Reflections on the Wilderness Act at 50

The concept may need some rethinking, but it's still an important way to preserve some of our most treasured land.

  • Greenstone Lake and North Peak, in the 20 Lakes Basin of the Hoover Wilderness.

    George Graves
  • Indigo Creek Bridge lies within a million-acre area of proposed wilderness that surrounds Oregon's Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

    Zachary Collier, Northwest Rafting Co., cc via Flickr
  • Silver Creek in the North Kalmiopsis, is eligible to be added to the Wild and Scenic River System, but remains unprotected and threatened by gold and nickel mines.

    Zachary Collier, Northwest Rafting Co., cc via Flickr

On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, America's great charter for roadless area preservation. Fifty years! Yet the celebrations now getting underway have an oddly defensive cast. There's a sense of pumping air into a movement gone a little flat, of re-selling an idea that has drifted out of fashion. As a wilderness supporter since 1970, I've been puzzling out why.

The story began for me, as for many, with a place: a specific piece of land that produced the click of commitment. Mine was a lake-strewn slope in the Sierra Nevada, where for the first time I stepped across the boundary of a designated wilderness area, the Hoover near Tioga Pass. I was startled to be so moved.

It wasn't that the land inside the boundary was different or more beautiful. My reaction was to the boundary itself, to the act of drawing it. I had grown up in a suburbanizing region near San Francisco; had also seen, on car camping trips, the explosion of roads and logging in those postwar years. I had vaguely assumed that all land, any land, was due to undergo some fairly violent change. The knowledge that there were places meant to be exempt from such change – exempted explicitly, as even the national parks were not – was a revelation. The thought that more such places could be shielded was electrifying. I became a wilderness activist overnight.

Wilderness. Then and now it was a word with a swarm of meanings, sometimes just a synonym for open space or undeveloped land. But in the Wilderness Act of 1964 it became something more definite: a zone by which defined blocks of federally owned land could be placed out of reach of road-building, logging and (eventually) mineral claims. A handful of wilderness areas, set aside earlier by the Forest Service, became the core of a national system to which only Congress, henceforward, could add.

When I visited the Hoover, the law was six years old. The Forest Service, as instructed, was studying specified areas to nominate (or not) for wilderness status. The Park Service was looking at parklands, the Fish and Wildlife Service at its refuges and ranges. The first two agencies were reluctant players, and progress was slow.

With what ardor I collected the reports that dribbled out! The one for California's San Rafael, a rugged headwaters region up back of Santa Barbara, all chaparral and condors; the one for Sycamore Canyon, a glove-shaped erosion into the red rock of Arizona's Mogollon Rim; the one for the Flat Tops, a meadowy plateau in Colorado. I read the booklets, imagined the landscapes, wrote letters. I started a card file of wilderness areas, present and potential, and drank a toast every time a candidate received the congressional blessing.

Going on research field trips with the Sierra Club, I came to focus on two regions: the Klamath Mountains, astride the California-Oregon border, and the Great Basin, centered on the state of Nevada. I tramped and scrambled and took notes in places like the very dry Grant Range, southwest of Ely, Nevada, and the very wet Kalmiopsis country in southwest Oregon.

Deciding rather soon that I could best contribute as a writer, I produced guidebooks to these regions. And I wrote the Sierra Club's entry in the how-to-backpack field, Walking Softly in the Wilderness, the first such book to suggest low-impact practices throughout. It was the era of the backpacking boom – it seemed likely to last forever – and there was an earnest worry about wilderness areas being "loved to death." (Though I'm a little sheepish about some of the things I said in that first edition, I stand by the advice I gave in the fourth.)

The later 1970s saw an abrupt expansion of wilderness horizons, as first the Forest Service and then the Bureau of Land Management (brought under the Wilderness Act in 1976) began inventorying areas not selected for study in the original law. It turned out that there was vastly more roadless land – and potential wilderness – than the authors of the act had dreamed: much more, too, than the agencies had any thought to recommend to Congress.

