On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which immediately protected about 9 million acres of our country’s most beautiful and pristine landscapes from human development. This month we celebrated the 50th anniversary of this act, which now prevents motorized recreation, logging, mining, drilling, road building, off-road vehicle use and industrial structures in over 109 million acres of our wild areas. It is the strongest form of protection that has been put in place to ensure that the wonders of America’s natural environmental will be around for generations to come.
Definition of Wilderness
It took nearly 10 years and 66 drafts for the Wilderness Act to come to fruition, but it is known for its poetic and clear definition of what exactly wilderness is:
“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.”
Some of us go into the wild because it is an escape, a place to find solitude and quiet. Others seek it for adventure and the chance to challenge our limits. In either case, wilderness is where outdoorsy men and women head to feel alive. The ban on motorized vehicles is no great loss to true enthusiasts of these wild areas. Activities like hiking, backpacking, human-powered boating such as rafting and kayaking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding and skiing are just some of the activities wilderness areas are used and loved for.
But these areas are not only functional for recreation. They are also responsible for protecting and ensuring our water supplies, cleansing our air and combating the effects of global warming. They sustain the economies of local communities and tourism industries. Wilderness belongs to us, but it is also our responsibility to protect it—for our own good.
Our Protected Areas
Federally designated wilderness makes up just about 2 percent of the lower 48 states. If Alaska’s wilderness areas are also taken into consideration, that percentage increases to 5. Almost half of the 235 million acres of federal wild lands that include parks, forests, and historical areas are designated wilderness areas. Early lands protected by the act include the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming, the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, and the Ansel Adams Wilderness in California. There are over 750 wilderness areas and all states but 6 contain federally protected wildernesses. While land preservation still has a long way to go, this law revolutionized conservation efforts in the 2nd half of the last century.
As far as conservation and preservation have come in the last 50 years, there is still much to be done and the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act is a great time to ensure that it’s momentum is strong for another 50, 100, 150 years. Here are some acts, big and small, you can do to contribute.
Share your photos of your favorite federally designated wilderness with the wilderness society.
Volunteer at or attend the National Wilderness Conference in Albuquerque that will be held in October.
Attend an event and see how you can make a difference in your own state.
See the Smithsonian exhibit on the Act.