Wilderness Skills Institute 2016

Hey guys, I’m back from spending 5 days at Pisgah National Forest for the Wilderness Skills Institute. The WSI is an educational collaboration of the US Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, and other conservancy organisations and volunteer groups.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking…you’re contemplating that I was out in the field everyday learning hands-on survival skills, shelter-craft, primitive fire-making, etc. Well,…that isn’t exactly what the WSI is about. The idea is to host practical courses for future and current conservationists in order to equip them with wilderness management knowledge. I previously touched on the subject of wilderness preservation in my post Forest Service: Solitude Monitoring,but before I delve too deep into this, I guess I should explain as best I can what exactly wilderness is, and how it applies to me as a wilderness ranger.

What is Wilderness?


Above: View of the Shining Rock Wilderness from Black Balsam point.


Wilderness is, as described by the Wilderness Act of 1964 (signed by former President Lyndon B. Johnson), “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 wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions…”. Wilderness also has outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive, unconfined recreation, and is of sufficient size to make practicable its preservation in unimpaired condition. And aside from being a natural area, wherein the imprint of human civilisation is unnoticeable, wilderness areas are also known for having features of value, whether they are scientific (ecological or geological), scenic, historical, or educational. Some wildernesses are situated in remote locations, whilst others are closer to civilisation or are easier to access – not all wilderness is backcountry.

Perhaps the most commonly misunderstood word in the entire Act is “untrammeled”. Most tend to think that the word is a synonym for “un-trampled”, but this is not the case. A trammel is a device used for restricting the movement of horses, sort of like a chain. Therefore, “untrammeled” refers to “being free”, or “freedom”.

Only Congress has the authority to designate areas as wilderness. As of now, there are 765 wildernesses in the US and Puerto Rico – a total of over 100,000,000 acres – the largest of which resides in Alaska…the Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness of 9,078,675 acres, managed by the National Park Service. The smallest is the Pelican Island Wilderness in northern Florida, of just 5.5 acres. Wilderness areas are administered for the use and enjoyment of the citizens of the US, to be managed in such a way as to leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.


In the Boots of Wilderness Ranger


Me, stopping for a break and a sensual immersion in the great orchestra that is wilderness.


Wilderness rangers, such as myself, are in the public eye and at the forefront of educating others about the importance of the management of these special places. Of course, we must be educated in order to pass on our knowledge, and that is what my short time with the Wilderness Skills Institute was about.

Of the many courses offered at the WSI, I enrolled in the Wilderness Interpretation and Education class. Much of the class itself involved a thorough Leave No Trace curriculum, as well as how to engage and educate visitors in the field. Lastly, we learned about how to use social media as a medium to spread the message of wilderness conservation. Our class also gave a demonstration to the rest of the WSI  members about one of the 7 principles of LNT, ‘Minimise Campfire Impacts’. I contributed my own knowledge of the use of backpacking wood stoves, wherein the fire itself is contained, with little preparation and minimal impact. Several of the instructors thanked me afterwards, since this is an excellent and practical teaching tool in the field.


Standing (left): USFS ranger Pete, one of the course instructors and Eric (right), wilderness ranger for SAWS


On Wednesday, our class headed out to Black Balsam point at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness for an in-field real-life simulation of encounters one might expect as a wilderness ranger. Much of it involved role-playing on the part of the course participants and visitors who wished to partake in the experiment. The idea was to test ourselves on what we had earned up until that point and how to deal with different situations. We didn’t get as much time in the field as we would have liked, but it was nevertheless a great experience, and I think all of us learned a lot that day.

Wilderness rangers also participate in trail maintenance, and within the Forest Service, that involves axe and crosscut saw work. There were two crosscut saw classes held at the WSI, including a restoration course led by none other than the Legend, Dolly Chapman, whom some of my readers may recall was interviewed for the ‘Hand Tools for Trail Work’ video published by the USFS back in 1998. She came all the way from California to teach the class. I wasn’t able to take the course, but I did have the honour of meeting her in person. She is quite the role model for trail crews, having been taught how to restore crosscut saws by Warren Miller. For me, this was the highlight of the whole WSI experience. Perhaps sometime in the future I will have the privilege of learning from Dolly herself :).

I am very glad I was able to attend the WSI for 2016. I met a lot of wonderful people, and I learned quite a bit about managing these special places in America. I am proud to mention that I am now a certified Leave No Trace Trainer :D. This experience has boosted my confidence and is sure to guide me along my journey of conservation.


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3 thoughts on “Wilderness Skills Institute 2016

  1. Jo Nathan,

    Its David, from your Interp/Outdoor Ed class at this year’s WSI meeting. I was doing a little research on rare(ish) and fire dependent plants in Linville Gorge when I came across Mountain Witch Alder. I am pretty sure this is the plant we were both inspecting outside of the Cradle of Forestry. Do you remember?

    I thought it was an alder and it turns out that I wasn’t wholly right. I guess they have a few “kind of” rare plants along the trails there. Anyway, cheers bud.

    Here is the USDA Plants page for it.

    Here is a pic of it at the stage we saw it in (past bloom).


    1. Ah, yes, I remember. 🙂
      That very well could be it….after all, it was a garden, and there were a few other rare plants on the premises. I can recall Yellow Moccasin Flower/Yellow Ladies’ Slipper by the walkway to the school-house.

      I’d be very interested to see the flowers of the bush now…that would confirm your ID.
      Often the best way to figure out the ID of unknown plants is to come back and observe them each season. Wild Carrot/Queen Anne’s Lace and several poisonous relatives of the Parsley Family look identical in early spring when the plants are young. It’s only when they start to mature and flower that ID becomes easier.


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