The Wilderness Society: 75 years of saving America’s wild heritage

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Seventy-five years ago today, a group of visionary individuals founded an organization whose sole purpose was to protect America’s wild heritage and all it embraced — rushing rivers, towering forests, vast deserts, scenic wonders, magnificent wildlife and quiet solitude. That organization was The Wilderness Society. Today, we are the nation’s leading public lands conservation group, using 21st century 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."

So 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 others whose vision and foresight would change the way the nation — and the world — viewed wilderness:

Woman and companion in Chattooga River flowing in Rock Gorge Roadless Area of Sumter National Forest. Photo by Butch Clay.It was a radical idea — protecting wilderness at a time when the country seemingly had so much of it. But the need was real then, and remains even more so today. The very notion of wilderness is a part of the American psyche. As Wallace Stegner wrote:

"Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…”

Wilderness Defined and Protected

Against daunting challenges, The Wilderness Society would rise to become the prime catalyst in Congress to enact conservation-based policies for our public lands, as well as to create the National Wilderness Preservation System and a legislative process for expanding this new wilderness system.

To do so, we galvanized people across the country to cherish the wilderness ideal — engaging teachers, writers, recreationists, sportsmen, business owners, lawmakers and others — all with a common goal to protect and care for our wild places.

By 1956, we had a draft bill to legislatively protect wilderness. Written by Wilderness Society Executive Secretary Howard Zahniser and introduced in 1957, the bill would be rewritten by him 66 times before it finally became law under President Johnson in 1964.

With passage of the act in 1964, America had a definition for wilderness:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
(from The Wilderness Act of 1964)

Maroon Bells in Colorado. Photo by Ann Morgan.America also now had a new National Wilderness Preservation System with 9 million acres of wilderness on public lands, including Maroon Bells-Snowmass in Colorado, Gila and Pecos in New Mexico, Superstition in Arizona and Teton in Wyoming — all to remain forever wild.

Amidst the clamoring protests from those who would dig up, cut down and despoil our lands forever, The Wilderness Society became a strong ally for local communities and conservation groups and a fervent advocate for land protection in the halls of Congress, in the courts, and within the federal agencies.

Shoulder to shoulder with people from all walks of life who value these special places, we persevered against long odds to win bruising battles to protect the California desert, the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, and national parks and wildlife refuges in Alaska, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We’ve won lasting protection for 756 wild places — 109 million acres — within our national parks, forests, refuges and BLM lands.

Our work has been enriched by the likes of Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day and our counselor for two decades; photographer Ansel Adams; and great writers such as Wallace Stegner, Terry Tempest Williams, and T.H. Watkins.

A Wilderness Society for the 21st Century

Today, The Wilderness Society is the largest, most effective public lands conservation group in the country.

We are led by modern-day conservation giants, 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.

Our work remains rooted in science and the land ethic, and our tools are firmly a part of the 21st century, including the latest in GIS technology, social media and internet strategies wielded to mobilize a network of more than 400,000 activists. We work with a diverse array of partners — local communities, ranchers, conservationists, sportsmen, and people of faith as well as federal agencies, business owners, and decision-makers — to achieve balanced solutions that address development needs while protecting these unique places now and for generations to come.

Our challenges are uniquely 21st century, as well. While some would rush headlong into development of public lands like the arctic coast of Alaska or the fragile desert landscapes of southern California, The Wilderness Society is helping the country manage the demand for renewable energy, economic recovery and answers to climate change through a practical, science-based approach.

The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah. Photo by Jason K. Bach.In a world that is growing increasingly disconnected from the great outdoors, we are inspiring Americans to reconnect with the joy and awe of wilderness.

Our work to protect the remaining unspoiled areas of American wilderness continues. Within the last decade, we’ve managed to keep development and logging out of nearly 58 million acres of unroaded forest lands and we’ve passed wilderness legislation protecting five million acres of public lands in more than 100 different areas. Among those new Wilderness areas are the stunning Owyhee Canyonlands in Idaho; portions of Zion National Park in Utah; Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California; and Colorado’s Dominguez Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park.

Today, we thank all of our partners and supporters. We are proud to remain the organization of spirited people that Bob Marshall envisioned 75 years ago. Join us!

We’d love to hear from you about your most memorable wilderness experiences or about work you’re doing to help protect America’s wild places.

Woman and companion in Chattooga River flowing in Rock Gorge Roadless Area of Sumter National Forest, South Carolina. Photo by Butch Clay.
Maroon Bells in Colorado. Photo by Ann Morgan.
The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah. Photo by Jason K. Bach.