Next week, Americans across the country will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the country’s most effective conservation laws, the Wilderness Act. Signed by President Johnson on September 3, 1964, the Act was a historic achievement for federal public lands protection, marking the beginning of an era in which the American people are empowered by Congress to propose protection of special wild places, watersheds, wildlife habitat, and outstanding recreational opportunities like hunting, fishing, camping and hiking.
“The Wilderness Act gave voice to what is collectively America’s common ground,” says Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society, founded in 1935 to advocate for protection of America’s roadless wild places. “Protected lands and waters only enhance the lives of future generations. The Wilderness Society is here to carry the legacy of our founders forward, reminding our elected leaders that wild places are what help keep America strong, resilient, and economically secure.”
The law immediately set aside approximately nine million acres of U.S. national forests as wilderness, defining the highest level of protection, uses and enjoyment of these federal lands: “wilderness…is hereby recognized 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.” Today the National Wilderness Preservation System encompasses nearly 110 million acres of wild country and includes lands in national parks, wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management areas.
The Wilderness Society released an anniversary publication that outlines major benefits from wilderness designation—from protecting drinking water for major cities like Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles and New York, to helping drive $646 billion in economic growth for communities close to public lands, and providing a unique setting for the study of climate change.
Amidst one of the least productive and most partisan eras that Capitol Hill has ever seen, more than two dozen bipartisan, locally supported wilderness bills have been introduced and are awaiting action by Congress—bills to protect drinking water supplies in Colorado and Tennessee, premier wildlife habitat in Montana and Washington, and outstanding recreation destinations in Idaho and Maine. These measures are broadly supported by a variety of American voices, including veterans, business owners, cultural and religious leaders, sportsmen and women, timber companies, motorized users, and military groups.
To honor the Act, The Wilderness Society, Americorps and the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps launched a series of 50 service projects on public lands across the U.S.—Fifty for the 50th—to re-engage Americans with stewardship of these landscapes. Projects are occurring in urban settings like Candlestick Park in San Francisco and more remote places like the Superstition Wilderness in Arizona, Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming and the Shining Rock Wilderness in North Carolina.