A decade ago, after the end of a long partnership, I jammed Miss Violet (my purple Kelty backpack) with camping gear. I tossed her into my car and headed to Canyonlands National Park with a simple goal: Get lost in the delicious solitude of Utah’s red-rock country to clear my head and figure out what was next in my life.
Excited to leave my Subaru behind for a few days, I parked along Elephant Hill jeep trail and hoisted my pack on my shoulders. The Needles district — dotted with massive red and white sandstone pillars created by erosion — stretched out before me.
Keen to find a place with no sounds or sights of people, I clicked Miss Violet into position on my hip bones, lined my pockets with trail mix, and set off into a pathless section known as the Grabens (from the German for “grave”), a group of relatively young — geologically speaking — flat-floored valleys formed some 60 million years ago by the faulting process.
On my 19-mile journey along Lower Red Lake Canyon Trail, I took in stellar views of the La Sal Mountains and jagged spires. I traversed treeless gorges, stark ridges, and ravines. I fell asleep, tent-less, losing count of the stars in a swarthy sky. I woke to the sounds of cheeky loggerhead shrikes splashing in the Colorado River.
I basked in the feeling of remoteness, that joy of being untethered from smartphone notifications, traffic noise, and my mind’s endless rehashing of the mistakes I’d made in my relationship. The wildness was, as Thoreau noted in Walden, “a tonic.”
Time spent in nature improves mood, and the vastness of wilderness may inspire a profound sense of fear and wonder that makes us more altruistic. But these benefits are evaporating as wilderness becomes less wild. Today, only about 5 percent of U.S. land is protected as wilderness — and about half of that is in Alaska.
Because these losses have been gradual, many of us may not have noticed the decline. Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist based in Vancouver, British Columbia, argues that we simply adapt our definition of “wild” to the current condition of wilderness, which becomes our new normal — a concept he calls “shifting-baselines syndrome.”
For example, we’ve become used to roads carving through our cities — and our wild spaces. The U.S. road network exceeds 3.9 million miles in aggregate length, which makes getting away from one challenging.
“In over half the states in our country, you can’t get more than six miles from a road,” says ecologist Rebecca Means, MS. When she’s not spending her time helping repatriate the rare striped newt, Means and her fellow ecologist and husband, Ryan, document and visit remote spots across the country.
They began Project Remote in 2009 after their daughter, Skyla, was born. “It started out as an idea for how we could get the most remote in our home state of Florida as a family adventure,” Means explains. “Once we started looking at other states, we realized this was much bigger than just wanting to get away from people; we were losing roadless areas piecemeal and no one really knew it.”
They set out to investigate and raise awareness of the impacts of development on both humans and the environment. But first they needed a quantitative definition of remoteness — a standard that all observers could accept.
“Everyone has a different qualitative feeling of being remote,” Means says. “Some people feel remote when there is no gas station around, while others feel remote if there’s no flushing toilet present.”
Since roads and towns are relatively known entities, the couple decided to make their calculations based on the distance farthest from a road or town that could be marked on a landscape by latitude and longitude.
The couple locates candidate sites using GIS software and satellite imagery. Then the family travels to each of them to conduct “remote-spot assessments,” which involve observing wildlife, taking panoramic photos, shooting video footage, and noting any human-made sights, smells, and sounds.
It turns out that all those roads create a lot of noise pollution. Researchers from Colorado State University (CSU) and the U.S. National Park Service found that 63 percent of all U.S. protected lands are exposed to noise from cars, aircraft, and resource-extraction processes, including mining, logging, and drilling. And it’s at least twice as loud as ambient sounds from wind and other natural sources.
“Many species will avoid areas with too much noise,” says George Wittemyer, PhD, associate professor at CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. “It can actually restructure ecosystems.”
Because noise might keep seed dispersers and pollinators like birds and bees away, Wittemyer notes, even plants can suffer from all that racket.
“Roads allow humans to permeate the landscape,” Means says. “By doing so, we can spread invasive species on our tires or boat trailers; impact reproduction, migration, and other wildlife behavior; and cause huge amounts of direct mortality on everything from butterflies to black bears.”
Roads affect humans, too. “Our physical health depends, in part, on having these large roadless areas where ecological processes remain intact,” Means says. “For example, these areas preserve clean drinking water.”
Keeping drinking water clean is imperative, especially given recent Environmental Protection Agency surveys indicating that nearly half of U.S. rivers and streams and a third of lakes are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing, and drinking.
“To have space to roam free is part of our American psyche, too,” Means says. “From a mental standpoint, we need places where we can get away from the constant barrage of noises and stimuli, places where we can restore ourselves and remember what’s important to us.
“Remote spaces are also a symbol of our values,” she adds. “Do we value only what is economically important or do we value something bigger than ourselves as well?”