Ranger Kathryn's Arches

February 19, 2012

Do we save, or spend, wilderness?

“The Doll House” formation sits atop a 1000-foot cliff in the Maze District. 11/2/11. Few people get to see this extravagantly wild area.


“All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” 

This quote by Aldo Leopold is a bit disconcerting. I have nothing but deep respect for this man who did more to shape environmental ethics in the 20th century than nearly anyone else, but it is my sincere hope that we can protect our wild places without ruining them.

There is a corner of Canyonlands National Park, the Maze District, that is about as wild and inhospitable as anywhere in the lower 48 states. No paved roads exist; access is by high-clearance 4WD, horseback, or backpacking. The only way I was ever able to set foot there was via a raft trip on the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon. It is so remote, so isolated, that outlaws such as Butch Cassidy used the area in the late 19th century to hide out from the authorities after robbing a bank or payroll train. There really is nowhere quite like it, and I tremble to think what a loss it would be if that place were fondled to death as Mr Leopold surmises.

Sunrise, the Maze District — from Cataract Canyon of the Colorado River

Do you agree or disagree with this quote? Is Leopold’s premise necessarily true? If so, should we bother setting aside untrammeled areas?


  1. Hello Kathryn,
    You said,” but it is my sincere hope that we can protect our wild places without ruining them.” It is my utmost belief that that is what AL was trying to teach, was he not? Out of context I really do not know how to judge the quote. Out of context it does appear disconcerting. Could you give me the reference? I have been looking through various AL writings and biographies and can not find it. I’ll respond more when I read the context. Intriguing question you ask. I look forward to the responses and responding myself.

    Comment by John Morrow — February 19, 2012 @ 9:17 pm | Reply

    • John,
      Thank you for commenting. I definitely feel that this quote does not stand alone. It must be read in context. It appears to be from Sand County Almanac, and here’s a larger swatch of the writing that I found. The number ‘101’ in parentheses could possibly be a page number, but I have no book and no library near. Here’s the excerpt:
      “Thus,” he writes in A Sand County Almanac, “always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish….Some day, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions, perhaps in the fullness of geological time, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the paying of the phantom pack, the tinkle of little bells, and then a silence never to be broken, unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way.” (101)
      I would value your input. I’d like to know what Aldo was pondering when he penned these lines. Thanks.

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — February 19, 2012 @ 11:29 pm | Reply

      • Hi Kathryn,
        Well, I finally found the quote! Part II Sketches Here and There, Chapter on Wisconsin. Honestly, I am perplexed. I can only guess he was referring to the then heavy way in which nature was appreciated through manipulation, roading, and making convenient with access at a loss of solitude. Could that be the “fondling”? The quote alone does seem to go against the conventional wisdom of what the big premise of his book was: that once we see the landscape as part of the greater community in which we belong, we can stop the abuse of it. Perhaps the “Land Ethic” he defined, and is so well known for, is the alternative to the “fondling”. I am going to assume that anyway, in order to not tarnish my reverence for so much of the book!

        Comment by John Morrow — February 23, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    • By the way, the Maze is certainly on my life list of must visit wild places as well! Possibly this April, I hope.

      Comment by John Morrow — February 23, 2012 @ 4:04 pm | Reply

    • John, WordPress won’t let me reply to a reply to my reply, so I”ll try to respond via this route. I sure do appreciate your rooting out the context of that quote, and I agree with your conjecture about what Mr Leopold must have meant. Every fiber of his being resonated with conservation and preservation ethics, which is why he was such a magnificent leader in environmental thinking. Thanks again for enriching this conversation immensely with your comments and research. Best of luck on your Maze trip!

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — February 23, 2012 @ 7:00 pm | Reply

  2. I think your job description is buried in there somewhere, Kathryn.

    Comment by midsummerman — February 19, 2012 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for pointing out what I so easily forget.

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — February 19, 2012 @ 11:30 pm | Reply

  3. The part I disagree with is, “…to cherish we must see and fondle.” The “fondling” bit isn’t necessary, we can cherish wilderness just as much wtih our senses of sight, hearing, and smell, without touching it to death. (ps, Take me to the Maze District some day!)

    Comment by Becky — February 19, 2012 @ 11:28 pm | Reply

    • The Maze is on my bucket list! I need to make friends with a 4WD owner.

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — February 19, 2012 @ 11:29 pm | Reply

    • I agree with you, Becky. it’s the fondling that isn’t necessary to appreciate it. For my money, most of the “fondling” manifests itself in two ways: 1) paved roads, and 2) ATVs. It’s been my experience that the people who make the effort to experience the wilderness beyond the pavement — on foot, horseback, or in a raft — are the ones who cherish it without destroying it. The wilderness begins where the pavement ends, and where ATVs do not go. It’s another paradox… The silence is what makes it wild.

      Comment by Ron Carroll — March 4, 2012 @ 8:07 am | Reply

      • Yes, yes, and yes.

        Comment by Kathryn Burke — March 4, 2012 @ 9:15 am

  4. Isn’t it ironic that something of geologic age and proportions is vulnerable to something as immature and transient as Homo sapiens?
    I agree with the author’s apparent premise – we crave to touch its essence and in so doing will touch it to death.

    Comment by leroque — February 20, 2012 @ 9:19 am | Reply

    • Excellent point about the absurd vulnerability. That one is going to get worked into my Geology Talk that I am crafting. Rocks themselves are pretty enduring. The biotic components — plants, animals, ecological interactions — are the most fragile, and the machines that are brought in to ‘experience’ the wilderness do far more damage than feet do. ATVs, dirt bikes, jeeps, even sometimes bicycles leave indelible marks.

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — February 20, 2012 @ 9:40 am | Reply

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