Wilderness with a capital W

On September 4, 1964, almost 50 years ago, Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. At the signing ceremony he declared :

“This is a very happy and historic occasion for all who love the great American outdoors, and that, needless to say, includes me. The two bills that I am signing this morning are in the highest tradition of our heritage as conservators as well as users of America’s bountiful natural endowments.”

With the signing of the Wilderness Act, Johnson would protect 9.1 million acres of land under the Wilderness Preservation system. Today 109,511,966 acres, 5% of the total land in the United States are preserved in their “untrammelled” state. Wilderness continues to offer the highest protection of land, water, and wildlife from development and degradation. Wallace Stegner argued that wilderness might offer the country a “geography of hope” that might reassure us of our sanity.

The Wilderness Act Signing Ceremony, September 4, 1964

The Wilderness Act Signing Ceremony, September 4, 1964

There had been a variety of efforts to preserve wild lands for recreation prior to the Wilderness Act. Parts of the Park System were managed as wilderness and gave folks a chance to explore and recreate in big natural landscapes. Indeed, part of the debate about the Wilderness Act centered on which agency would have control of the preserved lands, with some leaders in the Park Service fearing a significant loss of control. The Park Service, however had its own agenda geared towards expanding developed recreation. Campsites, roads, and facilities dominated the Park Service plans for wild areas. The Wilderness Act recognized a need for more primitive recreation and a style of management that valued wilderness for its own sake, not merely for recreation. Today, there are Wilderness Areas under the jurisdiction of all of the major land management agencies, united under the Wilderness Preservation System, given the distinction of the capital W and the management guidelines that underly the concept.

And so the wilderness as a kind of place and a management concept (with a little w) is far more than 50 years old and not all wilderness gets the uppercase letter. But Wilderness, with the full protection of the law, under the protection of the Wilderness Preservation System represented a new chapter in the way the government valued our public land. While it certainly considered the instrumental value preserved lands might have in preserving watersheds and offering opportunities for recreation, The Wilderness Preservation System wrote into the intrinsic value of natural landscapes into the law. As Johnson signed the bill he recited the history of conservation that led to it and looked to a future in which generations might be able experience the silence of a forest without roads or lasting human impact

Throughout the year EC Squared will offer a series of reflections about the place of wilderness today and consider its implications for generations yet to come. We hope to reexamine that hope and the ways it is tied to the places we “visit, but do not remain.” We welcome you on that journey as we question the concept of Wilderness with a capital W and its enduring legacy and the challenges related to it. We would love to have your voice join the conversation.

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