Wilderness and Its Perceived Enemies 

Thoughts on the dangers of pristinity

I skipped my college graduation ceremony in May of 1972 to come back to Idaho, go to work as a wilderness ranger and to attend more college. My first week of work consisted of law enforcement classes. They were taught by an ex-FBI agent and officers from the Region 4 headquarters in Ogden, Utah.

My fellow rangers and I learned that criminal elements were taking over national forests. Illegal cabins were being built in forest glades. Trees were being stolen. Salmon were being gaffed on their spawning grounds. Wilderness meadows were being used for naked dancing. Marijuana was being grown along woodland creeks. Green trees were being hatcheted to make bough beds.

The bad guys weren't timber companies paying corrupt congressmen to trade worthless stump-farms for uncut forest. They weren't Indians conducting tribal public relations. They weren't the young sons of logging families chainsawing old-growth cedars so they could buy a new Camaro.

Instead, our enemies--and we were at war, our instructors emphasized--were hippies. Hippies were growing drugs, getting naked, stealing teepee poles, poaching fish, building communes on public land and, worst of all, thumbing their noses at authority.

I was issued a ticket book and sent out to protect the forest. Late that summer, I spent a week at Walker Lake in the White Clouds, cleaning it up.

Cleaning it up wasn't a law enforcement figure of speech.

Walker Lake was a mess. For decades, hippies had been chopping down saplings, building giant rock fireplaces, nailing together rafts and log furniture, and making acres of bough beds. Hippies on horseback had brought in acres of Visqueen, and had chain-sawed camping spaces for themselves and their steeds. Torn hippy tents floated in shallow waters near the outlet. Broken hippy fishing poles and crumpled aluminum rod cases littered the shoreline. Hippy toilet paper decorated the low bushes all around the lake, and hippy disposable diapers smoldered fitfully in abandoned hippy fire rings.

I tore apart fireplaces and piled their rocks in hollows. I picked up hundreds of bottles and aluminum beer cans and pop-tops, pulled rafts and tennis shoes from the water, and dismantled camp tables. I gathered up bushels of stinking garbage. I picked up the tents and fishing poles and toilet paper. I folded Visqueen into great wads I could barely lift.

I piled everything on a slope next to the main camping area, and by the end of the week, the pile was 10 feet high. It weighed tons. There was no way I was going to be able to pack it out, so I set it on fire.

Visqueen and nylon contain huge amounts of energy. Within five minutes the heat and the stench of my bonfire were backing me toward the lake. Flames roared 40 feet into the air. A great cloud of toxic greenish-black smoke rose into the still White Clouds air. Glass cracked and popped, waterlogged rafts turned to ash and a molten aluminum river poured out from the base of the fire and ran down the hillside.

The next morning there was nothing left where the fire had been, except for 20 pounds of still-warm nails, the crazed shards of bottles, strands of fiberglass and a long ingot of aluminum. I dug a hole in the hillside and buried it all deep enough to discourage metal prospectors. I began the long walk out to the Livingston Mill and my Forest Service pickup.

On the way I ran into 20 12-year-old hippies and two adult ones, all sweating in Boy Scout uniforms.

"It's time you hippies learned some rules," I said. "Don't build any rafts or tables or chairs. Pick up your candy wrappers and pop-tops and tin cans. Don't hatchet the trees. Don't shit on the lakeshore. If you break something, don't leave it out here."

"We're not hippies," said one of the scout leaders.

"Tell that to the FBI," I snarled, and I arrested them all on the spot.

I made that last part up.

But you can forgive yourself for believing me, even for a second, because our country is an even more authoritarian place than it was in 1972. Service agencies, such as the Forest Service or BLM, have become police forces. Serving the public has become people management, which seldom serves people at all and often enough criminalizes them. These days, people really are getting arrested for violating arbitrary forest rules. Not all of them are Boy Scouts.

I know authoritarian personalities need jobs like everyone else. But it's better to have people behaving themselves because they want to rather than because they have to. It's cheaper and more effective to have forest garbage men than forest police. You still need to get young people out into the wild and let them make a few mistakes if you expect them to treat the world with respect as adults.

Walker Lake is a pleasant place these days. Signs of humans are mostly gone, except for dusty campsites. Too many people still camp there, but they do pick up their own and others' trash and pack it out. I like to think it all began with a long week of cleaning capped off by a giant, poisonous bonfire. Trash begets more trash--in wilderness and everyplace else. It helps when you get out there and get rid of it.

Lots of people insist that the White Clouds are a pristine place, but few of them understand that pristinity is a terribly human artifact in this world, one constructed from the bottom up and not from the top down. It's a useful thing to remember when we start drawing up the lines and rules that exclude one group or another from public land.

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