Virtually everything was wilderness just 500 years ago in this country we call America.
By the 1800s, progress had run rough-shod over the East and Lewis and Clark were sent out to explore the yet-undeveloped West.
By 1900, men with a sense for nature were seeing the coast-to-coast need for restraint in where plows, saws and steam engines were deployed.
President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service chief, sought to balance the reckless exploitation of the country’s limited natural resources with what they called a “conservation” movement.
In 1924, the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, championed by ecologist Aldo Leopold, was designated as America’s first official wilderness area.
Other wilderness or “primitive” areas were designated in following years but the actions were not permanent because they weren’t guaranteed by law. Forest Service administrators could overturn a wilderness label with a signature.
Bob Marshall, a forester and legendary hiker, founded The Wilderness Society to campaign for protecting portions of the country the way God designed them – as reservoirs for clean water, clean air, native plants and the fish and wildlife that depend on them.
“The craze is to build all the highways possible,” reads the first edition of the Wilderness Society’s newsletter in September 1935. “The fashion is to barber and manicure wild America as smartly as the modern girl. Our duty is clear.”
The idea of a law to protect wilderness started taking shape in 1947 and Congress passed The Wilderness Act in 1964 after countless debates about the pros and cons of “locking up” land.
Howard Zahniser, head of The Wilderness Society, had written 66 drafts of the law between 1956 and 1964 and steered it through 18 Congressional hearings.
The result was the most protective public land classification for the original 9.1 million acres in 54 areas where roads, motors and even mechanical equipment such as bikes and wheelbarrows are prohibited.
According to the text of the act, “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.”
The Selway-Bitterroot of Idaho and Montana, the Eagle Cap of Oregon and Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington were among the original 54 areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The Wilderness Act focused initially on national forest lands but specified that other federal lands, including portions of national parks and wildlife refuges, were to be considered for wilderness.”
The law has been tapped to protect landscapes as large as 13 million acres in Alaska to a 3,700-acre swamp in New Jersey that’s just 26 miles from Times Square.
Today, nearly 110 million acres in 758 areas have been designated wilderness, with a capital W.
“It’s one of the four or five most significant conservation achievements in our history,” said Doug Scott, a wilderness historian, activist and recipient of the John Muir Award, the Sierra Club’s highest honor.
In 1980, the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act added more than 56 million acres of wilderness to the system, the largest addition in a single year, while 1984 stands out as the year the most new wilderness areas were added.
The only president to scuttle a wilderness bill passed by Congress was Ronald Reagan, who let the Montana Wilderness Act of 1988 die with a pocket veto. Congress has not been able to agree on a Montana bill since then.
Millions of acres of roadless wild lands, including St. Joe River areas, remain candidates for wilderness but are protected only by administrative rules or their sheer remoteness.
Wilderness advocates are still looking for common ground with recreational and industrial groups that oppose more restrictions on public lands. Bulldozers are still on the job. In 2008, the Forest Service estimated that development was eliminating 6,000 acres of open space every day.
President George W. Bush was a supporter of most wilderness proposals during his terms. He signed bills creating 10 new wilderness areas totaling 2.5 million acres.
On the other hand, the Bush administration offered more than 40 million acres in the Rockies for oil and gas drilling and other extractive uses along with 70 million acres in the Alaskan Arctic, according to the Wilderness Society.
In Wyoming, a land area the size of Virginia was leased by the petroleum industry.
While development continues to be a force on the land equal to nature’s fires, floods and eruptions, wilderness itself can be loved into submission.
Lottery permit drawings regulate the high demand for floating the remote reaches of the Selway, Salmon and Snake rivers.
Limited permits also are required for backpackers with a longing to visit the scenic Enchantments area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness a couple hours east of Seattle.
The Three Sisters Wilderness – home to a trio of 10,000-foot volcanoes west of Bend, Oregon – becomes as busy as a shopping mall on sunny weekends at the most popular access points.
But portions of most wilderness areas are rarely visited. Even land managers are scarce. Idaho outfitters complain that trails in portions of Idaho’s 2.36-million acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness haven’t been maintained for years.
States continue to find consensus on wilderness areas within their borders, but stalemates in Washington, D.C. have prevented their approval in recent years.
Even with support from the state’s delegation of Republicans and Democrats, the Wild Sky Wilderness in the Cascades east of Seattle had a rough time becoming the first new federally designated wilderness in Washington since 1984. The bill that had been blocked twice by Republican leaders finally passed in 2008 and was signed by President Bush.
After five years of no wilderness action, Congress in March – as if to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act – designated Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as wilderness.
Some people will visit the wilderness, others will simply appreciate that it’s there.
Earth isn’t expanding in size, but the U.S. population is 314 million and growing. That’s up from 293 million 10 years ago when we were observing the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
Like a good parent, the law draws some boundaries that shouldn’t be violated for our own good and for future generations.
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