The Wilderness Act turns 50 today

High Country News coverage of the evolution of wilderness since 1970.


Fifty years ago today, on Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, officially setting aside 9.1 million acres “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Since then, Congress has designated more than 109 million acres of wilderness, and while the Act itself remains unchanged, the challenges it faces and the values it represents have evolved.  

High Country News has been covering that evolution for more than 40 years, through in-depth stories of the people, politics and places behind the wilderness movement. This week, take a trip through our archives for a deeper understanding of the law that's preserved some of the most wild places in the West. Here are a few highlights:

Early optimism (1969-1980):

Working out the kinks (1981-1999):

Modern challenges (2000-present):

  • The mirage of pristine wilderness: Former wilderness purist Emma Marris comes to terms with the fact that climate change, pollution and the movement of species have left no inch of land truly free from human influence.
  • Wilderness bills languish in legislative limbo: The inept 112th Congress, which is the first in 50 years to not designate a single acre of wilderness, and the political landscape that stymies new designations.
  • On the Wilderness Act's 50th, a backpack into the Weminuche: Jonathan Thompson marks the 50th birthday of the Wilderness Act with a backpacking trip, replete with a half-naked dance and a broken fishing pole. “One of the funny things about Wilderness," he writes, "is that as much opposition as there is to designating new areas, you rarely hear people express regret about already-established areas.”

Peruse more of HCN’s wilderness coverage or browse the newly digitized archives.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. 


High Country News Classifieds