Lisa Brady’s reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed into law on September 3, 1964, was originally published by the Idaho Humanities Council in its Winter 2014 newsletter. — Eds.
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This past summer, during one of the hottest periods of the long heat wave, I escaped Boise for a weekend to the mountains outside McCall. A friend has a cabin there and she suggested that we leave our phones, computers, and cares behind and spend a few days in the woods.
I love the outdoors, whether it’s the managed and semi-manicured Kathryn Albertson Park (where I saw a doe and two fawns the last time I visited that urban oasis) or the wilder, more rugged Sawtooths. So, when my friend came knocking with the opportunity to immerse myself in the lovely Payette National Forest, I quickly opened the door and walked out of the city and into the wild.
One of our hikes took us through stands of towering Ponderosa Pines, whispering and swaying with a gentle breeze. The pine-pitch scent was intoxicating. After about 10 minutes, the forest thinned and we stepped into one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It was a broad meadow, lushly green with thick patches of yellow, white and purple flowers. A small, clear stream meandered through, sheltered by a few copses of trees and bridged by a fallen log here and there. My friend and I sat on one of these natural benches, gazing into the gold-flecked water and listening to the calls of birds and the lonely scree of an eagle soaring through the blue skies.
To those who have never experienced the Idaho wilderness, such language may sound hyperbolic. But for those of us who have been blessed with the chance to visit many such places in our beautiful state, my description likely seems understated. My friend and I spent several hours in the meadow, ambling across its verdant expanse, picking our way through the marshy verges of the stream and trying (though not always succeeding) to avoid stepping in the numerous piles of manure. Yes — cattle manure. The meadow was not actually in the wilderness, but it was on its edge.
The meadow is remote, high up in the mountains. But despite its location and abundance of wildlife (cattle excepted), the meadow cannot technically be called wilderness. That designation is reserved for areas “where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” and where roads, motorized vehicles and other trappings of modern life are not allowed.
This definition of wilderness is remarkably new and hotly debated. It gained legal status on September 3, 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, setting aside over nine million acres of the public domain and protecting it from mining, logging and agricultural use. In the 50 years since, America’s wild lands have increased to over 100 million acres — a stunning victory in the eyes of some, a terrible waste of resources in the view of others.
Disagreements over wilderness, and over how it should be defined and managed, have a long and storied past in America. Historian Roderick Nash analyzed the complicated relationship Americans have had with wild nature in his now-classic book, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967). There he traced the evolution of wilderness from a fearful, dangerous place in need of conquest to an Edenic, threatened remnant of pristine nature requiring protection.
Nash’s history begins in Europe, with what he called the Old World roots of the wilderness concept, imported to the North American continent by Puritan settlers who viewed nature as antithetical to civilization and human progress. Later generations characterized nature as a storehouse of resources ripe for harvest, abundant without end. Both of these perceptions led to over-exploitation of forests, soils, and wildlife populations.
By the early 19th century, Nash suggested, Americans began to question the efficacy and morality of such approaches to the non-human world. He pointed to iconic figures such as Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), John Muir (1838-1914) and Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) to illustrate new ideas of wilderness based on the notion that, even more important than the raw materials it embodies, nature acts as a spiritual and physical antidote to industrialized, over-civilized life.
These two competing views of wilderness — antithesis and antidote — are at the root of the Wilderness Act. The Act states:
In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.
The Act’s language clearly aligns with the idea that wild nature provides both tangible and intangible benefits far beyond any material gains that might be had from harvesting its resources, even as it made special exceptions for certain uses contrary to its basic premise. Grazing, where it had already been established in National Forest areas, could continue in wilderness areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service under the oversight of the Secretary of Agriculture.
New and existing mining operations were allowed in wilderness areas through December 31, 1983, as long as they did not alter the “wilderness character” of the area. Motorboats and aircraft could be used in areas where they already were prior to September 3, 1964, and anywhere in the system if they were necessary to assess and combat threats from insects, fire, or diseases, “subject to such conditions as the Secretary deems desirable.” Where the intent of the Act presumes wilderness is an antidote, its exceptions reveal a continued tradition of seeing wild nature as an obstacle to civilization’s progress. Read Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S. C. 1131-1136), “The Wilderness Act.”
That it took nearly 10 years for wilderness protection to move from bill to Act reveals the deep-seated ambivalence Americans have toward nature. The bill, authored by Wilderness Society Executive Director Howard Zahniser, first came before Congress in 1956, but its origins go back another 20 years. Robert Marshall, a forester with the US Forest Service and founder of the Wilderness Society, began in the early 1930s a correspondence with Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes recommending that roads be prevented from carving up the undeveloped lands under Ickes’s management.
