Cultural Resources In Wilderness: Still At Risk

Bear Island Cabin

The Leo Capser cabin on Bear Island, within the designated "Gaylord Nelson Wilderness" and slated for eventual demolition.


When plans first surfaced to designate large portions of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore as part of the Federal Wilderness system, many observers expressed concern that this would negatively impact the preservation of the island's historic and archeological resources. In 1970, when Congress established the National Lakeshore, it directed the National Park Service to preserve both the island's natural and historic resources. However, Wilderness designation directs the agency to manage an area so as to give the impression that the land has been untrodden by human feet; the specific phrasing is,

an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain... protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable;

What would this mean to the remnants of farmsteads and fishing stations, logging camps and quarry workers' villages... the traces of men and women who eked out lives in one of the nation's most challenging environments?

"Not to worry," said Wilderness advocates. "Cultural resources are safe in Wilderness. There's nothing in the Wilderness Act that says you can't protect historic sites in a Wilderness."

"Perhaps," replied others, "but Wilderness designation will surely result in an emphasis on elimination the traces of previous inhabitants, not preserving them." One official of the Wisconsin State Historical Society commented, "In my experience, Wilderness designation is the death knell for active cultural resource management in a given area."

Pressure will surely grow, others feared, to expunge historic resources in the name of Wilderness purity.

It did not take long for the National Park Service to justify these fears. On March 22, 2006, Dr. Rick Fairbanks, Provost at Northland College, gave the keynote address at the NPS-sponsored Western Great Lakes Research Conference. His message? "We don't really need to preserve cultural resources in Wilderness."

Here is the response I wrote to that speech.


March, 2006

Got to hear an interesting talk this morning at the NPS-sponsored "Western Great Lakes Research Conference." The keynote address was specifically framed as a "philosophical rebuttal" to William Cronon's Orion magazine article, "The Riddle of the Apostles."

The title of the talk was, "Must We Tell The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth About Wilderness?" and the speaker was Dr. Rick Fairbanks, Provost at Northland College: a philosopher by trade and apparently a kayaker (or perhaps sailboater) by avocation.

Fairbanks represented Cronon's article as offering two key points:

  • That by removing traces of historical structures in order to portray an area as untrammeled wilderness, park managers are being dishonest; and

  • That in the quest to achieve this illusion of pristine wilderness, the NPS has, as Cronon wrote, turned into "the principal vandals of historic structures."

The gist of his half-hour talk was an attempt at rebuttal of the first assertion, primarily by exploring the question, "What is dishonesty?" (I flashed back to the Ken Starr "it depends on what you mean by 'is'" era for a while) and offering illustrations of various forms. The adulterous spouse who lies in order to conceal infidelity was the extreme example presented; to portray previously-inhabited land as a pristine wilderness, he said, was not nearly so culpable as that.

Somewhat contradictorily, Fairbanks averred that in such a case there is no intent to deceive on the part of park managers. Indeed, rather disturbingly, he continued that "no one is hurt" by such deceptions. (Unmentioned were those of us who value human heritage, or the authors of the legislation that mandated preservation of the islands' history.)

On the contrary, he continued, sometimes it is actually harmful to provide visitors too much factual information: the analogy he employed pointed to the overly-detailed, densely printed warning sheets folded into every package of over-the-counter medication. "There's too much information there, so no one reads them," he noted. Placing an interpretive sign at the site of Burt Hill's farm, he claimed, would be similarly counter-productive. (A poor choice of examples since the site is outside the legislated wilderness boundary.)

"We can legitimately withhold information," he said, "and not be accused of deception."

Indeed, to force visitors in a wilderness area to confront its human history, he added, would be to impose "a connoisseur's values" on more casual visitors. (It strikes me that a far greater portion of the public regards wilderness zealots as the ones who are forcing an elitist vision onto their park experience.)

Fairbanks noted that the National Park Service employs alternative means of preserving the stories of Sand Island; why, just the other day, he reported, he came across the Apostle Islands web page and was impressed by its detailed presentation of Sand Island's human heritage.

As the author of said web page, I wish I'd had a chance to tell him (a) just how cursory a treatment of the subject it is; and (b) the rumor I've heard that even this meager effort will soon be going off-line in favor of a Washington-designed cookie-cutter web page that will no longer have room for extended narratives.


Fairbanks wrapped up with a lengthy argument-by-analogy, comparing parks to museums. A science museum, he said, is didactic in purpose, and it is appropriate there to provide extensive explanatory material beside each exhibit. An art museum has a different purpose, however; it is intended to permit the visitor to partake of an esthetic experience. At an art museum, those who are interested can find a wealth of background information in the bookstore, but rightly will see none on the wall beside the pictures.

A wilderness area, Fairbanks concluded, is more akin to an art museum than a science museum, and any stories contained in the landscape's past should be told elsewhere. (If you note a sudden and unexplained shift in his emphasis from a question of whether or not to tear down structures to one of whether or not to install interpretive signs, all I can say is, "So did I.")


I've already hinted at my two strongest objections to Fairbanks' philosophical assertions:

  • The only guidance he mentioned for management of a wilderness area were the Wilderness Act and the Leopold Report; he seemed either ignorant of, or indifferent to, any legal mandate to preserve historical resources.

  • He offered no acknowledgment that any visitor might value human history in and of itself.

On a more concrete level, I was dismayed that this speech was offered as keynote to a gathering of NPS natural resource staff: an audience largely unsympathetic to historic preservation, and in some parks, among the "principal vandals" themselves. His contentions were in opposition to decisions already made and assurances given during the wilderness planning process concerning the continuing protection of cultural resources within wilderness. His claim that, "I am only examining a philosophical issue, not recommending a course of action" struck me as disingenuous under the circumstances.

There was not much time allotted for questions, and in any event, I would not have attempted to debate the subject with him. However, given my concerns, I felt compelled to ask, from a management viewpoint, whether by extension of his argument, we ought to conclude that he favored removal of historic structures from wilderness areas, or failing that, if he objected to active preservation measures for historic sites in wilderness.

He replied, basically, "Sometimes yes, sometimes no." Some historic structures are like exotic plants, he said, and described an ugly building he believed should be removed. Other structures, like certain refuge cabins in the Slate Islands, add to the visitor's experience, and ought to be preserved. With the latter statement, he justified my reason for asking the question; the audience at least heard him say that some historic resources are worth saving.


Moral of the story?

"Eternal vigilance," I guess.



Note: Rick Fairbanks passed away, far too young, in 2011. Immediately after I posted this response to his talk, Dr. Fairbanks and I had an e-mail discussion concerning its implications. We remained in disagreement, but the discourse was educational and enjoyable for both parties.

My condolences to his family and the entire Northland College community.

Bob Mackreth, January 2012



Home | About Bob | Writing | Blog | Newfoundland Dogs | Speaking Schedule | Resources Stetson

All content copyright Bob Mackreth 1988-2013, unless otherwise noted.