Where the Wild Things Are: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of The Wilderness Act

Summary: Thanks to the Wilderness Act, nearly 110 million acres across the United States are forever protected in their naturally pristine state. This month, the Wilderness Act celebrates its 50th anniversary. Considered to be the highest degree of land protection,  “wilderness areas” demonstrate an enduring commitment to preserving our natural heritage.

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it. . . . Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”

–Lyndon B. Johnson, on signing the Wilderness Act (1964)


By Will Kirk

When I was in college I used to spend part of my summers leading backpacking trips for high school students on the Appalachian Trail. I worked at a summeKirk_American Wildernessr camp in Virginia where we took small groups up to the George Washington National Forest for hiking trips. It was a chance for groups to experience some time away from camp and grow deeper in their relationships with one another. For some kids, it was their very first hiking experience. I still have fond memories of crossing the Tye River and seeing the rugged, wooden sign announcing our arrival at the “Three Ridges Wilderness” area.

I didn’t think much of it at the time because I figured that it was fairly common for these signs to be posted throughout National Forests, especially along the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t until later that I learned how significant the area actually is: the Three Ridges section of the Appalachian Trail is protected by federal legislation to preserve the pristine beauty of the landscape—to stay permanently “wild.” In fact, the Three Ridges Wilderness is one of the 758 areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System that are protected by the Wilderness Act.

The Wilderness Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1131–1136, was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964. The Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and immediately set aside 9.1 million acres in 13 states as part of 54 wilderness areas. In addition, the Act created a way for America to protect and preserve the irreplaceable wilderness of this country. To date, there are now 109,511,038 acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico.

To put things in perspective, the National Park System includes 84 million acres and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) supervises about 247 million acres. However, these figures include significant crossover with federally designated wilderness areas. Across the country, four different federal agencies are entrusted with managing America’s wilderness areas: the National Park Service, BLM, U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One of the signature features of the Wilderness Act is the very definition of “wilderness”: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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.” This legendary definition was drafted by Howard Zahnisier of the The Wilderness Society, who worked tirelessly for almost a decade to guide the passage of the Wilderness Act.

The most recent addition to the NWPS came in March of this year, when Congress designated Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan as a wilderness area. Roughly 32,500 acres in size, this latest designation broke the 5-year drought of Congressional inaction.  Before 2009, every Congress since 1964 had designated a Wilderness Area.

Looking back on the last 50 years, we have slowly begun conserving the very natural splendor that makes this country so special. Indeed, the history of our nation is inextricably linked with the wilderness that America provides. While our natural heritage once fueled the engines of growth and industry,  it is now rejuvenating the people by providing a cure for the “nature-deficit disorder” that plagues this country. Unlike other disorders, we know the cure; we just have to convince the afflicted to take the medicine. And America’s wilderness certainly provides the potent vis medicatrix naturae.

Kirk_American Wilderness_VTAs we reflect on what has happened in the last 50 years, it is appropriate to consider what the next 50 years will bring for the Wilderness Act. In 50 years, which parts of this country will remain pristine, unspoiled, and “untrammeled by man”? It’s possible that the next frontier of wilderness is found beyond our coastline. In the last fifteen years, ocean and marine reserves have increasingly been tapped as National Monuments by executive action. Perhaps, wilderness designation will be the next step for some of the many square miles of ocean area currently protected by the Antiquities Act. After all, there’s probably no better area than ocean reserves that fit the wilderness definition of being an area “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

So now is when I ask the inevitable question: How will YOU celebrate the 50th anniversary of this landmark conservation bill? As you might expect, I would suggest that you, at the very least, spend time with friends and family in the great outdoors. This month in particular, during the transition from the brutal heat of summer to the bitter cold of winter, provides the perfect conditions to experience the beauty of pristine landscapes. In honor of this important milestone, it is perfectly reasonable to “go wild.”

“Wilderness” has been described by some as the land that was and the land that is. Now, thanks to the protections of the Wilderness Act, it is the land that will be.

To discover more about the Wilderness Act, including pictures of some of America’s most beautiful places, please visit wilderness.org. And, to see a fantastic interactive map to help you locate the Wilderness Area that is closest to you, you can visit wilderness.net.

WillKirk_1006Will Kirk is a third-year Juris Doctor student at Vermont Law School and a Managing Editor on the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law. Prior to law school, he earned a B.A. in History from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. A proud Southerner, he is passionate about conserving our natural lands while encouraging our youth to develop a meaningful connection with the natural world. This semester he is working for the Branan Law Firm in Hillsborough, North Carolina.