Is Relevance Irrelevant?

Written By: Scott Silver, Executive Director, Wild Wilderness


There are very few topics related to the subject of Industrial Strength Wreckreation and Tourism that are too controversial for Wild Wilderness. There are, however, some topics we allow to sit quietly on the back burner for fear they are too hot to handle. "Making Public Lands More Relevant" has been one such issue.

Over the past few years, the issue of 'relevance' has crept upon us as might a ship steaming though dense fog. This essence of this Titanic issue is captured in the following short excerpt from The Seattle Times (January 18, 1999).

"About 550 people from across the nation, many of them from community organizations representing African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and other ethnic minorities, gathered for a traditional blessing by an American Indian of the Pomo Tribe before attending workshops last week with such titles as: "National Parks: Places of Isolation or Inclusivity?" and "Achieving a National Park System Relevant to All Americans." … Bowser [a NPS employee] said she is … frustrated that the service has moved so slowly toward making the parks inviting to everyone… "We are not very good about going out to people," she said. "There is a strong tendency of the parks to promote this white, outdoorsy image. They have an image of being for upper-middle-class white America."

Today 'relevance' is no longer a blurry image in the distance. It is about to crash upon an public largely unaware of it's impending arrival. Relevance has already become a battle cry of the wise-use American Recreation Coalition (ARC). The staunchly anti-environmental Senator Frank Murkowski is now championing it. It is the subject of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Walt Disney Company and seven federal land management agencies. Relevance is an issue that is so 'politically correct' that to challenge it, is to do so at one's peril.

It is with great trepidation that I now broach this issue. And let there be no doubt, I do so with no hint of disrespect or prejudice to those members of our society whose input is SUPPOSEDLY being courted. I challenge this because of who is doing the courting, and I most vigorously question their motivation. Are these corporate promoters of Industrial Strength Wreckreation and Tourism really asking for input from an underrepresented segment of the population or are they attempting to manufacture public opinion and consent?

I feel even more compelled to ask whether relevance should even be considered as a management criterion for the protections and preservations of our public lands. Should we be making public lands relevant to a nation of people who have become increasingly disconnected from nature, or should we protect nature because we believe: "in Wildness is the Preservation of the World", as was stated by Thoreau.

I offer the following as a partial explanation of the motivations behind the 'relevance' issue. The current Industrial Strength Wreckreation and Tourism agenda depends upon re-creating Nature and turning it into a vast array of readily consumable products. In today's popular culture, there is nothing more relevant than commercialism and consumption. To make wild lands more relevant is to make them more commercial. Or as the other side might say: " to make wild lands more commercial is to make them more relevant!"

The promulgators of this wreckreation agenda are seeing their attempts to 'commercialize, privatize and motorize' America's public lands being met with increasing resistance from the traditional voices of public lands protection. Those outdoorsy types (as Ms. Bowser called them) have no desire to see nature Disneyfied and they will actively resist attempts to do so.

The recreation industry, however, recognizes the value of creating an entirely new stakeholder group comprised of a segment of the population that has traditionally not participated in this debate: a group, which currently does not consider conservation of public lands a personal priority issue.

In recent years we have witnessed recreation powerhouses such as Disney and REI working with anti-environmental congressmen such as Frank Murkowski, Larry Craig, Jim Oberstar and Jim Hansen to create legislation and policy that would supposedly make 'The Great Outdoors' more relevant to specific segments of the population. And, whereas these segments are being identified in terms which imply "persons of color, inner city youth, the old and the infirm," these labels, I contend, are but masks. The corporations and bureaucrats who would turn majestic mountains, rivers and deserts into a mere backdrops upon which they would construct nature-based entertainment products, desperately need to garner input from anyone - OTHER THAN the voices traditionally associated with wild lands protection.

I question if groups like the American Recreation Coalition, the US Forest Service, and the National Park Service are courting additional input on the issue of public lands management for honest and meritorious reasons, or are they doing so in a calculated attempt to manufacture a new voice with a new perspective?

I contend that the issue of 'relevance' is being shameless misused. The population segment being courted does not consist of any group that can be characterized or labeled in ethnic terms. The group being courted for participation in this debate is any people, of any race or color, who are prepared to purchase outdoor recreational goods, services, lifestyles, amusements or landscapes.

On October 18, 1998, the US Forest Service issued a new document entitled: "The Natural Resource Agenda… A Strategy for Recreation." It stated: "We must continue to evolve from a steward of natural resources and custodian of recreation resources to a provider of wildlands and legacy experiences."

Consider that 'relevance' may be just another way of saying 'legacy experience'. And while you are doing so, imagine the potential environmental consequences if public land managers are really prepared to sacrifice stewardship of natural resources and custodial protection of our nation's few untrammeled lands to the God, Mammon and his false prophet, Relevance.

I've written this article to sound the alarm. A gigantic threat is bearing down upon us. If the concept of social relevance is being used as a ploy to promote the 'Disneyfication of Nature,' then the traditional voices for wildland protection must prepare themselves to meet this new challenge.

As we close the Twentieth Century, the field upon which public lands issues are being played is changing rapidly. Not only are the issues evolving, but so are the players and so are the rules of engagement. In issues of wildland protection and preservation, social relevance is far less relevant than the application of sound science and unbiased objectivity.


This document was prepared by Wild Wilderness. To learn more about ongoing industry-backed congressional efforts to motorize, commercialize, and privatize America's public lands, contact:

Scott Silver, Executive Director,
248 NW Wilmington Avenue,  Bend  OR 97701
Phone (541) 385-5261    E-mail: