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Historic preservation crew completes work on the Agnes Vaille Shelter historic structure at the Keyhole on Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness.

Historic preservation crew completes work on the Agnes Vaille Shelter historic structure at the Keyhole on Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness.
Photographer: Sterling Holdorf, National Park Service.

Kevin: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast – the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology & Training. Today we join NCPTT’s jenny hay as she speaks with Jill Cowley, Historic Landscape Architect for the Intermountain Region of the National Park Service.

jh: Jill’s recent article with a number of colleagues in Park Science entitled “Integrating Cultural Resources and Wilderness Character” carefully considers the intersection of the cultural and the natural in the real world. Wilderness areas are untrammeled sites that are preserved and celebrated by our society, visited by millions of people each year, and protected by law from specific activities that might compromise the wilderness character. For more information about Wilderness in the United States, please visit, a website full of information and educational resources on wilderness history, important and influential personalities, the values and benefits of wilderness, threats to wilderness, as well as resources geared toward professionals and federal agency staff involved in wilderness management.

Thanks for joining me today, Jill. I just have a few questions for you about wilderness. The idea of wilderness has been long debated in fields such as geography and environmental studies. How does the park service define wilderness?

JC: The Wilderness Act of 1964 provides a definition of wilderness that is the basic reference for all federal land management agencies, including the National Park Service. And I’ll quote a couple of passages from Section 2(c) of the Wilderness Act where wilderness is defined. And this language is probably going to be familiar to many of your listeners: wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain . . . an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence . . . affected primarily by the forces of nature . . . [with] outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation . . . at least five thousand acres of land . . and (and this is an important phrase for historic preservation) and may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value”. So, historical value is clearly stated as a possible value of wilderness.

A discussion of wilderness legislation and legislative history in the U.S. is included within the recent article in Park Science, “Integrating cultural resources and wilderness character”. For example, from that article, — according to Howard Zahniser, an early wilderness proponent, wilderness advocates and members of Congress who championed the Wilderness Act understood that wilderness included both the value of specific cultural features protected within a wilderness and the cultural significance of the overall environment of the wilderness.

[Jill notes that the Park Science article was very much a team effort, with five co-authors and numerous reviewers. Co-authors: Peter Landres (Ecologist, USFS Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute) , Melissa Memory (CR CHIEF Everglades), Doug Scott (Pew Trusts Wilderness Specialist), and Adrienne Lindholm (Wilderness Coordinator, Alaska Region)]

jh: I see. Well, the organizational structure of the National Park Service separates ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ resources, so how do the two departments interact in the real world, such as park sites and wilderness areas?

JC: This is a good and very broad question – I’ll respond somewhat specifically. At the Regional office level, where I work, and in the field, the separation between “natural” and “cultural” is still very alive in some ways, but is also being bridged in various ways. For example, the Servicewide Comprehensive Call for project funding is now more open to integrated natural and cultural projects. Cultural landscapes projects address the integration of cultural and natural resources. In wilderness management, a good example of cultural/natural integration is developing Minimum Requirements Analysis for proposed projects in wilderness that have potential to affect cultural or natural resources.

jh: What kind of cultural values are evident in an area like wilderness? Why is it historically important to preserve these values?

JC: Cultural values are an important part of the IDEA of wilderness, and an important part of ACTUAL wilderness areas. The idea of wilderness is itself a cultural construct – humankind has developed the concept of wilderness, and the Wilderness Act is the law developed within the U.S. which directs how to apply that concept. Within actual wilderness areas, whether designated wilderness or areas that have been studied and proposed as wilderness, many kinds of cultural values can be present and evident within the wilderness landscape. The wilderness area may be ancestral homeland for American Indian tribes, with on-going meaning and value to those tribes. Archeological resources within wilderness are evidence of past human habitation and use. Wilderness areas may contain evidence of historic trails and transportation routes, and activities related to settlement, agriculture, and mining. This evidence may be in tangible, place-based form – for example, structures like early ranger cabins, cultural landscapes like homesteads and orchards, or landscape features like trails. Evidence may be in tangible form but not located within wilderness – for example historical documents like oral history transcripts, written stories and other folklore that relate to wilderness. Or the evidence may be intangible – for instance unwritten stories, histories, and traditional ceremonies.

