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Fifty Years of the Wilderness Act

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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).

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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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