Foreman 2000

Foreman, D. 2000. The real wilderness idea. USDA Forest Service Proceedings 1: 32 -38.

Around 1980, Dave Foreman was one of those who founded Earth First!, one of the United States’ most notorious environmental organizations. Earth First! generated widespread attention–and, in some quarters, revulsion–by promoting actions of sabotage such as spiking trees in old growth forests that had been slated for logging.  Foreman left Earth First! in the 1990s alleging that it had been infiltrated by anarchists and communists. (He has never denied his Alt-Right politics as we would call his ideology today.) When Foreman departed, his critics within Earth First! opined that he had been marginalized in the organization because of his racism and sexism. (Lee 1995 provides an excellent history; Sarkar 1996 reviews that work.)

After his departure from Earth First! Foreman founded the Wildlands Project dedicated to “rewilding” North America. The project continues today but has had little impact on the the theory or practice of biodiversity conservation anywhere. Earth First! was known to advocate a radical anti-humanist version of Deep Ecology (and that the anti-humanism is explicit in the piece being annotated here). The Wildlands Project has used comparatively muted rhetoric but implicitly continues to endorse the political agenda that Foreman pushed at Earth First!.

While there are enough versions of Deep Ecology and differences between its factions to make it risky to generalize about its tenets, it is nevertheless fair to say that Earth First!, the Wildlands Project, Deep Ecology in general, and a large fraction of U.S. conservation biologists from the 1980s and 1990s all shared “that good old-time wilderness religion” to use Baird Callicott’s (1991) felicitous phrase.

Defending that religion is Foreman’s brief in this piece. As a piece of rhetoric it is well-constructed. He is preaching to the converted: members of the U.S. Forest Service who have been indoctrinated with a preservationist ideology that views National Parks and wilderness areas as regions historically unoccupied by people and then set aside for the preservation of wildlife, now called biodiversity. The “Real Wilderness Idea” is what this type of preservationism promotes, sometimes requiring much sacrifice on the part of its proponents while resisting the demons of industrialization and development. Wilderness thus becomes tangible as a political project unlike the abstraction supposedly promoted by Foreman’s “intellectual” opponents such as Callicott and William Cronon who are derided as postmodern sociologists. (Neither Callicott nor Cronon is a postmodernist; Callicott, by profession, is a philosopher, Cronon a historian. But, then, accuracy has never been a salient feature of Foreman’s rhetoric.)

In fact, Foreman is proud of the fact that “intellectual and academic discussions about wilderness have pretty much been ignored by wilderness defenders” (p. 33). Moreover, wonderfully presaging the populist, anti-intellectual, anti-rational rhetoric of the Alt-Right, Foreman goes on to  attack the academic enterprise and, especially, philosophy: “Socrates and his buddies” are the subjected to some self-indulgent (though, perhaps, intellectually deficient) sarcasm.

What has all this academic work that Foreman dismisses established in its many influential critiques of wilderness preservationism? Reading Foreman’s work, we would never find out. He never addresses specific issues or responds to the details of this work. (And yes, we should reiterate with Mies: God is in the details.) The central issue is that wilderness preservationism, particularly as it has been practiced in the United States, is ethically on par with the worst of predatory development. It has consisted of depopulating large regions of their First Nation inhabitants to create National Parks. In India, Project Tiger has let to the forced relocation of tens of thousands of people. This is the Central Ethical Problem (CEP) of wilderness preservationism. (It also has an equally troubling implication: wildernesses are forcibly created through human elimination.) Moreover, contrary to Foreman, wilderness preservation has very little to contribute to biodiversity conservation. (For an entry into this literature, see Sarkar 1999.)

So, why bother to read this Foreman piece at all? Because it is pedagogically useful, listing five concepts of wilderness that have many adherents in the North and also some plausibility even if they do not resolve the wilderness CEP. These five concepts are: (i) wilderness according to linguistic tradition (p. 33); (ii) Leopold’s claim that wilderness is central to evolution (p. 33); (iii) the 1964 U.S. Wilderness Act’s conceptualization of wilderness as a recreational resource for urban elites (p. 34); (iv) wildernesses as regions “untramelled” by humans (p.34); and (v) wildernesses as areas that will be converted and manages as human-bereft (p. 34). (The last three are all derived from the wording of the U.S. Wilderness Act.)

