1964 - 2014
On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, thereby establishing our National Wilderness Preservation System. On September 3, 2014, lovers of wild lands will celebrate the 50th birthday of this landmark event that made history — its grand, golden anniversary.
In celebrating, wilderness activists bring attention to wild lands that recently became wilderness – as, for example, California’s “Lost Coast” or the Owyhee area in south-western Idaho. And they are drawing attention to many places that still need permanent preservation – by law – as wild nature.
Watch this space throughout the year as we highlight activities and information related to the 50th Anniversary Celebration.
What is Wilderness?
The Wilderness Act declared it a national policy “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” Wilderness is federal “lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.” In 1964 about nine million acres of Forest Service “primitive” and “wild” areas in 13 states immediately received permanent protection, and since then bill after bill has added more lands as wilderness. Today nearly five percent of the U.S., more than 109.5 million acres in 757 areas in 44 of the 50 states and Puerto Rico, is designated wilderness. And more than half of that land is in Alaska.
The Wilderness Act describes “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (Note that untrammeled is not the same as untrampled, untrodden. A “trammel” is a kind of hobble to control a horse; untrammeled means uncontrolled, wild, free, not manipulated or regulated by humans.)
The Act defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements...and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable;…has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation;…and may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, or historical value.”
The founders of the wilderness system saw a fundamental human need for wilderness. They were thinkers like Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and Howard Zahniser, the drafter of the bill that went through many drafts between 1956, when Hubert Humphrey first introduced it into the U.S. Senate, and 1964 when it passed Congress almost unanimously. These visionaries shared a passionate conviction that wilderness is not some luxury but is a vital link to human well-being and to American culture. Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and John Muir joined painters, photographers, and poets and popularized the distinct American cultural value of wilderness.
To Aldo Leopold wilderness was nothing less than “a fundamental instrument for building citizens.” But aside from the spiritual dimensions, and the character-building, recreational and philosophical motives for wilderness, there are some very practical scientific reasons to preserve wild nature. Our biological heritage depends on the evolutionary processes of nature continuing undisturbed. Preserving the diversity of species is potentially important to human welfare, such as threatened or endangered species or those important for medical breakthroughs. Wilderness guards the web of life, with its wild gene pools, that make life possible on earth.
And for people in urban areas, these undisturbed natural places are critical to filter air, retain water, and allow for recreation in nature, important for a good quality of life. Cities are not isolated; in subtle but direct ways, they depend for the flow of their lifeblood on the wild spaces around them.