My work within the National Park Service’s Cultural Landscapes Program focuses primarily on tangible resources. From my perspective, wilderness areas are cultural landscapes that have been valued, used and in some areas modified by humans for thousands of years.

So part of your question was why is it important to preserve these cultural resources and values? As we know generally, The National Park Service and other federal agencies preserve tangible and intangible evidence of the past so the histories of all peoples can be remembered and valued, and so we can move into the future with an appreciation and understanding of our collective past. Much of our collective past has been lived within what are now identified as wilderness. Agencies are directed by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to identify, evaluate treatment options for, and to preserve our cultural heritage, and this includes heritage within wilderness areas as well as outside wilderness areas. National Park Service Management Policies are clear on the value of cultural resources within wilderness and the need to apply Sections 110 and 106 of the NHPA within wilderness.

jh: Right – that leads me to a number of different questions. What value do cultural resources bring to wilderness areas? How does the presence of cultural resources affect treatment / maintenance of the wilderness landscape? And, how might the removal of cultural resources affect a wilderness area?

JC: These are important and interrelated questions. All wilderness areas have a human history. In addition to preserving ecosystems, wilderness helps us understand human use and value of the land over time. Preserving and interpreting cultural resources that are within and part of wilderness is important to being able to understand that human history. It’s not so much a matter of what cultural resources bring to wilderness – cultural resources are part of the wilderness itself. We can’t necessarily remove cultural resources from wilderness – for example, archeological sites in wilderness are imbedded within and part of the landscape . . . traces of a traditional and/or historic transportation route, or remains of a nineteenth century settlement within wilderness, are part of the wilderness landscape. While historic structures like ranger cabins built prior to wilderness designation could be removed from wilderness, this may go against the National Historic Preservation Act and may degrade the overall cultural meaning of an area within wilderness. Management of wilderness needs to respond to both the Wilderness Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. If cultural resources are removed from wilderness, part of the essence and meaning of the land is taken away.

The presence of cultural resources can affect wilderness management in various ways. Prescribed fire and vegetation management, for example, need to take into account potential effects on archeological and historic resources. Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico is an example of a park where the wilderness area encompasses many, many archeological sites and resources, and where protection and preservation of these resources is part of overall wilderness management.

jh: While it may seem straightforward for cultural resources professionals to include cultural resources inside wilderness landscape, some wilderness proponents define these spaces by the absence of human influence. Are there any similarities in their goals, and how can these divergent perspectives come to an agreement on an appropriate treatment?

JC: That’s a really good question – this gets to the heart of some of the debates about the management of cultural aspects of wilderness. Varying professional and personal perspectives derive from a basic difference in belief about the relationship between humans and the nonhuman world – whether or not humans are a part of nature. Both perspectives, and the range of perspectives between the two, may share the goal of preserving wilderness values and character, but how these values and character are defined may differ. Whatever our individual beliefs, we need to go back to law and policy to work together on appropriate treatments of wilderness cultural resources. The two primary laws are the Wilderness Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. Neither law states that it trumps the other, so federal agencies must equally uphold both laws and the values they embody. The Wilderness Act requires the preservation of wilderness character. The National Historic Preservation Act requires the identification and evaluation of all cultural resources, including those in wilderness, and a process through which potential effects of projects on cultural resources are evaluated. The National Park Service refers to the Secretary of the Interior Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties for guidance on treatment options.

