Out of the Wilderness

In wildness is the preservation of the World. So wrote Thoreau, back when there was plenty of wildness and little reason to think that the world might someday be in need of preserving. Wilderness was a place most people shunned in the 1850s, back before the invention of most of the things that made it even slightly habitable, such as Gore-Tex jackets and aluminum tent poles. But Thoreau's romantic ideal of nature has lived on in the American imagination, even as the reality of it—a place without bathtubs, just when you are most likely to be in need of one—has become almost unimaginably remote from our daily immersion in climate-controlled, hygienic luxury. Yet now that ideal is threatened—according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—by a "fundamental and pervasive shift" since at least the 1980s away from the activity known to Thoreau as "walking in the woods," now designated "nature-based recreation." The study—not coincidentally funded by The Nature Conservancy—warns of a danger Thoreau could not foresee: that the natural world cannot be saved if people aren't willing to set foot in it.

The authors, conservation biologists Oliver Pergams of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Patricia Zaradic, paint a picture of America seriously at odds with our national self-image. Pergams and Zaradic found declines averaging about 1 percent a year in per capita participation in the most significant outdoor activities, notably camping and hunting. A small increase in backpacking did little to offset the overall picture, because hardly anyone does it in the first place. Participation in duck hunting, which for obscure bureaucratic reasons is tracked separately from other kinds of hunting, is off 60 percent from its peak, which was back in 1953. Even fishing is down sharply, except in commercials for mutual funds and retirement communities. Visiting a national park, says Zaradic, "used to be the iconic American family vacation, something Americans did, on average, once a year. Now we're even turning away from that."

What could cause such a profound shift in sensibilities? In a 2006 paper, Pergams and Zaradic performed an elaborate statistical analysis correlating numerous social variables with national-park visits, and found that almost the entire decline could be attributed to increases since 1987 in videogames, Internet usage, movie viewing (and the price of gasoline). Oddly, the list does not include television, which was entrenched in the culture long before outdoor recreation began declining in the 1980s.

The implications the authors draw are dire. "There's a pretty direct pathway from exposure to nature, especially as a child, to caring about it," says Pergams. So along with obesity and attention-deficit disorder, you can now, if you choose, blame videogames for the greenhouse effect.

But is the problem really that too many people are staying home from the wilderness? Some, presumably including Thoreau, would say that the last thing nature needs is more people in it. "I have," he wrote in "Walden," "my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself." In 1850 he was able to find this a few miles outside Boston, but just let him try to duplicate it in Yellowstone park, say, on Memorial Day weekend. Or in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina's Patagonia region, to which Dominique Browning, a New York editor, made an arduous and expensive pilgrimage recently. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, she described her trip as a disappointing vista of litter glimpsed between the heads of boorish tourists while the boat's soundtrack echoed among the majestic glaciers. The experience left her, she says, with an appreciation of "the coffee-table book as a mode of travel." The wilderness looks best through the lens of a professional photographer, who can crop the plastic bags out of the trees.

The study didn't consider snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles or other motorized forms of "nature-based recreation," but Zaradic thinks they deserve a place in the wilderness, too, as long as they get people to the out-of-doors. This is, of course, a fairly controversial position in the environmental movement. Her faith in the transformative power of nature is impressive. It would be nice to get kids into the woods once in a while so they can learn, at least, how to swat a mosquito. But maybe we'd all do better to give the World a break from us, so it can heal on its own.