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Wilderness Wednesday: Mt. Shasta Wilderness Celebration

This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the creation of the National Wilderness Preservation System and the 30 year anniversary of the passage of the California Wilderness Act.  With the addition of 38,200 acres on Mt. Shasta, we are fortunate to be surrounded by the magnificent beauty of the Mt. Shasta Wilderness.

Mt. Shasta_GeorgeWuerthner041807

Photo courtesy George Wuerthner, wilderness.net 

The earliest effort to protect Mt. Shasta began with the Sierra Club founder John Muir’s 1888 proposal for a three to four-thousand acre national park.  John Muir wrote “…The Shasta region is still a fresh unspoiled wilderness, accessible and available for travelers of every kind and degree.  Would it not then be a fine thing to set it apart like Yellowstone and  Yosemite as a National Park for the welfare and benefit of all mankind?...” Muir escorted President Theodore Roosevelt through Yosemite in 1903.  Muir also lobbied for Mt. Shasta.  The next day Roosevelt directed the “Sierra Forest Reserve” to be increased all the way northward to Mt. Shasta.  On a later visit, Roosevelt exclaimed:  “I consider the evening twilight on Mt. Shasta one of the grandest sights I have ever witnessed.” 

A national wilderness preservation system 

The roots of the wilderness network we have today lie deep in the 1800s.  The idea of wildness as an intrinsic value was expressed in the soaring words of Thoreau and Emerson in the mid-1800s. But in the 1800s, wilderness was plentiful and civilization was sparse, especially in the west.  In the 1800s, wilderness was something to be conquered and subjugated.  It was our struggle against the vast wilderness of North America that defined our character as a people.  As the industrial revolution progressed, and Americans were increasingly buffered from the dangers of the frontier, they interpreted “wilderness” as symbolic of their national heritage and potential for future progress.

By the late 1800s, the frontier was closing. It became apparent to visionaries like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot that without some form of protection, wild places would all someday be tamed or destroyed by exploitation and development.  John Muir wrote prolifically about the natural world and the need to protect undeveloped areas in public parks and forests and his words reverberate today, but the idea of a place designated, managed and preserved as a “wilderness” belongs to Aldo Leopold, Arthur Carhardt and Robert Sterling Yard.  It was their writings in the 1920s that gave rise to the idea of a national wilderness preservation system on public lands.

Attempts to designate Mt. Shasta as a national park 

Northern California business associations proposed a National Park on Mt. Shasta in 1912.  Congressman John Raker introduced a bill for a two hundred thousand acre Mt. Shasta National Park, but Congress adjourned before it could be voted upon.  Raker introduced another bill in 1914.  While it was being scheduled for a vote, Mt. Lassen suddenly erupted, and all attention was focused on the only active volcano in the continental United States.  Lassen was quickly made a National Park. 

At this point in time, efforts to protect wild landscapes focused on unique places of scenic splendor like Yellowstone and Yosemite.  The idea of “Wilderness” as a place that remained undeveloped, where people were visitors, was a new concept.  At the urging of Aldo Leopold, the Forest Service established the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico in 1924.  This was the first time that a place was designated with lines on a map, as a “Wilderness,” to be conserved in its wild and undeveloped condition.  Legendary explorer Bob Marshall joined the cause in the 1920s and led a campaign for a national system of wilderness areas.  By 1930, more than 14 million acres of “Primitive Areas” were established on the National Forests.  In an era where utilitarian use was valued over just about anything else, designation of these areas for their intrinsic wild values was a significant event in the history of public lands. While designation of these areas by the Forest Service was notable, this was still no more than an administrative protection.

Other attempts to designate Mt. Shasta as a national park were made through 1929, but the political climate had changed.  National Parks were now recognized as commercial gold mines, and California, already having four national parks, was opposed by less fortunate states.  Mt. Shasta, the Park Service decided, would be a duplication of the new Mt. Rainier National Park, and until the 1984 establishment of the Mt. Shasta Wilderness Area, Mt. Shasta was the only major Cascade peak not to have received National Park or Wilderness designation. 

The National Wilderness Preservation System 

By the 1940s, the idea of legislative designation and protection of a national wilderness preservation network to compliment the National Park system had begun to grow.  Howard Zahnhiser, then Executive Director of the Wilderness Society, began to draft legislation and work with other conservation organizations to build support.  Senator Hubert Humphrey introduced the first Wilderness bill in 1956 but it would take 66 drafts of the bill and eight more years before Congress passed the Wilderness Act.  On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System and fulfilling the vision that Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Arthur Carhardt and Robert Yard had created 40 years before. Since 1964, there have been numerous additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Mt. Shasta Wilderness Area created 

In 1973 the Forest Service identified more than 20 roadless regions in CA, including Mt. Shasta, for study as potential wilderness areas.  There was so much controversy surrounding designation of wilderness areas that Chairman John Sieberling brought his entire Congressional Public Lands Subcommittee to Mt. Shasta in 1979 for field hearings.  In 1980 CA Congressman Philip Burton introduced the California Wilderness Act, an omnibus bill that included Mt. Shasta.  The bill referred to the mountain as “…the most prominent and arguably the most spectacular geological feature in Northern California…”

President Ronald Reagan signed the California Wilderness Act, creating the Mt. Shasta Wilderness Area, on September 28, 1984; nearly 100 years after John Muir first suggested protecting the magnificent mountain.

