SPECIAL FEATURE: Wilderness, Our Enduring American Legacy -- The Wilderness Act turns 50

Who can say what the John Muir Wilderness in California would be like today had it not been for the Wilderness Act? Top photo and hiker photo below by Elias Butler.

Special feature:

Wilderness: Our enduring American legacy

The Wilderness Act turns 50

Americans passed the Wilderness Act on Sept. 3, 1964 to forever protect our most awe-inspiring wild places and their many human stories. 

Passage of this bedrock conservation act was a long, hard-fought struggle that eventually paid off with a new wilderness protection system that has grown to include nearly 110 million acres of premiere wildlands from coast to coast.  

But as we reflect on the Act's achievements 50 years later, we know there is still more to do. 

Wilderness protection is more relevant than ever.

As we face a changing world, our approach to protecting wild places must also grow and evolve. Looking back on the remarkable achievement of The Wilderness Act, we also need to look forward. To do so during this 50th anniversary year, The Wilderness Society has released a celebratory publication Wilderness: Our Enduring American Legacy.

Wilderness: Our Enduring American Legacy looks at the history behind the Act, the wilderness system today, how the wilderness experience is changing, and what landscapes Americans want to protect in the face of today's threats. 

We invite you to explore highlights of the publication below, or thumb through the full version here


"As we face a changing world and a changing climate, our approach to protecting places must also evolve. We cannot simply work to protect isolated acres of wilderness. We must connect wild places to larger natural systems that can be resilient in the face of climate change and allow nature to adapt and thrive."

- Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society



Fifty years ago a system of protected wilderness was born

On Sept. 3, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. A total of 9.1 million acres of unspoiled wilderness forest lands were immediately placed into the new system as "designated wilderness" areas, including such renowned beauties as California's Ansel Adams Wilderness and Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness. 

At last, the Wilderness Act created a way for Americans to permanently protect beloved wild places. This wilderness network provides these lands with the highest level of protection afforded by the federal government.  

President Johnson signs The Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3. Photo by Cecil Stoughton via LBJ Library.

Wilderness Society Executive Director Howard Zahniser was a leader in advancing the Wilderness Act. Not only was he the primary author of the Act, but Zahniser helped steer it through 18 hearings and 66 drafts before it finally passed the Senate 73-12 and the House by a near unanimous 374-1 margin. 

Audio: Listen to President Johnson's original speech from the White House rose garden upon passage of The Wilderness Act:


Reflections on 1964

Representative John D. Dingell (D-Michigan), a House author of the Wilderness Act

"President Kennedy called it 'one of the most significant conservation landmarks of recent years.' During the House debate on the Act, I said it would stand out through the years as one of the most far-reaching and significant conservation measures enacted by the Congress in the 20th Century. The truth in President Kennedy's and my words is manifest in the approximately 110 million acres - including nearly 260,000 acres in my home state of Michigan - that have been designated as wilderness areas since 1964."





Wilderness designation: a new way for Americans to protect wild places

The Wilderness Act allows Americans to now work directly with Congress to nominate deserving lands into the National Wilderness Preservation System. Through the Act, the public can lobby Congress to protect favorite wild places that have unspoiled wilderness characteristics, as opposed to relying on administrative agencies alone to make conservation recommendations. 

The National Wilderness Preservation System was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. 

Eagletail Mountains Wilderness in Arizona is one of 758 wilderness units in the United States. Photo by BLM. 


Why America chose the Wilderness Act 

Backbone of the American spirit

Wilderness has always been part of the American national identity. In Colonial days, wilderness was the challenge by which Americans grew more self-reliant, carving out farms and communities to sustain our fledgling nation. During the Romantic period, authors, artists and poets seized on America's vast wild landscapes as a uniquely American asset.

Early conservationists forge the way

As settlement expanded across the continent wild places began to suffer. By the 1880s, 90% of our Eastern forests were gone. Early in the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt challenged citizens to protect our remaining wild places and today's modern conservation movement began to emerge. 

Given that wilderness has been an integral part of American heritage, our early conservation movement focused on protecting the nation's epic landscapes.

Many of the early visionaries for the wilderness were founders of The Wilderness Society. These visionaries included Aldo Leopold, who pushed for the establishment of roadless primitive areas on Forest Service lands, and Wilderness Society Executive Director Howard Zahniser who worked fiercely to persuade Congress to create the National Wilderness Preservation System. 

