Last month, we marked the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law on September 3, 1964. In defining wilderness and ultimately protecting more than 109 million acres of federal land, the act was a brilliant and far-reaching piece of legislation. It designated huge tracts of land where the American public could experience nature with minimal human presence or interference, where “… the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain … without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”
For me, “wilderness” has always been one of the most beautiful and charged words in our language. It carries so much meaning and mystique, from our primeval roots to the allure of undiscovered wilds. To be in wilderness brings a deep sense of humility, something we experience too infrequently in our constructed landscapes, reminding us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves—and that we fit into this complex puzzle of ecology and evolution.
Yet one of the great hallmarks of our wilderness areas—their seclusion and reduced access—has also proven to be one of their greatest vulnerabilities. Visitor numbers have steadily declined in the past few decades, and while nearly everybody can name or locate a national park, far fewer can point out a wilderness area, or have ever been to one. Moreover, while the boundaries of our wilderness areas have remained mostly intact, human development has pressed in on the semi-natural, less protected lands that surround them. Large tracts of what was wild half a century ago are now a neighborhood or a suburb, and the very idea of wilderness has become increasingly distant and abstract.
You could argue, of course, that light use of our nation’s wilderness areas is a good thing. These lands do not need crowds to be successful, as fewer visitors generally means fewer impacts, and thus retention of an untrammeled landscape. Yet low foot traffic also means low visibility, to the point that the importance of wilderness starts losing its foothold in cultural and political discourse. Lack of use too-easily implies lack of economic value, and lack of economic value often yields a lack of congressional support, which threatens not only the wilderness, but the retention of any natural and semi-natural landscapes that also provide forest and non-forest products.
Yet wilderness doesn’t—and shouldn’t—need to generate paychecks or ticket stubs to prove its worth. As our footsteps and fingerprints have touched nearly every corner of the planet, I would argue the value of protected lands has become almost incalculable, especially from an educational and management perspective.
Wilderness areas, after all, aren’t idle spaces. They are living laboratories, offering windows to our ecological past and clues to future changes and adaptations. They provide crucial environmental baselines and test grounds for understanding how healthy ecosystems operate. Most important, especially at zones of convergence with human development, they can help provide blueprints for designing sustainable land-management strategies that provide for our needs without destroying the very systems that sustain our well-being.
So as we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I hope we can restore the promise and purpose of our wilderness areas, and make sure the next 50 years of wilderness management prove equally farsighted.
Director, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences