Wilderness Act Turns 50

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.


Get Involved
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.

Learn more at wilderness.net, wilderness50th.org, and wilderness.org.