant you a maximum of seven nights. It’s all a bit tragic. Paperwork, lines, rules and regulations; these are the very mundanities that we seek to eschew when making our escape to the outdoors. If I wanted paperwork, I’d stay at work. If I wanted lines, I’d go to a theme park.

In the interest of balance, there are plenty of areas where these kinds of limitations do not exist. Areas such as Yosemite and Red Rock Canyon are no longer true wilderness areas, not when compared to vast, unoccupied swaths of land in, say, Alaska or Oregon. These areas are far less frequented, and therefore not subject to the same strict sets of regulations which aim to assuage the impacts of tremendous amounts of use.

High-use areas naturally attract enhanced levels of regulation and enforcement. The situation as it exists has arrived at a point where I feel that my personal experience has been diminished. In expressing my concerns to my American colleagues, I was largely dismissed and perhaps seen as something of a malcontent. I think that my dismay was largely borne of my lack of familiarity with the situation, whereas they saw it as commonplace, par for the course. Additionally, it could be argued that these regulations are an absolute necessity in any outdoor recreational area that sees heavy traffic. I agree with that, but only partially. In my opinion, the management of public land in the US can be depressingly heavy handed and there are better models which can be implemented.

When I compare the management of National Parks and State Land in the USA to my home country of Australia, I see a vast gulf… and we are not the best by any means. For a truly exemplary model, one need look no further than New Zealand. The National Parks Act of 1980 declared that “the public will have freedom of entry and access to the parks”. This is, of course, subject to restrictions which ensure the preservation of delicate habitats or the welfare of vulnerable flora or fauna. By and large, however, public land is just that. In the United States, there exists a sort of double jeopardy wherein the taxpayer must not only fund the upkeep of this land, but pay an entry fee in order to see it. In Australia, where we have some 500 National Parks in comparison to the US total of 59, fees levied upon campers are significantly smaller, despite it being a demonstrably more expensive country to live in. To be fair, there is a huge disparity between population sizes of the two nations and thereby between outdoor recreationalist numbers, so the comparison is a sort of apples/oranges deal. It does, however, highlight a significant difference in approach and attitude toward what is essentially the same problem, though on differing scales.

Before you write me off as some sort of antipodean bigot who is only here to champion the virtues of my home country (or that of our Trans-Tasman cousins), there are instances where US National Parks have been right on the money. I was originally slightly embittered when parting with $375 in exchange for a Denali climbing permit. Once on the mountain, I saw where my money was going and was forced to reverse my position on the matter. Denali National Park is a sublime example of how a high-use area can be maintained whilst still allowing the freedom that its users require. The Rangers are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, though the emphasis for each and every climbing party is on self-sufficiency. The Clean Mountain Can (CMC) which is provided as part of your fee is an unprecedented triumph that reduces impact and provides you with a comfortable place to shit. Win win. The weather forecasting service is efficient and useful. One feels that, so long as you follow the reasonable and prudent guidelines as laid out in your climber briefing, the mountain is yours… along with the 500 other climbers on the hill. With many other high altitude peaks around the globe languishing beneath tons of trash, shit and human bodies, Denali sets an unbeaten example of how a high-use mountain can and should be managed.

So what is the solution here? I’m afraid I don’t really have one. Perhaps the onus is on me to seek out more remote landscapes if the prospect of bureaucracy causes me so much grief. But should I forego such special, iconic areas to support this ideal? I’m not sure. Maybe I should just grin and bear it. For now, I’ll have to content myself with sounding as a curmudgeon and lament the passing of simpler times.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in July 2015

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?