The Wilderness Society is celebrating a big anniversary in 2010: our 75th. Anniversaries are a great time to look back and gain perspective on just how far we have come — even as we look forward to a future bright with possibilities.
When I think about our eight founders — including conservation heroes Aldo Leopold and Robert Marshall — I am awestruck by the foresight they had in creating an organization like this. Try to imagine what America will look like in the year 2085, seventy-five years from today. Can you picture what the people in this country will need to live and to thrive? Fortunately for us, our founders could. They firmly believed we would always need some wilderness. And they were right.
When I was about 25 and hiked into my first wilderness area, the hushed splendor of Gee Creek in the Cherokee National Forest of eastern Tennessee, I never could have predicted that one day I would be leading the world’s premier public lands organization. It is both an honor and a very humbling experience to be its caretaker. I am thrilled to have the opportunity every day to promote the wilderness cause our founders pioneered, and that excitement seems to grow year by year.
Aldo Leopold was working for the U.S. Forest Service when he developed the idea of creating a special primitive area to forever preserve the maze of red canyons at the headwaters of the Gila River in New Mexico. Who could have known then that by 2010 the United States would boast a national wilderness preservation system with 756 distinct Wilderness areas covering 109 million acres from Alaska to the Florida Keys? And more additions are on the way.
Even as I write this note, there are 14 wilderness bills pending in Congress that would protect places as diverse as the California Desert, the alpine forests and lakes of Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds region, and the San Juan Mountains outside Telluride, Colorado.
It doesn’t stop there, however. Wilderness Society staff also are leading a bold initiative to tackle unemployment and climate change by restoring the forests, rivers, deserts and grasslands that native species need to adapt to a warming world. We are up on Capitol Hill pushing for more renewable energy sources — sited properly on the public lands. We also are out on the ground, defending wild places like Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, which is threatened by a proposal to drill for oil in grizzly bear habitat.
The current that runs from our earliest leaders to The Wilderness Society of the 21st century is deep and strong and continues to inspire us. Politics is a hyper-partisan game these days, but closed doors on Capitol Hill never stopped Howard Zahniser, our executive director in the 1950s, who wrote the original draft of the Wilderness Act and relentlessly championed its passage by Congress, redrafting the bill 66 times. It became law in 1964.
We are still as tenacious as Zahniser, still as focused on protecting the endangered backcountry as Leopold, and still as passionate as Bob Marshall, the consummate hiker and activist, who said he wanted “no straddlers” and let nothing slow him down. (Marshall also personally put up the first $1,000 to get The Wilderness Society started.)
It has been an amazing 75-year ride for this organization, and I am proud to say its impact has never been stronger or more far-reaching than now. The unwavering commitment of an expert staff and the visionary leadership of our Governing Council are the keys to our success (and make my job easy).
We owe the countless individuals who blazed the land conservation trail for us a profound debt of gratitude. We also owe all of you — everyone who has ever written a letter or sent an e-mail to a member of Congress, attended a public meeting, introduced a child to the wonders of nature, or provided moral and financial support to the cause — a heartfelt thank you. I look forward to many more years of protecting the wilderness together.
The Wilderness Society President Bill Meadows.
Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho. Courtesy USFS.
Signing of The Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964. President Johnson hands pen to Alice Zahniser with Mardy Murie looking on. Courtesy Wilderness.net.