Currently, guidance on how to define, describe, and preserve wilderness character is being prepared by the interagency Wilderness Character Integration Team. How wilderness character is defined and described can determine how wilderness management balances and integrates the various wilderness values, including historical value and cultural resources. The documents being prepared by the Wilderness Character Integration Team are based on the Wilderness Act, and incorporate the possibility of cultural resources being an integral part of the character of a specific wilderness. So, professionals who have widely divergent views on what wilderness character should be will be able to refer to these documents for a definition of wilderness character based on law and policy.

jh: Excellent.You mentioned earlier, as well as in your article that the Minimum Requirements Analysis process can be a useful tool for determining necessary and appropriate action on cultural resources in wilderness areas. What is this Minimum Requirements Analysis, and how can it be used by cultural and natural resource specialists in tandem?

JC: Minimum Requirements Analysis is a process for determining first whether an administrative action within wilderness is necessary and second, the minimum and least disturbing method or tools with which to carry out the action. The goal is to meet the intent of the Wilderness Act where it says that management actions in wilderness need to be avoided “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area…“, and to minimize impact to wilderness character. This analysis is ideally completed by a team including natural and cultural resource specialists. For more information on Minimum Requirements Analysis, and many other wilderness topics including cultural resources and wilderness, I recommend consulting the interagency wilderness website ( There’s a wealth of information on that website.

Crevice Creek cabin post fuels treatment, Yellowstone National Park.

Crevice Creek cabin post fuels treatment, Yellowstone National Park.
National Park Service photo.

But let me give you an example. The Park Science article includes a section on Cultural Resources Management and Minimum Requirements Analysis. One example included in this section is the preservation of a historic stone cabin in the recommended wilderness at Arches National Park in Utah – this example shows how the Minimum Requirements Analysis process can address cultural and natural resources. Based on the Minimum Requirements Analysis for this project, access to the project area needed to be over a slickrock route, no backcountry camp was allowed, the work crew size was kept to a minimum, mortar soil was collected from multiple locations, and soil collection sites and footprints were raked out. So these requirements minimized impacts on natural and visual resources during a historic preservation project.

jh: Wow. You also suggest that Traditional Ecological Knowledge held by many Native American tribes could be valuable to both preservationists and wilderness advocates. What is Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and why is it important to include Tribal leaders in the process of wilderness management?

JC: Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK for short, is experienced-based knowledge of the interdependence between humans and their environment, and ecological effects of certain human actions, held by groups with long-held traditional associations with the land. Now that is not necessarily a technical or agency definition, that’s my understanding of what TEK is.

jh: Ok.

JC: An example is the knowledge of how low level and localized fire can be used to manage vegetation – for instance in improving habitat or forage for herd animals or wildlife, or to avoid catastrophic fires. It is important to involve Tribal leaders and representatives in wilderness management in order to ensure that tribal perspectives on wilderness are included. Many areas today identified as wilderness have been, and continue to be, important to the traditional beliefs and lifeways of tribes: for example, wilderness areas may serve as hunting areas, plant gathering areas, and places associated with ceremony and spiritual sustenance. Tribal concerns may relate to cultural or natural resources or a combination of both, and may include maintaining access to sacred sites and reburials within wilderness, and maintaining the ability to propagate and collect ceremonial resources, such as specific plant materials, within wilderness. Also, traditional ecological knowledge held by tribal members may assist management decisions. For more information and examples, I recommend consulting the National Park Service’s Indian Affairs and American Culture Program located in Denver, CO.

jh: Great. Well, we’ll provide links to both the wilderness website and that National Park Service site you just mentioned on our website for listeners to access.

JC: At this time, jenny, I’d just like to say a few words of conclusion.

jh: Wonderful.

JC: The key points are that wilderness managers need to address both the Wilderness Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, and that tools like the Minimum Requirements Analysis and guidance on wilderness character can help management with differing perspectives on wilderness reach agreement on treatment of cultural resources in wilderness. And also, I recommend consultation with the Regional Wilderness Coordinators for more guidance. Thank you.

jh: Thank you very much.

Kevin: That was jenny hay speaking with Jill Cowley. You can find the transcript of this interview, along with links to the online resources that Jill mentioned, on our website. That’s Until next time…

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