In honor of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Johnson 50 years ago on September 3rd, a new publication from The Wilderness Society celebrates the role of wilderness in shaping national character, highlights the significance of wilderness to today’s diverse America and calls on Congress to take up its gavel to protect more wild places for future generations.
“Changes unforeseen by the authors of the Wilderness Act five decades ago — pressures like climate change and the onslaught of oil and gas leasing, combined with the emergence of a nature-starved generation — make the resource of wilderness even more essential to our nation’s future,” the publication states. It explores the historic, scientific and economic values of wild places, including testimonies of local citizens who are advocating for the designation of new wilderness areas.
“The Wilderness Act was a defining moment for our nation and had a profound effect on the future of land conservation here and around the globe,” says Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. “It was a groundbreaking law that not only acknowledged the rapid changes happening to our wild landscapes 50 years ago, but it empowered Americans to protect those places for the future. We’re telling that powerful story, and it belongs to all of us.”
Americans Want Congress to Protect More Wild Places
When it was pending in Congress, President Kennedy called the legislation a “significant conservation landmark.” In 1964, the Wilderness Act passed in the Senate by a vote of 73 to 12 and it sailed through the House of Representatives with a vote of 371 to 1— with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Today, more than two dozen locally-crafted, home-grown bills to protect new wilderness areas are still pending before the House and Senate; many have been stalled on Capitol Hill for years due to political partisanship and ideological disputes.
To honor the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, The Wilderness Society is calling on Congress to renew its commitment to protecting wilderness by passing legislation to protect our wild legacy. The report highlights Hermosa Creek in Colorado, Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, and Maine’s Coastal Islands among other priority areas.
Reflecting on his time in Congress for The Wilderness Society’s publication, Representative John D. Dingell from Michigan writes: “Despite the Act’s success, we still confront concerted efforts to weaken citizen opportunities to advocate for wild places, which provide economic and recreational benefits to communities and states all across the country.”
Dingell is one of the congressional authors of the Wilderness Act and is the last sitting member of Congress to have voted for the Act.
A Changing America Needs Wilderness
Wilderness: Our Enduring American Legacy addresses the role and context for wilderness in our history and our current lives—reconnecting Americans with the healthy benefits of quiet outdoor recreation, for preservation of essential habitat for wildlife and for critical scientific research in an era of a climate change.
Wilderness safeguards vital watersheds that sustain the supply of clean drinking water to many cities and towns throughout the U.S., including Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix and Seattle.
Visits to the 758 areas of the National Wilderness Preservation System – including popular destinations like Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in the west and the Shenandoah National Park Wilderness in the east – contribute to the nation’s $646 billion outdoor recreation economy, which supports more than six million jobs across the country.
As a law, the Wilderness Act has been wildly successful, protecting nearly 110 million acres of treasured landscapes, from Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota to Marjory Stoneman Douglass Wilderness in Florida’s Everglades to Superstition Wilderness in Arizona.
“When people speak up for wild places, it’s not some flash-in-the-pan effort,” says Jeremy Garncarz, senior director of designations for The Wilderness Society. “These are longstanding locally-driven efforts by citizens to see permanent protection for the places they deeply cherish. The Wilderness Act gave them this gift 50 years ago, and we’re finding that privilege is more important to the American people today than ever before.”