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for people who care about the West

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.


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.

Some of Cronon's arguments were easy to shrug off. What he attacked was sometimes a caricature of the wilderness idea: "the myth of the myth of wilderness," in Kenneth Brower's nice formulation. The drafters of the Wilderness Act were not innocent romantics; they debated many of these questions and wrote a law with considerable nuance. Few people I knew believed, as Cronon put it, "that wilderness can be the solution to our culture's problematic relationships with the nonhuman world."

But the historian's target was not really a law, a policy or a philosophy. It was, rather, an implicit attitude. In their focus on wilderness, he charged, advocates were prone to write off the rest of the land, the majority that can never be classed as wild. I recognized some truth in this, and it hurt.

Prompted by Cronon, I revisited one of movement's revered texts: Wallace Stegner's "Wilderness Letter" of 1960. Stegner painted a Dantean picture of a civilization that, if not stopped, would turn all its virgin forests into "comic books and plastic cigarette cases" (no mention of houses). So on through a list of horrors. It was wilderness or the "technological termite life" of urban civilization: Take your pick.

Cronon was right: This really would not do. If "wilderness or wasteland," as a long-ago brochure had it, is truly the choice, we are lost. We have to develop some middle ground.

As the debate smoldered, one kind of middle ground was being explored in the angle where Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico meet. The Malpai Borderlands Group, a rare alliance of ranchers, environmentalists and public-land managers, had set out to rehabilitate a long-suffering landscape. The effort made news when The Nature Conservancy, having bought a partly wild ranch in the area, resold it to ranchers instead of to government. This non-traditional choice raised some eyebrows, as did the title of the book about the Malpai experience, Nathan F. Sayre's Working Wilderness.

Wilderness? No – but a noble experiment that needs to be repeated. When a choice arises between wilderness status and a pattern of economic use that is gentle and intelligent, I may just find myself on the "anti-wilderness" side.

Even as wilderness advocates felt an intellectual chill, we faced increasing resistance in the real world.

In earlier years, proponents had held the high ground. We marshaled good crowds and good information; Congress leaned our way. But as our ambitions grew, well-funded mining, grazing, logging, drilling and land developer interests fought back harder against "lockups" of public land. While their claims about lost economic potential were typically inflated, they tapped into something quite genuine: the resentment of rural people at the know-it-all urban outsiders – people like me – who were writing prescriptions for ground the locals had long thought of as their own. The backlash took shape in the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s and, more powerfully, in the Wise Use movement of the 1990s. Politicians, especially in the Interior West, took note.

And wilderness designations slowed down. Almost 15 million acres in the Lower 48 were added in the 1980s; under 10 million in the 1990s; less than 5 million in the 2000s. Since 2010, only 32,000 acres have made it in.

In the 1990s, as congressional headwinds stiffened, conservationists welcomed the help of a friendly president.

It began in the Pacific Northwest, where the Forest Service was grappling with its duty under the Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife in the dwindling old-growth forests, particularly the northern spotted owl. The more scientists studied the owl, the more habitat it seemed to need. When the agency tried to retreat, environmentalists sued. Bill Clinton intervened personally to hammer out a solution.

The resulting Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 established a network of "late successional reserves," to be managed to preserve mixed-age forests, including many large old trees. These reserves were equal in extent to all the parks and wilderness areas in Oregon and Washington combined.

Then, in the administration's last days, Clinton finalized a policy that would have seemed chimerical a decade earlier: to preserve all the remaining roadless areas in the national forests, some 58 million acres in all. The "Clinton roadless rule" would face legal and political attacks, but weather them.

These new protections had their loopholes and ambiguities. Wilderness they were not. Yet they offered a shield to breathtaking amounts of wild land – and made the legislative slog seem slow indeed.

So what, in 2014, remains of the wilderness project as I first knew it: the patient effort to establish wilderness areas under the 1964 Act by working with agencies and lobbying Congress? The weak points are evident. The effort may be too modest to do much against ecological decline. It may drain energy from wider reform in the way we use the land. It may have worn out its welcome in an age of political polarization. Is the wilderness label now just a fetish? Is it time to de-emphasize the magic word and seek similar ends by a mixture of other means?

Sobered though I am by criticism and experience, I do not think so.

The current political constellation is not permanent. And, even under friendly presidents, executive action goes only so far.

Consider again the Kalmiopsis. On paper, the overlapping roadless areas and owl set-asides looked like a de facto expansion of the core wilderness. But after a major fire ran through the region in 2002, the Bush administration was able to break into the Clinton reserves for controversial salvage logging. A few miles away, mining interests, little impeded by the roadless rule, are contemplating massive operations. The Clinton designations have after all only bought time. Congressional action remains the ultimate validation, the decision that sticks.

As for the deeper criticisms by the conservation biologists and by Cronon & Co., they seem to me to converge on a single, simple truth: that wilderness status is a limited device, for which too much may have been claimed. I acknowledge this cheerfully, but see plenty left to treasure in wilderness as an idea and as a tool.

No, wilderness classification does not preserve some primeval, unchanging, ideal landscape. (Its more thoughtful advocates have never said it did.)

Wilderness – by itself – cannot save an integrated web of habitats.

Wilderness status is not the necessary fate for every piece of less-developed land.

Wilderness cannot solve the great problems, environmental or social, of our time.

In wildness is not the preservation of the world.

Yet wilderness areas continue to provide an irreplaceable kind of recreation.

They continue to look awfully good, compared to most other lands: hills without antennae, unbroken forest canopies, deserts un-scuffed by our incessant trafficking.

They continue to offer the surest possible protection, acre for acre, to watersheds and many plant and animal species.

They provide essential anchors or nodes in the habitat webs we know we must assemble.

And wilderness continues, among land uses, to provide a sort of safe harbor or region of calm. Admitting that these lands, too, may need some management, we know at least that here the goal is to do as little, not as much, as we can get away with doing.

The National Wilderness Preservation System now stands at nearly 110 million acres, some 5 percent of the area of the United States. Today's advocates think this can be doubled. If this goal seems a long way off at the moment, there are certainly plenty of gaps – the Kalmiopsis not least among them – that cry out for early filling.

And the movement has proved adaptable. The last important wilderness bill to pass, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, came out of behind-the-scenes conversations and compromises that recall the earlier days of wilderness campaigns. It took note of local concerns and strove to blunt local opposition. Carefully crafted measures like this can unlock some pretty stubborn doors.

So, on its golden anniversary: two cheers for the Wilderness Act. This season's rhetoric may be all too predictable and filled with platitudes, but as a galvanizing concept, and as a set of real places we honor with a special kind of care, wilderness will not be denied.

John Hart writes on public lands, resource policy and farmland protection. Titles include San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary; Storm Over Mono: The Mono Lake Battle and the California Water Future; and several guides to wilderness travel. He is based in San Rafael, California.