The Wilderness Act Handbook: 40th Anniversary Edition

Thursday, April 1, 2004

With passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (P.L. 88-577; 16 USC 1131-1136), the United States charted a course new in the history of nations — to preserve some of the country's last remaining wild places in order to protect their natural processes and values from development. Today, thanks to the wisdom, foresight, and perseverance of many dedicated individuals, current and future generations will enjoy an enduring wilderness — in reality and in spirit.

The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System, now comprising more than 105 million acres and containing wild places from all regions of the country. These include the hauntingly beautiful vastness of Alaska's national wildlife refuges and national parks, the temperate zone "cathedral" forests of the Pacific Northwest, the Sierra Nevada (California's "Range of Light"), the alpine valleys and peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the solitude of the southwestern Sonoran deserts, the cypress swamps of the South, and tiny Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's coast, a sanctuary for migratory birds. Still largely missing are Great Basin, grassland, coastal, and certain Alaskan ecosystems.

Not only did the Wilderness Act establish a system of wilderness, it also put in place a process for expanding the system. In doing so, the Act made a fundamental change in how new wilderness areas were recommended and acted upon. Essentially, the Act shifted much of this responsibility from the federal land management agencies and put it into the hands of the American people and the legislative process. From 1964 on, rather than having to wait for land management agencies to make recommendations through a time-consuming administrative process, citizens could develop their own wilderness proposals and submit them directly to a member of Congress. This has had a profound impact on the history of wilderness in the United States.

Our enthusiasm for wilderness is steeped in nearly 70 years of proud history. The Wilderness Society was founded in 1935 by eight distinguished conservationists: Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Robert Sterling Yard, Benton MacKaye, Ernest Oberholtzer, Bernard Frank, Harvey Broome, and Harold Clinton Anderson. Soon to join the leadership ranks was Olaus Murie; later, Howard Zahniser took over as executive director. All shared a vision of systematic protection of this nation's special wild places, and all strove diligently throughout their lives to bring this vision to reality.

By 1955, Zahniser had grown disillusioned with piecemeal attempts at preservation. "Let us be done with a wilderness preservation program made up of a sequence of overlapping emergencies, threats, and defense campaigns," he said. He sat down and composed the first draft of what later became the Wilderness Act. Bills based on Zahniser's draft were introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 1956. Eight years later, after 18 hearings and some 66 versions of the bill, the Wilderness Act was passed. Unfortunately, Zahniser did not live to witness the historic occasion; he died a few months before the signing.

The Wilderness Society believes that the National Wilderness Preservation System should continue to grow. Most notably, there are more than 100 million acres in Alaska's national forests, parks, wildlife refuges and tens of millions of acres within the western heritage lands of the Bureau of Land Management that fully qualify, but have yet to either be reviewed by the agencies, or acted upon by Congress.

This handbook is designed as a reference for those working to protect what is left of wild America. It sets forth the relevant laws, regulations, and policies that govern the creation, expansion, and management of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Wilderness Act is printed in its entirety, along with interpretation and excerpts from and analysis of subsequent legislation that has influenced the designation or management of wilderness. This handbook also addresses important wilderness management issues. We hope the handbook proves to be a useful manual for those committed to maintaining the precious values of America's wildlands.