Celebrating 40 Years of Wilderness

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 1, 2004 (ENS) - Few Americans may realize that September 3, 1964 stands as a pivotal day in the history of the nation's wilderness. On that day President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which has been used to permanently protect the wild and natural character of more than 100 million acres of public land - an accomplishment a diverse group of individuals says is well worth celebrating.

The group Americans for Wilderness announced its formation on Wednesday with the stated mission to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and to celebrate and raise awareness about the country's wilderness legacy.

Cochaired by author Barbara Kingsolver and actors Robert Redford and Christopher Reeve, the group includes more than 100 famous architects, artists, chefs, sportsmen, scientists, writers, business and religious leaders, and former members of Congress and administration officials from both parties.

"We have a solemn duty to preserve wilderness for future generations," Reeve said. "They deserve to inherit a generous sample of the diversity of the original American earth that shaped our national history and character."

It was that sentiment that drove bipartisan support for the Act back in the early 1960s, former Maryland Republican Senator Charles Mathias told reporters Wednesday. gooselake

The Wilderness Act has helped preserve the natural splendor of areas like the Abasaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana. (Photo by Lisa Eidson courtesy wilderness.net)
"Forty years ago there was harmony in the Congress and conservatives and liberals teamed up to support the Wilderness Act," said Mathias, who helped steer the bill through Congress.

After eight years - and more than 60 rewrites - the Act passed the Senate by a vote of 72 to 13 in April 1963 and the House of Representatives by a vote of 373 to 1 in July 1964.

At the time the Act was being debated in the Congress there were "bulldozers and cement mixers ready to go to work," Mathias said.

"If the Act had not passed they would have gone to work and we would have lost that which could not have been repaired," he said. "This is a bipartisan effort that has succeeded - it is unique in its history and achievement."

The Act defined wilderness 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."

It set aside 9.1 million acres of federally protected wilderness in national forests and created the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The system was devised to safeguard designated areas of public land as wilderness for future generations.

The Act created a national mandate to identify additional areas within national forest, parks and wildlife refuges for protection - in 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act extended the mandate to lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). LBJ

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964. (Photo courtesy Sierra Nevada Wilderness Education Project)
Federal land management agencies are tasked with reviewing public lands for wilderness characteristics and recommending qualified lands to Congress for protection.

California's John Muir Wilderness, New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, Glacier Peak in Washington, and Idaho's Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness were among the first areas given protection under the Act.

Some 106 million acres across 44 states are now protected as wilderness - 56 percent of this total is in Alaska.

Many of these areas provide a wide variety of recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, climbing, camping and kayaking.

Citizens continue to push for wilderness protection, with legislation or proposals currently pending to preserve land in 20 states.

The new group plans to use the fame and talent of its members to highlight the importance of continued protection for wilderness areas and for a renewed commitment to the Wilderness Act.

Americans for Wilderness was formed through the work of two conservation organizations - the Campaign for America's Wilderness and The Wilderness Society.

The more than 100 members of the group include authors Bill Bryson and Kurt Vonnegut, musicians Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley, and architects I.M Pei and Maya Lin. Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford are honorary members.

The group's members will speak and write about the importance of the Act, their efforts culminating in a week of celebratory events in Washington D.C. over the 40th anniversary on September 3, 2004. johnmuir

John Muir Wilderness - the Act did not create additional public lands, rather it call for protecting areas deemed special enough to preserve for future generations. (Photo courtesy Forest Service)
"What we preserve is going to define us as a people and a society in perpetuity," Redford told reporters. "There are certain things that represent the best of our country and should be left alone as nature put them ... I do not want my children or theirs to learn about these places through film and old photographs."

The celebration of the Wilderness Act comes as conservationists continue to raise alarms about the Bush administration's stewardship of the country's natural resources and wild places, including its policies concerning wilderness and the Wilderness Act.

They contend that Bush administration policies tilt the balance away from conservation in favor of development.

Redford said the group is aware of the politics surrounding the debate, but is focused on celebrating why the Wilderness Act should be fully protected and enacted.

"The threats are really about commerce and money," Redford said. "We are not saying all of America should be set aside, but there are certain things out there that should not be touched. There is nothing wrong with leaving some areas just the way they are."

"Far too often, protection of unique and wild places becomes a political football between parties," he added. "Reflecting on this landmark measure should remind us that preserving our public lands can and should be a collective, bipartisan effort."

A complete list of the members can be found at http://www.wildernessforever.org.