Indian Peaks Wilderness (Colorado).
Photo by Mason Cummings.
On Sept 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson made conservation history with the signing of the Wilderness Act, laying the foundation for a network of unique protected lands that is as relevant as ever today. The bill was developed and passed with the direct support of The Wilderness Society and remains among the signature conservation achievements of the 20th century.
In the words of the bill's author, Howard Zahniser, the Wilderness Act established "for the first time in the history of the earth a program, a national policy, whereby areas of wilderness can be preserved." It enabled the American public to lobby their representatives to protect cherished wildlands at the highest level, as opposed to relying on administrative agencies alone to make those recommendations.
As Zahniser added, the Wilderness Act was "the charter of a program that can endure." Indeed, the National Wilderness Preservation System now contains 765 individual wilderness areas, totaling nearly 110 million acres from Alaska to Florida.
Wilderness Act remains relevant as new threats loom
While Americans love wilderness and other public lands, some anti-conservationists persist in undermining them by either blocking the designation of wilderness, trying to redefine it or limiting funding. This is nothing new.
California's Ansel Adams Wilderness was designated in 1964 using the framework established under the Wilderness Act, which was passed that same year. Photo by Mason Cummings.
But in the last couple of years, new threat have reared their heads. The Trump administration's "review" of national monument lands established under the Antiquities Act has put some of our most iconic public lands at risk of reduced protections. Meanwhile, fringe special interests are dragging us into legislative—and literal—skirmishes to try and seize public lands from the people, sometimes with the end goal of industrializing them or selling them off for profit.
Both the anti-monument effort and "land takeover" movement break with decades of tradition and threaten to make public lands into places that may be fenced off or otherwise closed to all but a select few. In an age when kids tend to spend less time outside, and many marginalized communities of color are likely to miss out on public lands, we can ill afford another obstacle to using this democratic resource.
The Wilderness Act established "for the first time in the history of the earth a program, a national policy, whereby areas of wilderness can be preserved."
In 2014, we celebrated the landmark 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act with a host of bipartisan wilderness and public lands bills passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. Prior to that breakthrough, many wilderness bills had languished amid political partisanship and rancor. It was a heartening sign that leaders are still able to pull together and honor America's wild legacy.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Wilderness Act into law in September 1964.
We need similar leadership today to bust through anti-conservation sentiment at the local and national level and keep Our Wild public. We must mobilize to keep #OurWild public for all.