As the largest wilderness system in the world today, America’s National Wilderness Preservation System stands as an inspiration to many nations who seek to preserve their natural and cultural resources.

Painting above: Yosemite Valley Sunset by Albert Bierstadt

Founders of The Wilderness Society, including Aldo Leopold (third from left), were crucial to the advancement of The Wilderness Act in Congress. Photo via United State Forest Service, Region 5. 


The National Wilderness Preservation System Today  

Over the past 50 years, the wilderness system has grown into a diverse network of protected wildlands. It is nearly 110 million acres strong with 758 wilderness distinct units from Alaska to Florida. These special areas remain permanently safeguarded from development, helping Americans reconnect with the magic of our natural and cultural heritage.

Map: The National Wilderness System Today (click on the pins below to learn more about notable wilderness areas)


Wilderness in a changing world 

Since the enactment of The Wilderness Act, our country and the world have continued to change at a rapid pace. Changes unforeseen by the authors of the Wilderness Act - pressures like climate change and the onslaught of oil and gas leasing--combined with the emergence of a nature-starved generation--are all serious concerns. 

As environmental concerns continue to mount, it becomes more important than ever to maintain wild places. We must prioritize wilderness not only in today's context, but for what it will mean for our country and its people in the future. 

What we lose when wilderness disappears

A living classroom - Wilderness serves as a rich laboratory, allowing scientists and students to study nature. Reserving some lands where nature operates without direct human control gives scientists an array of baseline data to understand how climate change affects the natural world, for example.

Home for wildlife - As climate change impacts our world, expanding our wilderness system is an important strategy to maintain habitat for plants and animals. Wilderness helps sustain healthy populations of America's most revered species: Grizzlies, wolverines, trout, caribou, polar bears, wolves and more. 

Clean water - For many cities - including Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York, Denver and Seattle - wilderness areas protect vital watersheds that sustain drinking water. Designated National Forest wilderness areas alone generate 25% of the total supply of water from America's national forest lands. 

Healthy economies - Visits to Interior Department lands alone in 2011 supported more than 403,000 jobs and contributed 48.7 billion in economic activity for America. A 2012 study by the Outdoor Industry Association concluded that the outdoor recreation industry accounted for 6.1 million jobs nationally. 

Places to connect people to each other and the planet - Our wildlands are a playground for millions, but too many Americans - especially our youngest - are disconnected from the natural environment. The average American child spends more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen. Exposing our children to public lands can improve the health of America’s youth, helping to reverse trends in obesity and lack of connection to peers, family and schoolwork.

Top Photo: Ice Lakes Basin in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado by John Fielder. Middle photo: Teams of researchers in the Bob Marshall Wilderness study the resilience of forests protected by the Wilderness Act. Photo: Starrett Artists, LLC. Bottom photo: Young hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Photo: Neil Shader.



The next 50 years and beyond

As threats to the natural world mount, our approach to protecting wild places must also grow. Climate change and pressures of human development require that we connect wild places to larger natural systems so that wildlife and fauna have room to move and adapt to changing habitats. Many of the wilderness bills we're working to advance include this strategy. For example, we're working to protect lower elevation habitat on Montana's Rocky Mountain Front so that wildlife have connected lands between the prairie and mountain elevations.

To make wilderness relevant for the modern age, we also must empower local communities to safeguard areas close to home and connect American families to the great outdoors. We do this by working to protect places like the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, among other special areas, and supporting stewardship and other youth engagement on public lands.

Protecting the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana would help keep large American landscapes intact. Photo by Montana Wilderness Association. 

Today, public support for wilderness is strong

In fact, there are more than two dozen locally-crafted bills to protect wilderness before the House and Senate. These bills would protect places from the popular, mountainous, lush Alpine Lakes region of Washington to the rugged Coastal Islands of Maine. 

Yet, recently, Congress has turned its back on Americans who wish to see their favorite places protected. Despite popular local support, some wilderness bills have been stalled for years due to political partisanship and ideological disputes. 

Where are the places that could be protected if current wilderness bills pass? Check out the map below.


Map: Priority places still awaiting Congressional protection

Click here to view map in fullscreen


Idaho's Boulder White-Clouds is one of several spectacular areas Americans want Congress protect. Photo by Ed Cannady.

