30 years later, memories of bipartisan wilderness victories

The areas that were eventually combined to form New Mexico’s Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness were first protected under the San Juan Basin Wilderness Protection Act, passed in October 1984. 

Credit: Bob Wick (BLM), flickr.

October 1984 saw an extraordinary array of bipartisan wilderness bills passed by Congress, providing an object lesson in how modern-day lawmakers might do the same.

As we continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, Congress still isn’t living up to its duty to consider and conserve America’s wild heritage. Bills to protect spectacular areas from coast to coast are languishing in Washington, DC. Most of them enjoy strong local, bipartisan support—but are nonetheless mired in political gamesmanship.

Take action: tell Congress to protect land for future generations

It doesn’t have to be like this. This month marks the 30th anniversary of a time when lawmakers in our nation’s capital got things done in the name of conservation, no matter whether an “R” or “D” followed their names. October 1984 saw a slew of wilderness bills passed: eight pieces of legislation covering 10 states and newly protecting more than 1 million acres of land.

These included wild spots in states where little wilderness had previously been protected—and, in an illustration of the dysfunction we see now, some states where no wilderness has been protected in the 30 years since. Cosponsors and champions of these bills included legislators from both sides of the aisle, and all were signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

There are over 30 wilderness bills awaiting passage in this Congress before the end of the year, and those that don’t make it must start the process all over again in January.  Can’t we do better and learn from the bipartisan spirit of wilderness protection that has historically brought Americans together?

Read on to learn a little bit about these bills and the places they protected for future generations--and ask your representatives in DC to follow their example.

Arkansas Wilderness Act

Signed: 10/19/1984

Flatside Wilderness. Credit: Jonathan Ball, flickr.

The first of these bills was born in the late 1970s, when an Arkansas attorney and the local National Wildlife Federation affiliate teamed up to advocate for wilderness protection in the state. In 1983, Sens. David Pryor (D-AR)  and Dale Bumpers (D-AR) proposed the bill that would become the Arkansas Wilderness Act, and early in 1984, it gained co-sponsorship from a leader from across the aisle, Sen. John Tower (R-TX). The latter's role in championing the bill played a significant enough part in his legacy that it is chronicled in 65 documents collected in the library of central Texas’ Southwestern University. It passed the Senate by voice vote (meaning no individual votes were recorded), and Rep. Ed Bethune (R-AR) was instrumental in shepherding the House version to the finish line.

What it protected: nearly 95,000 acres of new wilderness area across eight parcels of land in the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests, increasing the state’s protected wilderness by nearly 150 percent. The largest of the newly designated spots were the Leatherwood, Hurricane Creek and Black Fork Mountain wilderness areas (the latter straddling the state line with Oklahoma). The bill helped secure woodland habitat for wildlife including black bears and white-tailed deer.

Mississippi National Forest Wilderness Act

Signed: 10/19/1984

Black Creek Wilderness. Credit: Justin Meissen, flickr.

The Mississippi National Forest Wilderness Act was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and in the House by Rep. Trent Lott (R-MS) and passed both chambers of Congress via voice vote.

What it protected: Though the bill designated just a little over 6,000 acres of land as new wilderness, the two sites were significant as the first onshore wilderness protected in Mississippi (Gulf Islands Wilderness, protected in 1978, consists of string of barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico). Black Creek Wilderness, the larger of the new pair, is intersected by the state’s only federal wild and scenic river and overlaps with a national recreation trail of the same name. The area is popular among hikers, hunters, anglers and boaters. The smaller Leaf Wilderness attracts hunters due to its deer and wild turkey populations. In all, the 1984 bill more than doubled Mississippi’s protected wilderness acreage.

Wyoming Wilderness Act

Signed: 10/30/1984

Jedediah Smith Wilderness. Credit: Robert, flickr.

Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-WY), a conservative stalwart whose approach to governing represented the state’s political bent in the 1980s, introduced the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. Later, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-WY) signed on as a cosponsor. Underscoring the bipartisan mood of wilderness conservation during the era, no less than former Vice President Dick Cheney, then a member of Congress, worked across the aisle with Democrats to help pass a companion bill through the House (he has since hailed it as a seminal piece of legislation). Conservationists in the state have asked whether modern fractured politics would make such a feat impossible today. Indeed, since the 1984 bill, no new wilderness has been protected in Wyoming.

What it protected: The Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984 added to the famed Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (which mostly lies in neighboring Montana) and several others, but it was more noteworthy for newly protecting 800,000 acres of wilderness (eight new areas) in Wyoming. The largest of the new wilderness areas was 317,874-acre Gros Ventre Wilderness, a striking stretch of Yellowstone ecosystem populated by iconic American species including elk, bighorn sheep, bison and mountain lions.

