When ancient populations grew too large to sustain a hunting and gathering society, agriculture was born and adopted by tribes worldwide. At the same time, the practice of “walking in beauty” vanished.
Hiking, backpacking and camping in the wilderness is an attempt to reconnect to that era, says Ben Gadd, a naturalist, author and conservation advocate.
Gadd talked about the value of unspoiled wilderness, and reasons to protect it, at Alberta Stewardship Network’s annual workshop and meeting in Fort Macleod in June.
Gadd says wilderness and agriculture don’t mix very well. “We farm industrially to feed the world’s population, which in turn destroys the soil. That’s just the way it is,” says Gadd. “As a general rule, we, as humans, leave a trail of destruction. Somewhat like elephants or beavers, we modify the environment.”
He says what’s needed more than anything to reduce the impact of agriculture and provide protection of the wilderness is fewer people in the world. “I’m guessing you don’t have six kids yet and that’s a trend in educated areas of the world, where people are having fewer children. Elsewhere, though, there are population explosions,” says Gadd.
In Canada in recent years the population has only grown by immigration, not birth rates, he says. “Populations will be reduced, even without intentional population control, but it will be as result of less desirable events, such as wars, famine and disease.”
Furthermore, the agricultural land is tapped out, Gadd says. “We’re irrigating more than ever and everyone wants higher yields.”
But there is some room for agriculture and wilderness to co-exist, Gadd says, referring to conservation practices and protected areas. Producers can plant perennial species of grasses that can be harvested every year, although yields aren’t as high as annual grasses. Still, pastures can be returned to a wild state.
Another way to mesh wilderness with agriculture is to divert grizzly bears and other large predators from livestock by distributing road-kill in areas away from ranches in the spring. Grizzly bears are 90 per cent vegetarians and are more than happy to scavenge, says Gadd.
Putting a value on wilderness
Wilderness, he says, is worth more economically in its preserved state. Also, wilderness land may be needed in the future for unknown purposes. Furthermore, it is essential to the ecological health of the environment and protects threatened species.
“Going to the wilderness feels good – we enjoy so much because our species grew up in it,” says Gadd. “We need the wilderness just as we need Mount Everest. It needs to be there somewhere because it represents hope and freedom.”
Gadd, 63, has written a name for himself in Canadian Rockies literature. Author of the ground-breaking Handbook of the Canadian Rockies (2008), he has written eight other books and contributed to several more.
As a naturalist and writer, Gadd is a voice for the conservation of wilderness in the Rockies, heard frequently on CBC radio and television and at events throughout the country. He remembers sitting in junior high math class in 1959, looking towards the Rockies and feeling the “call of the wild.”
Equipped with a Trapper Nelson backpack, food, and not much else, Gadd would head out with friends for overnight hikes.
“We were ignorant of danger of the Rockies, mostly the weather, and the damage we were inflicting around our site,” says Gadd. “We knew nothing about nylon tents and down sleeping bags. As time went by, we discovered more gear, but it’s not about the stuff, it about where we go with the stuff and what we do with it.”
He says people used to go hunting and gathering, but now we gather at Superstore and Canadian Tire, and hunting is mostly foregone. “True hunting and gathering is greatly restricted, but we still get to rove the wilderness and walk in beauty once again.”