Stuck in Congress

Refusing to move many bills past committee and onto the floor for a vote, Congress has done little to advance proposed wilderness legislation like the Tennessee Wilderness Act and others featured on the map above.

Protecting wilderness has never been - and should never become - a partisan issue, yet congressional gridlock continues to hold up wilderness bills that have tremendous support from the public. 

As part of recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, The Wilderness Society is calling on Congress to protect these irreplaceable wildlands. 

Photo: Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest would see wilderness expansions if Congress would pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act. Photo by Bill Hodge.

Take action: It’s time to honor 50 years of protection for America’s wilderness the right way – and pass these bills!


Strong support from local communities

Current bills to protect wilderness areas are homegrown, enjoying strong local support.

"My family has been ranching here for 128 years and the Heritage Act will help protect the Front's wild lands and working landscapes for generations to come."

 - Karl Rappold in Dupuyer, Montana speaking about the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act


"The support for Columbine Hondo Wilderness represents a highly evolved process of community solidarity where people set aside political differences . . . the process has been a great joy to witness." 

- Roberta Salazar, wildlife biologist and Executive Director/Founder of Rivers and Birds in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, speaking about the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Act

"Simply put, the Boulder White-Clouds are way off the beaten path. As an outfitter on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, I backpack there often to get away from it all. I hope we can get this incredible area protected for many years to come."
- James Ellsworth, Owner of Middle Fork River Expeditions in Stanley, Idaho, speaking about the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act
"Wild places are an important source of wonder and inspiration in my life ... In this age of fast-paced communication, growth, and change in our society, I think that it is particularly important to preserve wilderness areas and encourage Americans to see, feel, touch, and play in the amazing natural resources that are our wild areas."
- Adina Scott (far right), member of Expedition Denali, the first African American team to set out to summit Denali. Photo by Hudson Henry


Wild for the future

Identifying lands for future protections

In addition to helping advance more than two dozen wilderness designation bills in Congress, The Wilderness Society is also working to ensure that other wildlands remain intact so that they may be enjoyed for future generations. This is important because once an area is drilled, mined, logged or otherwise fragmented, it is very hard to get that wild character back.

The lands we're working to preserve for future permanent protections include: 

Birthplace of Rivers, West Virginia - A proposed 122,000 acre national monument just four hours west of Washington, D.C. 

Photo: Birthplace of Rivers in West Virginia, by Samuel Taylor.

San Gabriel Mountains, California

Rising high above Los Angeles, the San Gabriel mountains are a source of clean water and "backyard" recreation opportunities for 15 million people in Southern California.


"I volunteer at a nature center at the base of the mountains, just 20 minutes from Los Angeles. It always surprises and saddens me that so many children I take on tours are seeing a little bit of nature here for the first time . . . If you could see the look on the faces of these kids. They always tell me they can't wait to come back."

- Brenda Kyle, San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy graduate, Duarte, California

Otero Mesa, New Mexico

Near the Texas border in southeast New Mexico, Otero Mesa is an expansive grassland that safeguards an archaeological treasure trove and important wildlife habitat. 

Dunoir, Francs Peak and Wood River in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming

As the nation's first national forest, the 2.4 million-acre Shoshone is part of the world-renowned Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Unfortunately, these roadless, wildlife-rich habitats are threatened by expanding off-road vehicle recreation.

Cibola National Forest, New Mexico

The Sky Islands of New Mexico's Cibola National Forest host more than 200 rare plants and animals and ancient American Indian artifacts. The forest and its cultural landscape is threatened by off-road vehicle incursions.


Wilderness in the next 50 years

Fifty years ago, the Wilderness Act affirmed that our wild places are worth saving. Looking ahead, we know that our need for wilderness areas, and all the benefits they provide, will remain strong.

Protected wilderness belongs to all of us and is a statement of American ideals. In the face of ongoing social and environmental change and human pressures on wild places, we must continue to fight for the lands that personify our American spirit.

Going strong since 1935, The Wilderness Society is poised to lead the charge in this next half century toward a goal of greater awareness, greater enjoyment, and more diverse appreciation for wilderness - from Capitol Hill to Times Square, main streets and side streets, and the range of local communities in between.

These lands are simply too wild to lose. 

 Photo: Little friends head into the Pine Mountain Wilderness in Arizona, by Kate Mackay

 Read the full publication below: 

Direct PDF Here

Wilderness: Our Enduring American Legacy