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Wilderness Act Turns Fifty


Congress seldom passes legislation that is both visionary and eloquent. In the Wilderness Act of 1964 Congress managed to accomplish both—expressing a great vision and a moving hope for the future of America. In Section 2(a) Congress described the need for designating wilderness:

“In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

In Section 2(c) Congress defined wilderness:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own 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.”

The Wilderness Act created the legal language necessary to preserve Wilderness, establish the Wilderness Preservation System and direct the future management of wilderness. The Wilderness Act was revised 66 times between its introduction in 1957 and final passage in 1964. Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Rep. John Saylor (R-PA) introduced the act. The bill passed the Senate 73—12 in 1963 and the House 373—1 in 1964. It was a completely different and improbable political era considering our present Congress. In 2012, Congress is far away from being able to pass legislation with a view toward the future, let alone with a strong and bipartisan consensus.

The Wilderness Act remains visionary. It looks to our future. It is not about how we use the land today. The Wilderness Act describes an America that we as a nation chose as our future: a people with “an enduring resource of wilderness.”

Decades before 1964, Aldo Leopold wrote, “The richest values of wilderness lie not in the days of Daniel Boone, nor even in the present, but rather in the future.” During the debate over Wilderness in Congress, Wallace Stegner wrote in his Wilderness Letter of 1960, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…” He ended the letter saying that wilderness is “a part of the geography of hope.”

Wilderness and the Wilderness Act of 1964 originated in the context of a long history of American thought; many events and trends led to its writing and passage. Subsequent to passage Congress enacted legislation to further the protection of wild places. A few of those events and acts are listed below. The years appear in bold to emphasize the sweep of time leading up to and surrounding the Act.

In 1823 James Fenimore Cooper published The Pioneers, the first of the Leatherstocking Tales. The hero Natty Bumppo vacillated between the fringes of European settlements and the villages of the Delaware Indians. He liked living outside the confines and comforts of civilization.

In the 1830s the American Transcendentalists wrote about Nature and the real relationship of humans to the life teeming outside our cities. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word…” Henry David Thoreau wrote perhaps the most famous American praise for a life close to nature, Walden, in 1854.

The convoluted history of Yosemite National Park began in 1864 when the lands were given to California for “public use, resort and recreation” and “shall be inalienable for all time…” This was only 76 years after the U.S. Constitution became effective and a full century before the Wilderness Act.

In 1872 Congress created Yellowstone National Park which was “reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale. . . and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

In 1885 New York enacted the Forest Preserve Act that clearly states the intent to protect wild places. “The lands now or hereafter constituting the forest preserve shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be sold, nor shall they be leased or taken by any corporation public or private.”

In 1894 New York added the “forever wild” language to the state constitution, “The Lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

John Muir established the Sierra Club in 1892 in his quest to preserve the Sierra Nevada and western forests. Under Muir’s leadership the Sierra Club campaigned to have Yosemite returned to control of the United States. They succeeded in 1906.

In 1909 Aldo Leopold went to work for the Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico. He proposed the Gila Wilderness. In 1924 it became the first Wilderness in the world. (Congress designated the adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness in 1980.)

In 1935 Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall (head of recreation for the Forest Service) and others founded The Wilderness Society. (Bob Marshall was the son of Louis Marshall, one of the originators of the “forever wild” clause of the New York State constitution.)

The frontier and the Nineteenth Century ended together. America was largely settled, and the wilderness was conquered. Civilization encroached everywhere, or nearly everywhere. Yet New York found pockets of wilderness and decided to make them “forever wild.” The Twentieth Century brought motorized travel and an increasingly mechanized society. Aldo Leopold saw the ubiquity of the automobile and realized some places should remain free of motors. Fifty years after preserving Yellowstone National Park as a “pleasuring ground,” a different vision of preservation came from the writings of people like John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

When Leopold thought of the Gila Wilderness, he did not think of a “pleasuring ground.” He included an ethical element in the preservation of Wilderness. He wrote, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

In 1964 the United States was a mature society. In the previous 150 years we had explored and then occupied all of our land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, leaving only a few places in something like a natural condition, and most of those lands lie west of the 100th meridian. Congress decided that our “increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, [will] not occupy and modify all areas within the United States…it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”  The Wilderness Act fit into an historical context. But it was a changing context. We came to value places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Congress further noted that Wilderness Areas “generally” appeared to be “affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” In his wilderness letter Wallace Stegner wrote, “Better a wounded wilderness than none at all.”

Congress did not leave the Wilderness Act of 1964 to stand alone. In 1975 Congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Act stating, “in the more populous eastern half of the United States there is an urgent need to identify, study, designate, and preserve areas for addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System.” In 1976 Congress enlarged the scope of the Wilderness Act by passing the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. This made all public lands (not just those managed by the Forest Service, Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service) subject to the Wilderness Act. In 1978 Congress passed the Endangered American Wilderness Act that found that some lands were not being “adequately protected or fully studied for wilderness suitability by the agency responsible for their administration.” Congress “promptly” designated as wilderness “certain of these endangered areas…” Congress continues to designate new Wilderness Areas.

The 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act comes in 2014. As wilderness activists we must take the opportunity to celebrate all the wilderness that has been protected and look forward to protecting all the remaining wilderness quality lands.

Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service


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