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Fifty Years of the Wilderness Act


Fifty years ago today, Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act of 1964. This groundbreaking legislation promised a legislative solution to the problem of saving the nation’s most beautiful lands from industrial development, roads, and other intrusive human activities. The law defined wilderness “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.” This legislation led to the creation of over 109 million acres of wilderness in the last fifty years, slightly over half in Alaska, with California, Idaho, Arizona, and Washington the next states with the most wilderness. Today, about 5 percent of the United States is a wilderness area.

The Wilderness Act had support from many circles, but the leader of it was The Wilderness Society, led by the tireless Howard Zahniser. Zahniser, unlike many of the early advocates of wilderness was not a self-designated manly man but an intellectual not in particularly great physical shape who loved the beauty of the United States, a man seemingly fitting to lead a movement that would attract a lot more dayhikers than people with the money, time, and inclination to spend weeks in the distant corners of the country.

Leading the opposition to wilderness legislation was the United States Forest Service, which saw the designations as undermining its goal to cut every tree in the forest, and western lawmakers like Colorado’s Wayne Aspinall, who saw it as a threat to the development of their states. Yet through a decade of political organizing and compromise and failure to pass earlier versions of the legislation, not to mention a rapidly changing nation that year by year was more in tune to environmental reforms, the act finally passed with only one dissenting vote in Congress. And that’s not because LBJ gave a speech or used his powers of persuasion.

As the historian Nancy Unger writes, this truly was remarkable given the developmentalist ideology that was unchallenged in the United States for most of its history. Today, many Americans tsk-tsk at the developing world for their environmental polices that include the Chinese killing basically ever mammal in Asia and Brazil turning its rain forest into cattle plantation. This was the United States before 1960. Despite the early conservationists and a few national parks, total and complete development is what defined America from its beginning. Yet by 1964, this had begun to change, in no small part because of the economic boom of the postwar period that gave the American working class the chance to play in nature for the first time, thanks to union contracts that gave them higher wages and shorter hours. Unions started lobbying for the recreational interests of their members and many supported the Wilderness Act. This was almost a blip in time, one that ended with the 1973 recession and the decline of industrial jobs in this nation, but it’s an important precedent.

The law has some weaknesses. Allowing horses into the wilderness areas was a terrible idea and as anyone who has hiked along trails popular with the horse riders knows, it gets pretty unpleasant, unless you came to the wilderness to step in horse manure and hike in an eroded, gullied trail thanks to horse traffic. You also run into situations like today where you have fireeaters in one political party determined to stop all environmental legislation in principle. This was fairly unimaginable in 1964, when there were lots of conservative Republicans happy to not only vote for environmental legislation, but to spearhead it. Some of the law’s weaknesses and compromise never fulfilled the fears of wilderness advocates. For instance, the legislation had exemptions to mining operations with preexisting claims in the wilderness areas, but the big mining companies backed away in the face of widespread opposition to butchering what rapidly became seen by the general public as sacred spaces. John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid has a good section on the threat of copper mining in one of the wilderness areas of northern Washington. It’s also worth noting that the language about land untrammeled by man is not only vague but quite value-laden and undermines the possibility of rejuvenating land damaged by timber, mining, and agricultural production back into wilderness.

Today, it does feel that the importance of wilderness to environmentalism has faded significantly. That does not mean that there aren’t vigorous supporters of wilderness; in fact there are across the West especially and they often make a huge difference in individual struggles. But, and perhaps this is a good thing, the popular notion of environmentalism does seem to have moved toward climate change and food activism. I think the two are closely connected. Climate change is the greatest challenge the human race faces and we are failing miserably to do anything about it. It’s so big and depressing that I think a lot of environmentally minded people, and I am primarily talking about the young people I have taught over the past several years, have moved into food activism because it is something they can control on a personal level. The other area of interest for a lot of young people is environmental justice, writ large, which is a major shift away from the concerns of land preservation that dominated the young people of my generation and the generation before.

Still, the impact of the Wilderness Act can not be overstated. As someone who just recently went hiking in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, I can’t state how glorious these gems are. We should all remember how important it is to protect these beautiful spaces, even if we don’t always get to visit them (or even want to).


