Wilderness Society Celebrates 75th Birthday

Jan 21, 2010

WASHINGTON, DC — Seventy-five years ago today, a group of visionary individuals founded The Wilderness Society, an organization whose sole purpose was to protect America’s wild heritage and all it embraced – rushing rivers, towering forests, deserts, biodiversity, scenic wonders and quiet solitude. Today, we are the nation’s leading public lands conservation group, employing innovative approaches to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places.

"There is just one hope for repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness," wrote Bob Marshall, a 34-year-old forester from New York and a principal founder of The Wilderness Society. Marshall was one of the first to propose that large expanses of Alaskan wilderness be set aside, and he shaped the U.S. Forest Service’s thinking on wilderness.

Among the other Wilderness Society founders whose vision and foresight would change the way the nation – and the world – viewed wilderness were Aldo Leopold, who espoused the revolutionary notion of a land ethic, and shaped wildlife management on national forest lands for decades; Robert Sterling Yard, whose prose about the national parks linked them forever to our national identity; and Benton MacKaye, the father of the Appalachian Trail.
“It was a radical idea to protect wilderness at a time when the country seemingly had so much of it,” said William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society. “But The Wilderness Society’s founders knew the richness of America’s publicly owned lands, and how vulnerable these places were to exploitation. The need was real then, and is even greater today.”

The Wilderness Society became the prime actor in pushing Congress to enact conservation-based policies for our public lands, including creation of the National Wilderness Preservation System and a legislative process for expanding this new system. Introduced in 1957, the Wilderness Act was rewritten 66 times by Wilderness Society Executive Secretary Howard Zahniser before it became law under President Johnson in 1964.

Today, The Wilderness Society is led by modern-day conservationists, among them Majora Carter, New York’s pioneer in greening urban centers; Dr. Jerry Franklin, father of “new forestry,” Amy Vedder, who founded Rwanda’s Mountain Gorilla Project; and writers William Cronon and T.A. Barron.

The National Wilderness Preservation System now includes 109 million acres. Formally designated wilderness is found in every state except for Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Rhode Island. Today, there are wilderness bills in development or actively moving through Congress in more than a dozen states, including the following:

  • California: Nearly 1.5 million acres of desert lands, including Native American cultural areas, historic trails and a portion of historic Route 66, would be protected by Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act. The act would also create two new National Monuments and expand Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks and the Mojave National Preserve.
  • Colorado: 61,000 acres of wilderness in the snow-capped San Juan Mountains outside of Telluride. We are also working to have our Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal introduced. It would protect 400,000 acres of scenic Rocky Mountain forests and meadows in central Colorado.
  • Idaho: A total of 300,000 acres of beautiful alpine forests and lakes in the Boulder-White Clouds region.
  • Montana: 670,000 acres of wilderness in Montana’s Rocky Mountains.
  • New Mexico: 259,000 acres of wilderness in the rugged Organ Mountains outside Las Cruces in Southern New Mexico and another 100,000 acres protected as a national conservation area. In the Northern part of the state, places like Ute Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge are up for protections.
  • Oregon: 25,000 acres of ancient forests and cascading waterfalls could get permanent protection in the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness Act.
  • Washington: A 22,000 acre expansion of the stunning Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area just outside Seattle in the northern Cascades.

Other bills may be introduced in 2010 in Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

Find more information about wilderness.