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The Planet
Wilderness Act Turns 40

Forty years ago, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. With its signing by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964, the National Wilderness Preservation System was established to "secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

The Wilderness Act established 9.1 million acres of federally protected wilderness scattered across national forests in 13 states. Today, the Wilderness System contains 662 congressionally designated wilderness areas in 44 states, totaling nearly 106 million acres—about 4.6 percent of the total land area in the U.S.—administered by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

I had my first wilderness experiences as a child in northern New England, backpacking with my father in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. These early outings took place more than 35 years ago, yet I still vividly recall the sensation of the forest closing in around me as I set off up the trail; what it felt like to break out above timberline and look out across wild, unsubdued terrain; the thrill of finding a perfect camp spot, with no one else in sight or earshot.

I didn’t know anything about "designated" wilderness then. But I knew and felt that I was entering a different realm, one where—in the words of Howard Zahniser, as set forth in the Wilderness Act—"the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." The wilderness experience offered a fresh perspective on my place in the world that at once dwarfed me to insignificance and reinforced my sense of connectedness in the grand scheme of things.

The notion of wilderness conservation originated here in the United States, and because it’s a good idea, many other countries have now embraced the concept. Since the passage of the Wilderness Act, other nations recognizing wilderness have drawn on the U.S. model and looked to us for technical leadership as well as inspiration for their wilderness conservation efforts.
The founders of America’s wilderness movement saw a need for wilderness not just for recreational use, wildlife, or scientific study, but for sustaining the unique American character shaped by our national encounter with the wild frontier. One of these founders, Aldo Leopold, believed wilderness to be a "fundamental instrument for building citizens."

Former Sierra Club conservation director Doug Scott, now with the Campaign for America’s Wilderness, says recognition of this fundamental value of wilderness was itself an American concept. "It was a new thing," Scott says, "to see the pristine natural world not as mere background or raw material, but as the essential fabric of a distinctive American culture."

Experiencing the American wilderness first-hand, and reflecting on the wilderness system we have assembled, enhances my sense of patriotism and pride in this country. And no organization deserves more credit for helping create and defend that wilderness system than the Sierra Club. So, even as new conservation battles loom, let us take this occasion to celebrate the American wilderness, the Wilderness Act, and the Sierra Club’s role in promoting, protecting, and sustaining them.

Tom Valtin

 


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