There are still new proposals for wilderness today and they deserve our support.

By coincidence, I visited Howard Zahniser’s grave the other day. It’s on the banks of the Allegheny River in Tionesta, Pennsylvania. A beautiful spot. Zahniser had a heart problem and died just a few months before the Wilderness Act finally passed. Sad that he didn’t live to see its passage.


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  • brugroffil

    Backpacker magazine has several features on wilderness areas this month, including some gorgeous shots in Three Sisters Wilderness.

    I’ve got some life-list goals of hiking the John Muir Trail, which passes through some wilderness areas, and of going down the River of No Return through the Frank Church Wilderness.

  • Todd

    Especially important when considering the rate at which Latin America is culling its ancient woodlands. Seems likely that North America will have the largest percentage of actual forests in the world (compared to any other region) in the not too distant future. Good for us I guess, but overall terrible news.

  • DrDick

    I must say that dodging horse manure on the trails is not nearly as unsettling as the big old pile of bear poop in the middle of the trail. Also, mountain bikers are far harder on the trails (and hikers) than the horses.

    • Mountain bikers can be pretty tough on a trail, especially if it wasn’t built with mountain biking in mind. Here in Wisconsin, we are pretty good at getting mountain bikers to maintain the trails with annual trail maintenance days, so they don’t get too degraded. I don’t know how well that works in other parts of the country.

      • Johnnie

        Pay your trail fees and volunteer when you can. It’s good manners.

    • Mike Lommler

      The Wilderness Act, however, has generally been interpreted to forbid the use of bicycles in designated wilderness areas.

      • DrDick

        That is true (we have a lot of wilderness here in western Montana). I hike a lot in the national forests around here and have never had a problem with the horses, and we have a lot of people riding on the trails here. I was just taking a poke at Erik.

    • tsam

      I’ll take 1000 horses over one of those fucking abominable ATVs or snowmobiles. The users of those pieces of redneck shit should be force fed the disassembled pieces of every last one of those noisy, destructive, irritating goddamn things.

      I feel rather strongly about those things being out in the woods where I’m trying to have some time away from noisy fucking motorcycles and cars and city shit. At least horses are fairly quiet.

  • ribber

    Couple things: long ago I had a summer job working at a pack outfit in the northern Sierra Nevadas that brought horses and mule trains into the backcountry. Trail maintenance is often done by those outfits. When I worked there, we opened the trails, as in, I shoveled snow for 2 weeks in June, so that we and regular backpackers could get back there. (I know that sound unbelievable but it’s the Sierra Nevada.) We brought in supplies for the Forest Service personnel. Thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest trail could get their caches brought in by us. The complaint is that “ice chests” are a luxury item? Amplified speakers I would bet are far more likely to be carried by backpackers in the age of those MP3 wireless speakers. And there certainly were some bad outfitters who would set up camp and rotate people through, nominally de-camping one day when the two-week limit was up, but the place I worked at was a pretty responsible place that followed the spirit and the letter of the regs. There were a number of hikers who wore their disdain for the animals quite openly, but overall I think we were a good contributor to the enjoyment of that wilderness. Lastly, mountain bikes are specifically not allowed on all wilderness trails – pack outfits generally avoid where mountain biking is allowed because the bikes will spook the stock.

    • “. . . pack outfits generally avoid where mountain biking is allowed because the bikes will spook the stock.”

      That’s the truth. Plus, I’ve met more than a few mountain bikers who take perverse pleasure in spooking my horse, so I avoid any trail where I might meet them. As far as trail damage goes, I agree the mountain bikes are far worse than horses.

      I’m fortunate to have the Pecos Wilderness Area in my backyard. It’s not a spectacular one, but it’s very nice.

      • DrDick

        They do a pretty good job of spooking hikers as well. I have come close to being mowed down by several hurtling down the trails at high speeds.

  • djw

    How a status quo of: People who don’t pick up their dog’s crap, even if well off a walking path, are history’s greatest monsters whose failures to comply should be punished by norm and law, but horse crap, eh, who cares? can probably be rationally reconstructed but it’s a hell of a weird outcome.

