Throwback Thursday: 1964, the birth of modern wilderness conservation

The signing of the Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3, 1964. 

Credit: Cecil Stoughton (LBJ Library)

On Sept 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson made conservation history with the signing of the Wilderness Act, laying the foundation for a network of unique protected lands we still cherish today.

With the stroke of the pen, President Johnson created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which then comprised a little over 9 million acres of irreplaceable Forest Service land. The first batch of federally-designated wilderness included gems like California's Ansel Adams Wilderness and Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness. This map shows the initial protected wilderness areas under the Wilderness Act, as reproduced in the Spring-Summer 1964 issue of The Wilderness Society’s magazine, The Living Wilderness (click to see larger version):

Note: Stars represent areas protected as wilderness under the law; other icons denote potential wilderness areas according to federal jurisdiction (trees=national forests; shields=national parks; geese=wildlife refuges).

Learn more about the Wilderness Act

Since then, our network of protected wilderness has grown to nearly 110 million acres, with units ranging from Alaska to Florida and including all but six states. In general, America has changed a lot in the last 50 years. In 1964, the Pontiac Tempest GTO, a red-hot muscle car of the day, got what was then “reasonable mileage” at 10-to-12.9 miles per gallon (modern hybrid cars get about 40-to-50); in 1964, a call from a payphone cost a dime (good lucking getting anyone under the age of 30 to identify a payphone now); in 1964, about 192 million people lived in the U.S. (now that number is more like 319 million); and in 1964, the Cleveland Browns were champions of the National Football League (the Browns are currently...well, 50 years removed from their most recent championship).

On a more serious note, 1964 saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act; the beginning of a "war on poverty" that helped lead to Medicare and Medicaid; and Martin Luther King, Jr., winning the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a time of transition--the beginning of a turbulent, epochal stretch in history from which few Americans would emerge unchanged.

But one thing has not changed: we still love our wild places, and seek them out for both recreation and quiet contemplation. Though recent years have seen Congress locked in a seemingly endless cycle of partisan disagreement, and all too often failing to act in the name of conservation despite public support, the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act should serve as a reminder of the value Americans still place on their natural heritage, and the need to protect it.

The Wilderness Society is celebrating this momentous day throughout the year, and we invite you to join us at events in your area. If you can't find an event near you, simply join us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to keep up with news, photos and fun from the 50th year of The Wilderness Act.

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