Value in uselessness

What makes a place valuable? The concept of land value has varied throughout human history, dependent on the needs of the civilisations living nearby to a given setting. Economic factors have encouraged humans to compete for farmland or other resource-rich regions since the earliest peoples inhabited the fertile crescent, but we sometimes forget that cultural values are also tied up in how we value land. Sites of religious significance, or those associated with myth and legend, have inherent value to certain people. The advent of neoclassical economics and colonialism has led to a tendency to value land numerically (and thus in terms of the resources) but for aboriginal peoples around the world the spiritual and social connection to the land is not well quantified by such metrics.

Today national parks are designated to capture some of the cultural or scientific value of a landscape – at least where the potential for resource exploitation is not too tempting for a given state to allow extraction.

But what about areas that have no value attached to them by humans, either economic or cultural? There are many areas that, as a result of lack of infrastructure or impossible logistics, have limited or no economic value – think of the Tibetan plateau, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, or even the Antarctic desert. It’s fair to say that if the market value was pushed high enough and resources were found in such areas, they could still be exploited, but many such locations are simply lacking in any resource of interest.

Moreover, there are some locations where this lack of any economic value is combined with negligible human historical or cultural value; ‘useless’ places where humans have never been able to gain a foothold or established civilisation. There are not so many places, since humans have broadly found their way everywhere; but a search on google for ‘least accessible mountains’ comes up with some desperately isolated peaks in the high parks of Tibet, or those in Antarctica. I was fortunate to recently visit a place nearly as forgotten and empty as these, but situated in the heart of the United States: the Henry Mountains.

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Looking east over Canyonlands National Park, from the south end of the Henrys

The mountains are situated in the southern part of Utah, surrounded by the more famous national parks of Zion, Arches, Canyonlands and Bryce. So much of southern Utah is protected as part of national parks or reserves that it is perhaps surprising to find these mountains are not designated as part of any protected area. At the same time, there is essentially no development of the area for economic purposes; meagre desert grasses support marginal grazing and a single paved road runs through them, but otherwise they are bereft of civilisation. The geologist GK Gilbert, who was the first white scientist to fully describe the range for the USGS in 1877, wrote that ‘No one but a geologist will ever profitably seek out the Henry Mountains’, concluding that the economic value of the land was negligible.

And thus the 5 peaks of the range have remained more or less untouched. In a recent visit, we took a hike for 5 hours in the southern part, and not a single car drove past, nor did we encounter a single other person. This was during peak tourist season in Utah, but the lack of infrastructure and presence of more prestigious wilderness areas nearby seemingly precludes any tourism there. The Henry mountains lack the more unique landforms expressed in the aforementioned national parks, and this disqualifies them from national park designation. And as Gilbert described, their economic value is near nil. Prehistoric peoples lived in the regions nearby to the mountains, but no significant archaeological remains have yet been found upon the mountains themselves. The Navajo people refer to the range as Dził Bizhiʼ Ádiní, literally meaning “mountain whose name is missing” [1].

So it seems like these mountains are nearly totally useless by the metrics with which we usually judge land value. Even I wouldn’t have been likely to visit if Gilbert hadn’t made them sound so tempting to geologists. But standing atop Mt Ellsworth, in the southern part of the range, not only were the vistas of the surrounding wild lands as stunning as any you could find anywhere around the world, but the sense of isolation really drove home the uniqueness of the experience.

And that’s what I find most interesting. The drive to find ever more interesting and diverse experiences is one of the defining factors of the modern era, and it has driven people to travel all over the world to seek out far flung locations. Our experiences define our lives, so we’re told, and I personally consider the diversity of experience to be an important factor in how I judge success in my own life. The national parks of Utah are rightly fêted for the wonder they instil in a visitor, but with the numbers of park visitors skyrocketting [2], one might be hard-pressed to experience them alone. Perhaps it’s selfish to seek out experiences that are unique to oneself; but if we were to treat experience as a commodity, then scarcity would no doubt increase its value.

Given that for most tourists and visitors, we don’t own the land we stand upon, but merely own the experience of standing there, perhaps we should consider the value inherent in useless places. Assigning value to places that we may otherwise deem to be worthless on the basis of our own subjective experience is perhaps an ironic inversion of postmodern thinking, but in an era that seems to be increasingly defined by relativism (‘alternative facts’) it was for me a unique joy to ignore any objective truth about a place and revel in the isolation and wilderness, which offered my own subjective paradise.

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The author atop Mt Ellsworth – photo credit Laurence Pryer

[1] Linford, L. Navajo Places. History, Legend, Landscape. University of Utah Press. 2000

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/27/us/national-parks-overcrowding.html?action=click&module=Featured&pgtype=Homepage

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