The Wild, Wild East

Smokey Mountains, North Carolina. Courtesy of NPS.

This feature was first published in the 2008 Wilderness Magazine. To receive the annual magazine and quarterly newsletters from The Wilderness Society, become a member today!

Christopher Percy Collier is a Connecticut writer who has authored three regional guidebooks and has had stories published by National Geographic Traveler, Outside, and numerous other magazines.

By Christopher Percy Collier

"Just eyeball that map," says Doug Scott, author of The Enduring Wilderness. We’re examining a page on, which illustrates the dramatic difference between protected acreage in the East and the West.

95 percent of the 109 million acres in the National Wilderness Preservation System lie west of the Mississippi River. They include icons like the Bob Marshall (Montana), the River of No Return (Idaho), the Maroon Bells-Snowmass (Colorado), and Wrangell-St. Elias (Alaska, and the largest of all, at nine million acres). It stands to reason. Only federal land can be part of the Wilderness System, and most of it is in the wide-open Wild West.

Pelican in the Everglades. Courtesy of NPS.But much of the intellectual ferment that led to the birth of the wilderness movement occurred in the East. "You have only to look at the design of National Park Service shelters and buildings, an Adirondack vernacular, to realize how much of the wilderness idea began back East," says environmental author Bill McKibben. "John Muir had his crucial insights on the role of man in the universe somewhere in Florida during his 1,000-mile walk to the Gulf. It was Vermonter George Perkins Marsh who gave us our first systematic account of ecology."

Henry David Thoreau was another easterner who laid important groundwork. Wilderness Society founder Bob Marshall was a New Yorker. Northwestern Pennsylvania was home to Howard Zahniser, who became executive director of The Wilderness Society and drafted the Wilderness Act. The first land to be protected as wilderness was in New York’s Adirondacks. Thanks to the addition of the “Forever Wild” clause to the state constitution in 1894, one million acres (about one-sixth of the entire park) are protected as wilderness.

When Zahniser drafted the Wilderness Act, he provided for protection of lands within any of the four federal systems: national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and tracts overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). To qualify for the National Wilderness Preservation System, an area was supposed to be in a natural condition: no buildings, no roads. The act stated that, with some exceptions, a wilderness area should be at least 5,000 acres. Though this guideline is not always followed, it is occasionally used as ammunition against potential designations, notes Scott.

In 1975 Congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act. “It was very important,” says Fran Hunt, director of eastern national forest protection for The Wilderness Society. “During the first decade of the Wilderness System, the U.S. Forest Service was refusing to recommend wilderness status for places that had ever been logged or lived on. The 1975 law directed federal agencies not to automatically disqualify such areas from consideration.” Its passage increased the rate of wilderness protection in the East.

Great Blue Heron in the Everglades. Courtesy NPS.The largest in the East, by far, is the 1,296,000-acre Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness inside Everglades National Park. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota covers 1.1 million acres, while the Okefenokee, on the Georgia-Florida border, is 354,000 acres. Nothing else comes close.

“But size isn’t everything,” notes Michael Francis, director of The Wilderness Society’s national forest program. In the early 1980s he did the staff work for Republican Senator Robert Stafford of Vermont, who authored a bill creating four wilderness areas in that state’s Green Mountain National Forest. “Those four may be modest in size but provide plenty of quiet recreation opportunities and protect a lot of wildlife and clean water,” he points out.

Within 60 miles of New York City lies 1,363-acre Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, the only National Wilderness Preservation System area in the state. No developed campsites. Just the high dunes and scrub brush of a remote barrier island. Foxes roam the land; seals can be spotted in the surf. On the other side of the city, 25 miles from Times Square, is a 3,660-acre wilderness inside New Jersey’s Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Pennsylvania is home to the Allegheny Islands Wilderness, which consists of seven islands in the Allegheny River. In a canoe, visitors may float past these alluvial islands rife with willow, sycamore, and silver maple that together total only 368 acres. In Georgia lies the 36,977-acre Cohutta Wilderness. "It has two of the best mountain trout streams in the Southeast, the Conasauga and Jacks Creek," says Wayne Jenkins, executive director of Georgia Forest Watch. "It's just 60 miles from Atlanta, but you feel very cut off from civilization."

The chance to escape the hubbub of urban life is the most obvious benefit of wilderness designation. It is not the only one, however. That is abundantly clear to Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian senior associate for The Wilderness Society, living in the Little Tennessee watershed in Franklin, North Carolina. "The water quality in this watershed is good to excellent," he points out. "But if you were to put up something like a Wal-Mart in the headwaters, it would wreak havoc downstream." Land would be cleared. New roads would be created. The presence of more impervious surfaces would increase turbidity. Sediment in streams would choke fish and kill unique aquatic species that have been identified in local streams. Meanwhile, it would cost downstream taxpayers more to clean the water so that it was drinkable. "The environment completely changes if you lose the wilderness," says Martin.

Wilderness, especially if it contains forest, also helps combat climate change. “Trees draw carbon dioxide—the most common and problematic greenhouse gas—out of the atmosphere,” explains Scott, who is policy director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness.

The most recent eastern additions to the Wilderness System were in New Hampshire and Vermont. The New England Wilderness Act, passed in 2006, protected 23,000 acres in White Mountain National Forest and 42,000 acres in Green Mountain National Forest.

“We are very close to picking up wilderness in Virginia and West Virginia,” contends Melyssa Watson, director of the Wilderness Support Center. The center was established by The Wilderness Society in Durango, Colorado in 1999 to work with grassroots groups around the country to draw up and pass wilderness bills. One bill that Congress might act on this fall would designate 38,000 acres in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest. Another would protect 43,000 acres in Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest.

Smokey Mountains, North Caroline. Courtesy of NPS.In the congressional pipeline are measures that would save wilderness at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which lies along Lake Superior in Michigan, and in North Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. “We also are working on proposals to protect wildlands in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Maine,” says Watson. “In addition, preliminary studies are in progress in Canaan Valley and along the New River, both in West Virginia.”

Because the East is so densely populated, we need every acre of wilderness we can get,” says Hunt. “And the sooner we can protect what’s left, the less chance there is that it will be logged, drilled, or industrialized by some other activity. We need to carry the torch passed to us by Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, and all the other wilderness giants.”

Smokey Mountains, North Carolina. Courtesy of NPS.
Pelican in the Everglades. Courtesy of NPS.
Great Blue Heron in the Everglades. Courtesy of NPS.
Smokey Mountains in the Autumn, North Carolina. Courtesy of NPS.