Each of these conceptualizations is problematic: (i) because the linguistic arguments endorsed by Foreman are idiosyncratic (and I am being polite); (ii) because evolution occurs everywhere, not just in wildernesses, including densely populated cities in which infectious diseases could drive evolution; (iii) the importance of recreational resources for elites hardly gives us good ethical reasons to promote anything, especially if it involves devastating losses to people who are at the other end of the power structure spectrum; (iv) because “untramelled” habitats do not exist; and (v) because artificially created wildernesses are more similar to Disney theme parks rather than what we should be conserving in nature.

Throughout this discussion, Foreman keeps on referring to wildernesses being “self-willed” regions. This sounds very good and probably profoundly impresses devotees of the old-time religion. But do we really understand what the “self” of a region is? What does it mean to give an ecosystem a “self”? Or a mountain (remember Leopold’s admonition to “think” like a mountain)? Or a river? The most sympathetic reading of Foreman is to interpret him as promoting wildness rather than wilderness (Sarkar 2013). We should perhaps not ignore the transformative power of wild nature . . . but more on this later.

Finally, an annotation of this piece would not be complete without noting the extent to which it misrepresents conservation science. In ecology, as promoted by the faction of U.S. conservation biologists that includes the figures Foreman endorses (e.g., Michael Soulé and Reed Noss), intuition routinely trumps evidence. So, we are left with “principles” that prop up the ideological superstructure of the Wildlands Project but have only marginal evidence supporting them. Four such problems mar Foreman’s piece. One of these flawed claims was mentioned earlier: that wilderness preservation significantly contributes to biodiversity conservation. The other three have most forcefully been promoted by Soulé an his disciples as the holy trinity of Three C’s: cores, carnivores, and corridors.

Dealing with these C’s in full detail is beyond the scope of these notes. Here are some initial remarks (and systematic reviews are “in the works” in my lab).

  1. Cores: The idea is that a spatial conservation plan should designate central areas for human exclusion, surrounded by buffers, surrounded by areas admitting humans. This may sound good but there is not an iota of evidence showing that such a spatial arrangement is better for biodiversity in general (or, for that matter, for almost any species of interest). Spatial conservation planning (which is largely an Australian contribution to conservation science) is a complex field that has provided many insights (Margules and Sarkar 2007). It is unclear that Foreman is even aware of the field which was already well-developed by 2000 (when he was writing this piece).
  2. Corridors (between cores): It sounds good to provide species with corridor for migration leading to supposedly desirable genetic admixture. The trouble is that evidence by and large suggest that, if we are interested in large numbers of species, and we only have finite resources, corridors are likely to be simply expensive mistakes, a waste of money, because their contribution to conservation outcome is minimal. We first need to address the empirical question: do the biota of interest have behaviors that lead them to use proposed corridors?
  3. Carnivores: This is a pet theme for Foreman, Soulé, and others from that faction. The trouble is that examples where the disappearance of top predators have very significantly and negatively affected trophic webs are very rare (and the same examples get repeated over and over with no concern for how representative they are). Look at just one example: tigers have disappeared over 90 % of their range in the last 150 years (and I’m being conservative with my numbers). Ecosystems have not collapsed. They have become less interesting, both biologically and culturally–but there is no evidence of a general decline of biodiversity that can be attributed to tiger extirpation anywhere throughout the large fraction of Asia that once had tigers.



Callicott, J. B. 1991. That good old-time wilderness religion. Environmental Professional 13: 378 –379.

Lee, M. F. 1995. Earth First!: Environmental Apocalypse. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Margules, C. R. and Sarkar, S. 2007. Systematic Conservation Planning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sarkar, S. 1996. Between millennialism and the apocalypse. BioScience 46: 628 -630.

Sarkar, S. 1999. Wilderness preservation and biodiversity conservation–Keeping divergent goals distinct. BioScience 49: 405 -412.

22 September 2019