This inflation was both exhilarating and taxing. The national organizations struggled to work on a new scale; I abandoned my bulging card file. And while I still celebrated each new designation, I became ever more aware of the areas left out, many of which were being roaded, logged and otherwise disqualified as fast as the agencies could move.

This was surely true of my Oregon favorite, the Kalmiopsis. Here, a small pre-1964 wilderness area lay in the middle of a vast roadless sweep of the Klamath Mountains, a swirl of serpentine plateaus and fir-forested ridges dissected by some of the nation's wildest rivers. Generous rain, low elevation, and diverse geology made the region a garden of rare and endemic plants. The same factors worked against its protection: The woods promised old-growth timber; the serpentine plateau, marketable minerals. In 1978, Congress passed a disappointingly modest Kalmiopsis boundary expansion. The debate about roadless lands outside that line has continued ever since.

Despite such omissions and setbacks, the wilderness movement in 1989 could look back at an amazing 25 years. The system had grown from 9 million to 92 million acres, a tenfold increase. Over half of that growth had come in one huge gulp, the Alaska National Interest Lands Act of 1980; but even in the Lower 48, wilderness had quadrupled. Despite agency resistance and shifting politics, the cause was popular and bipartisan. President George H. W. Bush proclaimed a National Wilderness Week.

The next 25 years would be different.

Radical environmentalists would dismiss the wilderness project as far too timid. Deconstructionist academics would stamp it as intellectually suspect, even harmful to the broad environmental cause. Meanwhile, the reception in Congress would cool. Even the actions of a friendly president, to saving roadless areas by executive authority, would raise the question: Is the Wilderness Act itself obsolete?

I remember the mixture of excitement and skepticism I felt in 1991, when I came across the first issue of Wild Earth, the journal of the Wildlands Project. The contributors looked at the wilderness effort from a biological point of view – and found it sadly wanting.

In the 1980s, young biologists, drawing lessons from the fate of wildlife on oceanic islands, came to doubt the usefulness of parks and other scattered reserves in preventing species loss. "Isolation is death to the flora and fauna of wild areas," wrote Michael Soulé. What the new "conservation biology" demanded was a whole web of protected lands, including both wilderness and carefully managed buffer zones, spanning vast regions of the country (and indeed the world): corridors along which animals could move and plants shift their ranges. Veterans of the ultragreen group Earth First! latched on to this idea, and the Wildlands Project was born.

Suddenly, my old ideas seemed naive. Here was a vision of a wilderness system as system, not merely a collection of trophy areas. The incomplete Kalmiopsis Wilderness, for instance, gained significance as one of a constellation of areas inviting connection. But could such ambitions be realized?

The first testing ground was the Northern Rockies, from Yellowstone to Glacier. Maps of the region, already freckled with parks and wilderness areas, made it easy to imagine the kind of linkages the new doctrine sought. Political map-readers, though, shook their heads. The Sierra Club and others refused to back legislation doomed to veto by conservative congressional delegations. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, covering more than 11 million acres where grizzlies and eventually wolves could roam, was introduced in 1992. It went nowhere.

The Wildlands Project essentially asked us to step up an existing game. A more unsettling challenge surfaced in 1995, when noted historian William Cronon published his essay "The Trouble with Wilderness" in The New York Times Magazine.

Cronon started with the commonsensical observation that "wilderness," like its parent term "nature," is an idea – the construct of human minds in a particular human culture. He proceeded to deconstruct this concept, "the foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest."

Cronon and like-minded critics attacked the notion of "pristine" or "primeval" land as Edenic and unchanging. Even disregarding human impact, the notion of stable "climax" landscapes is ecologically dated. And human imprint goes way back. In places where Native Americans lived, the land became "unoccupied" only by force. Nor is any corner of the world shielded from the larger changes sweeping over it, of which global warming is only the most obvious. In response to these pressures, all land needs to be managed.

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