At 650 million acres, almost one quarter of the continental landmass of the United States is publicly owned and managed by federal agencies that include the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Located mostly in the western United States, these lands have shaped the idea of the western landscape as sacred and sublime, wild and barren, conquerable and exploitable. Since 1851, the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), a mathematical survey of rectilinear geometries, has been applied to lands considered rural, wild, or undeveloped.
The PLSS continues as the guiding principle of property division on public lands while creating layered histories generated by the seemingly objective land division in the Euclidean, abstract space of the map. The administrative boundaries of these lands have been drawn by politics and Cartesian geometry, distributing cartographic “lines of power equally across space” without regard to physical or ecological geographies. Inscribing Wilderness proposes to carve out a new pattern of territory that calls into question the relationship between lines of political control and lines in the physical landscape, one displayed on maps and the other as the result of landscape management.
Ecology and economy become interlaced through the BLM’s multiple use mission of balancing cultural heritage, productive industry, and ecological conservation on public lands to “best meet the present and future needs of the American people.”
Inscribing Wilderness proposes expanding the Arizona National Scenic Trail, a system of walking and hiking trails, into a trans-state, trans-agency trail running through one of the highest concentrations of federal public lands. The proposed trail expansion is a 100-mile segment along the 112°W longitude in northern Arizona. Through this representation of what public lands could be, the project proposes an idea that weaves together nature, humans, and wilderness with the future of American public lands by highlighting the contradictions—or gaps—between what is seen or known and what is merely drawn, what is perceived and what is actual.
Conflict over public lands inextricably relates to how they are represented to the public. As political discourses surrounding natural resources and conservation have changed, so have identities of public lands and the role of federal agencies in managing public lands. The visible relationship of land uses, whether for extraction or preservation, consequently effects how landscapes are perceived and therefore valued by the public.
Compositionally, the postcard, as a means of propaganda, is the epitome of how the value of American landscapes are portrayed to the public, usually distilling the representation of western wildernesses or national parks into a single snapshot. A series of new postcards explores experimental and historic landscapes through a representation of wilderness that includes human and nonhuman systems of management.
The terrestrial overlaps of these drawn territories mirror a narrative of American nature as both sublime wilderness and conquerable frontier. Rejecting normative Euclidian geometry to delineate the margins or intersections of site through the PLSS, the project redraws and envisions new territories of wilderness, occupation, and conservation through the notion that wilderness is a construction5 and boundaries are both plural and porous.
Using collage and romantic representations, Inscribing Wilderness positions the discipline of landscape architecture adjacent to topics usually reserved for geographers, regional planners, and ecologists. Lines on paper become lines on the ground. The result is a visual interpretation of political control that exposes the irony of wilderness in order to confront the vision, value, and expectations of conservation.
A series of new postcards explores experimental and historic landscapes through a representation of wilderness that includes human and nonhuman systems of management.
Sara Jacobs is currently a designer and project manager at SCAPE Landscape Architecture in New York. She has a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from Harvard University. As a designer and researcher, she is particularly interested in the map as a medium to visualize the unknown, unseen, and ephemeral landscape.