According to journalist Michael Frome, these messages “appear to be the first steps that ultimately led to the Wilderness Act.” Twenty years later, after the nation recovered from the Great Depression and the Second World War, Howard Zahniser took up Marshall’s call. He wrote several articles and opinion pieces on the need for wilderness protection beginning in 1951, but it was a speech he delivered in early 1955 calling for legal protection of wild areas that inspired the bill that became the Wilderness Act.
Democratic Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Republican Rep. John Saylor of Pennsylvania first introduced the bill in 1956, calling for the protection of wild areas already within the jurisdiction of several federal agencies, including areas within the national parks and monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and on Indian reservations. In 1964, Idaho Sen. Frank Church was the floor sponsor of the bill that would finally become the Wilderness Act.
Congress conducted 18 hearings on the bill between mid 1957 and May 1964. Much of the opposition to its passage came from natural resources industries, not because they did not support the idea of wilderness, but because they considered the amount of lands proposed for designation as too extensive and in the wrong places. Initially the Forest and Park Services also opposed the bill because they believed they would lose autonomy in managing their lands in the ways they deemed best for their mandates. See Frome’s Battle for the Wilderness. Eisenhower’s administration did not favor the bill, thus it took the election of John F. Kennedy, who made its passage part of his 1960 presidential campaign, to grease the legislative gears.
Further Wilderness Readings
A wilderness at 50 syllabus from the Idaho Humanities Council
Harvey, Mark, Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act
Marsh, Kevin, Drawing Lines in the Forest: Creating Wilderness Areas in the Pacific Northwest
Scott, Doug,The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage through the Wilderness Act
Nevertheless, it took another four years for the bill’s language to be agreed upon by both houses. Zahniser’s original text, which incorporated Marshall’s definition of wilderness, underwent important changes, including the extension for mining and a requirement that new wilderness areas be instituted through congressional authority rather than executive proclamation, but the basic premise remained.
In a remarkable show of bipartisanship, Congress passed the bill with a vote of 73-12 in the Senate and 373-1 in the House. Johnson signed the bill into law while sitting in the White House Rose Garden — not exactly a wilderness, but nevertheless symbolic of the nation’s affinity for and dedication to the preservation of nature.
Fifty years later, debate over the Act continues. Most opposition, again largely from industry, stems from concerns that the United States is needlessly limiting the development of resources that could enhance the nation’s economy and security. As in the Act’s infancy, those who disagree with the management and designation of wilderness areas aren’t uniformly against the idea of wilderness, but instead dislike the extent, location, and restrictions of it. However, some disapproval stems from unexpected places.
Twenty years ago, 30 years after passage of the Act, historian and environmentalist William Cronon suggested that there are few places on Earth that exist in a truly wild state and that wilderness as an idea has done more to stymie environmental progress than it has to promote it. Cronon was not arguing that nature does not exist, but that by separating ourselves from it, as the Wilderness Act explicitly does, we create a false dualism that in some ways allows us to abdicate our responsibilities toward the built and natural environments that surround us more immediately. By separating ourselves from wilderness – an ostensibly pure form of nature — we obscure, in Cronon’s words, “what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.” Read Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness.”
Cronon noted that wilderness has been used to dispossess indigenous peoples the world over, including Native Americans in the 19th century and Indian peasants in the 20th. He also argued that wilderness tends to promote the majestic over the humble, the iconic over the mundane, thus preserving landscapes deemed sublime and not those that appear less inspiring.
Thoreau’s original is “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” Wilderness is often mistakenly substituted for wildness, though in this case, it is intentional. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking.” First published in Atlantic Monthly (June 1862). I appreciate Cronon’s warning and I try to live my life mindful of my impact on the places where I work and live, but in the end, I think he’s wrong. Wilderness is not a distracting illusion; it is, to slightly misquote Thoreau, “the preservation of the world,” quite literally.
The existence of wilderness areas helps to mitigate biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and provides space for recreation, reflection and research. This is what the authors of the Wilderness Act recognized 50 years ago and what supporters of it continue to argue today.
I am a fan of wilderness, not only for what it provides me as a physical entity — a place where I can escape my daily obligations and reset my mental clock — but I am also a fan of its legal protection, although I acknowledge that even as it provides important benefits, setting aside millions of acres of land has social and economic consequences.
I also understand that wilderness is as much a concept — a creation of the mind — as it is an identifiable place. Nevertheless, I believe, and I think history bears me out, that we need wilderness to remind us that life transcends the daily grind and that we, as individuals and as communities, are connected to something larger than ourselves. Whether we visit wild places, or have only the opportunity to enjoy pictures taken by those who have, wilderness’s existence encourages us to contemplate our amazing, beautiful planet and to consider that we are part of a whole, even when we feel quite apart from it all.
Being on the edge of wilderness is, in my opinion, better than having no wilderness at all.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.