Virginia Wilderness Act

Signed: 10/30/1984

St. Mary’s Wilderness. Credit: Steven Brown via Wilderness.net.

The Virginia Wilderness Act of 1984 was sponsored by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), and picked up cosponsors from both parties before passing the House. The Senate version of the bill enjoyed sponsorship from Sens. John W. Warner (R-VA) and Paul S. Trible (R-VA), who said in a statement that it reflected “a delicate balance between the desire to preserve Virginia in its natural state and the need to promote economic growth." Indeed, in addition to protecting wilderness, it allowed certain other areas to be used for traditional uses as well as recreation.

What it protected: Prior to the passage of the bill, Virginia contained just two wilderness areas. With the stroke of President Reagan’s pen, there were 12, including Mountain Lake Wilderness (a portion of which lies in West Virginia) and Saint Mary’s Wilderness, in Jefferson and George Washington National Forest, respectively. These areas may be best known for their miles of hiking trails, which wind through mountainous, picturesque land only a few hours’ drive from several major cities. Virginia’s total wilderness acreage increased by about 70 percent with the passage of the bill.

Texas Wilderness Act

Signed: 10/30/1984

Little Lake Creek Wilderness. Credit: Adrian Delgado2012, flickr.

No wilderness has been protected in Texas since the Texas Wilderness Act of 1984, making this show of bipartisan conservation leadership all the more significant. Rep. John Bryant (D-TX) introduced the bill in the summer of 1983, picking up cosponsors from both parties (including fellow Texan Rep. Steve Bartlett (R-TX)). The Senate version of the bill was cosponsored on a bipartisan basis by Sens. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) and John G. Tower (R-TX).

What it protected: All but one of Texas’ six wilderness areas, including deer-rich Turkey Hill Wilderness and Upland Island Wilderness, the state’s second-largest, which is noted for its wide variety of plant life, including both longleaf pine and exotic flora like carnivorous pitcher plants.

Pennsylvania Wilderness Act

Signed: 10/30/1984

Hickory Creek Wilderness. Credit: The Cut, flickr.

Like Texas, Pennsylvania has not had any new wilderness protected since October 1984. In fact, the two areas protected under the Pennsylvania Wilderness Act of 1984 represent the only wilderness ever designated in the state. Rep. William Clinger Jr. (R-PA) introduced the bill and was able to shepherd it to passage through the House in under two months. The sponsor of the Senate version was Sen. H. John Heinz III (R-PA), for whom a popular national wildlife refuge was renamed posthumously.

What it protected: Allegheny Islands Wilderness and Hickory Creek Wilderness. The latter, the larger of the two, contains dense forest populated by bears, wild turkeys and other wildlife. Allegheny Islands, as its name suggests, consists of seven islands in the Allegheny River, the smallest covering only 10 acres. The Allegheny Islands are a good place to spot bald eagles, herons and other birds.

Tennessee Wilderness Act

Signed: 10/30/1984

Citico Creek Wilderness. Credit: Chris M Morris, flickr.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act of 1984 was first introduced in the House by Rep. John Duncan Sr. (R-TN) and gained sponsors from both parties. After passing the lower chamber, it made its way to the Senate, where it was sponsored by a bipartisan pair of legislators and eventually passed. Recently, the anniversary of the bill’s passage has buoyed support for protecting new wilderness in the state, a cause championed by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Bob Corker (R-TN).

What it protected: Three wilderness areas totaling some 28,000 acres in the scenic Cherokee National Forest, including Citico Creek Wilderness, the state’s largest (Cohutta Wilderness and Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, established in 1975, are larger, but the vast majority of their acreage is in neighboring states). The greater national forest land encompassing the 1984 wilderness areas contains 150 miles of the Appalachian Trail and hundreds of species of wild birds.

San Juan Basin Wilderness Protection Act

Signed: 10/30/1984

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. Credit: Bob Wick (BLM), flickr.

First introduced by Rep. Bill Richardson (D-NM), the San Juan Basin Wilderness Protection Act quickly passed both the House and Senate, becoming the first law to extend wilderness protection to New Mexico lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

What it protected: The bill established the Bisti and De-Na-Zin wilderness areas, which were later combined under the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act of 1996 as the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, one of the most striking and unusual preserved places anywhere in America. It is best known for its clusters of rocky “hoodoos,” which make it a hit among backpackers and landscape photographers.