In my early 20s, I hiked into the backcountry of the southern Canadian Rockies. With horses carrying the tents and other gear, we climbed to the Continental Divide. Seeing mountains stretch in all directions is the closest I’ve come to experiencing true wilderness.
What is wilderness? Dictionaries define it by its relationship to people. From Merriam Webster: “an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community.” The Cambridge dictionary goes one step further, suggesting that wilderness is not merely undistributed by humans, but actively hostile towards them: “an area of land that has not been used to grow crops or had towns and roads built on it, especially because it is difficult to live in as a result of its extremely cold or hot weather or bad earth.”
Neither of these definitions capture the feeling of awe and insignificance that comes from standing on a mountaintop or being alone in the desert. The definition that comes closest to capturing this feeling comes from WILD.org, an organization dedicated to protecting wilderness around the world: “[wilderness] is a place where humans can maintain a relationship with wild nature.”
But yet again, this definition centres people in the concept of wilderness. While wilderness that is fully devoid of humans is a myth (more on that in a second), these definitions overlook a significant fact. Wilderness matters because it provides a refuge for wild species who fail to thrive in the presence of humans. Wildlife around the globe are in trouble and one of the main reasons is because humans are encroaching on the wild spaces animals need to survive. Wilderness is critical to biodiversity.
Over the past few years, the concept of wilderness has become slightly dated as we grapple to understand the Indigenous connections to the land that were disrupted by colonialism. Areas that settlers consider wilderness were often occupied and managed by Indigenous peoples, our Western desire to protect wild places because they were beautiful or important to wildlife is at odds with the Indigenous belief in reciprocity and ways of living on the land. Protecting these lands, as important as it is to our sense of wonder, our connection to nature, to threatened wildlife, is, in itself, an act of colonialism.
Which presents quite the conundrum. Western society has failed to prove its ability to act with reciprocity, to care for these places without boundaries and rules to guide our behaviour. When we do protect places, often they become magnets for too many people. Parks like Yellowstone and Banff are overrun by people who want to pet bears and feed buffalo. On the flip side, the places we fail to protect are overcome by industry and development. Protected or not, we are a long way from living in a way that respects the needs of wild spaces. Land back—returning these lands to Indigenous communities—may present a solution, but by the time that becomes a reality there may not be any wilderness left to give back.
We need to maintain wild places with fewer people. Climate change has raised the awareness of environmental concerns to probably the highest level in history, yet at its heart, the climate fight is about protecting people as much or more than it is about protecting nature. Which brings us back to a question that was implicit in where we started. Can we maintain wild places that are lightly touched by humans and create a relationship with the land that isn’t exploitative? Can we prove our ability to care for the natural world as though we are part of it rather than separate from it?
When we think of wilderness, we think of places like mountain vistas, alpine lakes, and vast deserts—spaces that are remote, empty, useless. The very concept of wilderness cannot coexist with the intensity of our presence—there’s a reason no one talks about the vast wilderness of southern Ontario or the Fraser Valley. For now, if we want to keep the limited wilderness we have left, we must retain the boundaries and rules that curtail human presence in these areas in order to provide an opportunity for a future where we can walk more lightly on the land.