    • ribber

      From someone who worked with horses in wilderness areas and the corrals in town, as strange as this may sound horse manure really isn’t that bad. It doesn’t get broken down as much as cow manure (no cud), so after 8 hours or so it looks & smells like old grass clippings.

      • The Dark Avenger

        I live on the east side of town, and sometimes horse riders will come around here and leave some reminders in their ‘wake’. I think the flies they attract are the worse thing about them.

      • Mike Lommler

        While I can agree that horse shit isn’t nearly as bad as cow shit (and I have ample experience with both) I don’t care to find either kind on the trail or in a backcountry campsite.

        • Lee Rudolph

          In my experience, neither is as bad as carnivore (e.g., dog) or omnivore (e.g., human, pig) shit. I don’t have experience with cow-shit in feed-lot conditions, and I am also excluding any kind of shit in quantities like those even a small dairy farm will produce if it’s stockpiling the shit anaerobically (which shouldn’t happen, but does); I’m talking about the shit I encounter on (non-mountain) trails, roads, sidewalks, and the like (so I’m also excluding the quantities that existed in pre-automotive city streets).

        • Marek

          Don’t mind the horse shit or the cow shit at all. (Not that you’re going to see a lot of cow shit on the trails.) (Typed “trials” instead of “trails” making the sentence false, initially!) Dog shit smells bad but is smaller and easier to clean up, plus, dogs! Who brings their pigs on a hike?

          In conclusion, yes to mammals, no to machinery on the trails.

          Would you like to know more about the onion on my belt?

  • JL

    But, and perhaps this is a good thing, the popular notion of environmentalism does seem to have moved toward climate change and food activism…The other area of interest for a lot of young people is environmental justice, writ large, which is a major shift away from the concerns of land preservation that dominated the young people of my generation and the generation before.

    It is perhaps a sign of my generation that I consider this a very good thing.

    I see a lot of the traditional wilderness defenders among the young people in EarthFirst, though. I’ve helped support a couple of their actions and it makes them feel very culturally strange to me. Not bad necessarily, just strange.

    • EarthFirst is definitely its own aesthetic, that’s for sure.

    • Linnaeus

      I think it’s a good thing for some more focus on the built environment, given that’s where people live and seem to make the most impact.

  • DonN

    Livestock grazing in wilderness areas is also horrible. I don’t know if the overall impact is as bad as horses but when I was doing woods work in the NW (back when I was one of the hated hippies) it sure seemed I ran across more areas being smushed by cattle than horses. I’ve certainly been thankful for all the beautiful areas I’ve been allowed to visit and hope my son has the same opportunity. And I’d never heard of Zahniser so I learned something, too.


    • Mike Lommler

      Cattle grazing in wilderness is an abomination, far as I’m concerned, and much worse than horses on trails.

    • Oh yeah, no question.

  • Johnnie

    The boarding school I attended sat directly across the Michigan-Wisconsin border from the Sylvania Wilderness. Two friends and I got lost there overnight, in April, while it was raining. I don’t think I’ve ever been that uncomfortable while trying to sleep, but it is amazingly beautiful. And we received a weird ‘in-school’ suspension that got me out of what I can assume was a horrible trip to the Dells.

  • gratuitous

    The Wilderness Act passed with only one dissenting vote? I believe the Supreme Court, as currently constituted, would regard that as evidence of the unfitness of the law. See, for example the unanimous or near-unanimous reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act down through the years raising the Supremes’ suspicions to a level where they had to strike down parts of that law to teach the citizens a good lesson about the value of considering and kowtowing to irresponsible opposing viewpoints.

  • KenB

    There were two main branches to the U.S. environmental movement. The Wilderness movement is often associated with Muir. The conservation movement became prominent during the Progressive Era. National Forest were established to ensure timber supply. Gifford Pinchot advanced the concept of multiple use. National forests were intended for recreation, water supply, wildlife habit, timber and mining. Pinchot believed that the resources of the national forest should benefit nearby communities. The wilderness ethic arose more from romantic rather then practical notions about man and nature.

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