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Find yourself in the Siskiyou Wilderness

I don’t often pick my favorite of anything. I like both chocolate and vanilla, classical and rock. I love both my kids equally, of course. But I have a favorite Wilderness Area — the Siskiyou Wilderness Area in far Northern California.

If you have not yet been there, it is time to plan your summer trip.

There is something extra special about this place. Dramatic mountain scenery? Check. Big mountain lakes? Yes. Incredible waterfalls and wildflower meadows? You betcha! The aptly named Clear Creek flows right through the middle of it. It has everything. The best part — very few people actually go there.

As I was recently describing my plans to get out this summer, someone asked me why I like to go to wilderness areas. What is so special about wilderness, they asked?

The value of wilderness — of wildness — to people is well-documented. Our cleanest water comes from protected wilderness. Some of our best recreation happens in wilderness areas. It is a place for humans to get away from the hustle and bustle and to reclaim a sense of self.

Yet, there is a more important reason to save wilderness than what it does for us humans. It is a moral reason. We should save what remains of wilderness simply because it is the right thing to do. Wild places are a refuge for plants and animals, and so they are a refuge for Earth’s evolutionary processes. Wilderness provides a source of genetic diversity often destroyed in the simplified, overly domesticated and paved-under landscapes. It is our moral obligation to leave some places wild and free from human imprint.

Not all human influence is incompatible with keeping the wild alive. For millennia, native people used natural forces such as burning to shape the landscape across much of the American West and elsewhere. Today, the use of cultural burning and other traditional ecological knowledge can help restore the ecological integrity to many natural areas.

Some say that wild places are merely glimpses into the past, vestiges of a bygone era. But that’s not true. Wild places are vital pathways to the future of life on our planet. Whether these pathways will exist into the future, for our descendants, is dependent on our actions today. What we do on a daily basis will help answer the question, “Will future generations yet born experience nature?”

We need wilderness now more than ever before. Some argue that because humans are changing the climate, spreading invasive weeds, and suppressing natural processes such as wildfire, we have no real wilderness anymore. They say we have entered a new era when, because we have in some manner manipulated every corner of the planet, we must continue to intensively manage all landscapes, as if they are dependent on human intervention.

While it is true that human impacts are far-reaching, even into wilderness, downtown Los Angeles is still a far cry from the Siskiyou Wilderness Area. The wildest parts of our planet that remain are now few and far between, but they have significant inherent value. They are the pinnacle of the evolutionary process, where ecosystems still function and self regulate. We must do our best to save what remains of these most natural spaces.

Wilderness gives us a reference. It reminds us of nature’s place in this world, and that we are a part of this wonder of life. Wilderness harbors the wildest parts of who we are and what we can become.

If we can save wild places, and learn how to gently integrate our human lives with the natural world, we can save ourselves. Of that I am certain.

Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.

The Siskiyou Wilderness is rugged, but worth the effort. Photo by Shannon Browne