Sierra Club Foundation property and programs 

The easiest access to the Mt. Shasta Wilderness is a moderate two mile hike from the Bunny Flat trailhead which will bring you to The Sierra Club Foundation property.  This land is adjacent to the Mt. Shasta Wilderness and completely surrounded by Forest Service lands.  Acquired in 1921, the 720 acre property includes the historic Shasta Alpine Lodge built in 1922, a freshwater spring, a composting toilet, and several beautiful campsites.  The cabin is on the site of Justin Sisson’s “Horse Camp” where John Muir and other early climbers laid over before attempting to climb Mt. Shasta.  This land was often the base camp for Muir, and is still used today by many others, on their way to climb the mountain.  Muir had a long association and great love for Mt. Shasta.

For over 25 years the Foundation has sponsored an environmental education program that provides staff and instruction for local 5th grade class field trips to the property.  The program typically enjoys over 300 students and 90 adult participants and includes many follow up classroom visits by the local Foundation educator. 

Many US Forest Service experts and the Wilderness Rangers provide instruction and participate in the program. The Foundation staffs the property with friendly caretakers from May through September and provides volunteers who maintain the cabin, the composting toilet, and spring year round. 

The property is managed to protect its wilderness character and values and is seamless with the adjacent Wilderness. 

The Foundation also maintains an agreement with the Forest Service to collaborate on wilderness management policies, search and rescue efforts, environmental education, public access to the Wilderness, trail management, and land improvements for the mutual benefit of both parties.  The public is encouraged to visit and there is no cost to use the property, toilet, or spring.  The Foundation does not allow motorized vehicles or dogs and requests a five dollar overnight camping fee.  The caretakers provide friendly advice and are happy to answer questions.  For over ninety years the Foundation has welcomed visitors and intends to continue support of the property and facilities for the public to enjoy.

Using Wilderness without destroying it

To protect the Mt. Shasta Wilderness, the US Forest Service employs year round and seasonal wilderness climbing rangers. Nick Meyers has been a ranger on Mt. Shasta since 2002, and as the year round Lead Climbing Ranger is in charge of the program and daily operations. He is accompanied by seasonal rangers Jonathan Dove, Forrest Coots and Brett Wagenheim during the spring, summer and fall months.

Rangers perform a wide variety of tasks in the wilderness and verbally contact thousands of visitors each year. The Mt. Shasta Climbing Rangers help people use the Wilderness without destroying it.  They educate users about no-trace camping and assist climbers in the harsh alpine environment of Mt. Shasta, while also enforcing group size restrictions, permit requirements, fire restrictions, and other regulations that are designed to keep the wilderness minimally impacted.  One example of this is the human waste packout program for all visitors. Free human waste packout bags are provided for users of the wilderness and receptacles are provided for disposal at all trailheads. The fees collected through the Summit Pass program funds the collection and removal of:  2.5 tons of human waste, 6 tons of garbage, and 3,000 gallons of sewage each year.    

Summit Pass fees also fund trailhead maintenance, toilet cleaning and maintenance at trailheads, ranger participation in searches and rescues, stocking of rescue caches, road and trail maintenance, and current climbing, avalanche and weather information at the website www.shastaavalanche.org

Due to the fragile environment, the many sensitive wildlife and plant habitats, and the affect on other visitors’ experiences, no dogs are permitted within the Mt. Shasta Wilderness. 

In the winter time, the Mt. Shasta Avalanche Center (MSAC) provides the public with snow avalanche forecasts for the Mt. Shasta area. The MSAC is recognized by the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center and is supported by the local non-profit Friends of the MSAC group. The goal of the MSAC is to provide professional forecasting, real-time information, and avalanche safety training.  Simply to keep winter recreationalists on top of the snow and not beneath it!

The Forest Service strives to engage the community with educational outreach. Each year thousands of children and adults take part in ranger lead hikes and in class presentations. Wilderness values and ethics, mountain ecology, wildlife, geology, weather and snow and avalanche education topics are presented in the Mt Shasta and Northern California communities each year. 

Mt. Shasta Climbing Rangers and the MSAC work hard to develop and maintain partnerships with the community. Currently, the US Forest Service and the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s department cooperate in Search and Rescue operations on Mt. Shasta. Rangers and Siskiyou SAR personnel train each year in industry leading helicopter rescue techniques in an effort for efficient and safe SAR operations on Mt. Shasta.  Lastly, The USFS works directly with Sierra Club Foundation and the local management committee on land, trails, and sanitation management within the Mt. Shasta Wilderness.

Legacy for Future Generations

It has been 50 years since Congress passed the Wilderness Act.  In this time, nearly 110 million acres of public land has been designated as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.  As a society, we had the vision to protect some very magnificent landscapes for no reason other than their wild character.  This is a profound legacy.  Will we, as a society, continue to protect this legacy for future generations?

-- By the Sierra Club Foundation and Mt. Shasta U.S. Forest Service 

Originally published in the Visit Siskiyou Playlander 

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