What is Wilderness?

Someone asked me the other day if the South Coast Wilderness (the area around Laguna Beach comprising Laguna Coast and Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Parks, Crystal Cove State Park and other city-owned open space areas) was actually a wilderness. Well now, that depends. What is wilderness? As is true with any word, the definition will vary depending on who you ask and in what context the word is used.

For instance, if you are using this word to refer to an area of that name protected in the United States under the Wilderness Act of 1964 (that is, “Capital-W” or “Designated” Wilderness), then the definition is:

        “… in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, … an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled [i.e., unconstrained] by man [i.e., humankind], where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In addition to this general definition, there are specific requirements in this statute that must be met, and defined human activities that are prohibited in these areas. For instance, these areas must be free of roads and the use of mechanized equipment (such as motor vehicles, chainsaws and hang gliders) is prohibited except in special circumstances (such as a wildfire).

We can compare this formal, legal definition to a more general one (that is, Google’s):

        “An uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.”

That is, a wasteland: an area not useful to humans.

An important thing to remember is that the idea of “wilderness” is just that: an abstract concept created by western civilization and really not that long ago (less than a thousand years, or less than 2% of the existence of “behaviorally modern” humans). It was born out of the idea that humans and nature are separate from and inimical to each other. In most indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures, there is no such thing as the idea of a wilderness and humans are viewed as part of nature rather than something distinct from it.

As humans have become more and more dominant over the planet, the idea that humans and nature are distinct has become harder to maintain. For instance, invasive weeds, air pollution and climate change do not respect boundaries drawn on maps, and have definitely begun to “trammel” areas previously defined as wilderness. The increase in wildland fires and the bark beetle epidemics affecting many wildlands in the American West are a couple of the most glaring examples.

With all of this in mind, let’s look at some definitions of the root word, “wild”, to see if we can gain some more insight:


        1a : living in a state of nature and not… tame or domesticated <wild ducks>

        b (1) : growing or produced without human aid or care <wild honey> (2) : related to or resembling a

                corresponding cultivated or domesticated organism…

        2a : not inhabited or cultivated <wild land>

         b : not amenable to human habitation or cultivation; also : desolate

        3a (1) : not subject to restraint or regulation : uncontrolled; also : unruly (2) : emotionally overcome

          <wild with grief>; also : passionately eager or enthusiastic <was wild to own a toy train — J. C. Furnas>

         b : marked by turbulent agitation : stormy <a wild night>

         c : going beyond normal or conventional bounds : fantastic <wild ideas>; also : sensational

         d : indicative of strong passion, desire, or emotion <a wild gleam of delight in his eyes — Irish Digest>”

        – Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (highlights mine)

We see in this the ideas underpinning the above definitions of wilderness, but also a broadening of what it means to be wild that does not depend on a separateness between humans and the rest of the natural world. So if “wilderness” is a place dominated by wild things, then it is a place untamed, undomesticated, not subject to restraint, uncontrolled, unruly, where one can break free of normal or conventional bounds, and maybe even experience strong passions, desires or emotions…to find the wild within.

So, back to the original question: is the South Coast Wilderness a true wilderness?

By conventional and strict definitions, it may not qualify: There are fire roads, bicycles are permitted, and motor vehicles and other mechanized equipment are used by land managers, for instance. Also, due to the fragility of the habitats and very high visitation rates, park users are subject to many restraints on how they can use the Parks that aren’t usually present in Designated Wilderness Areas.

However, relative to its highly-developed and extremely human-dominated surroundings, the South Coast Wilderness is a wilderness indeed: a home to wild things, plant, animal and otherwise, where people can visit to re-connect with the natural world, and maybe even re-connect with the wildness that exists inside every one of us.