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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2004
Table of Contents
 
  ELECTION 2004:
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40 Wild Years
The Wilderness Act's birthday gift: 106 million acres and counting.
by Doug Scott

Havens of quiet past the end of the road, beyond the whine and clank of machines. Reservoirs of peace for future generations--of grizzly bears, wild salmon, and us, too. Living tableaux of the frontier that shaped us. Wilderness. Aldo Leopold called it "the very stuff America is made of."

Savor here a few of the more than 650 areas Congress has designated over the years "for the permanent good of the whole people." Celebrate America's saved wildlands and the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964 that protects these places--106 million acres that make up our National Wilderness Preservation System.

On the eve of World War II, none could have imagined that today nearly 5 percent of all the land in the nation would have this legal protection. There were then just 14 million acres in official wilderness areas, all on national forests, ill-defended by regulations adopted with the stroke of an administrator's pen and as easily reversed. Wilderness in national parks was never officially delineated. As the postwar economy boomed, so did pressures to develop roadless federal lands.

It took extraordinary vision to imagine a wilderness-protection law. But Wilderness Society leaders Harvey Broome and Olaus and Mardy Murie, and Sierra Club leaders Dick Leonard, George Marshall, Charlotte Mauk, and Ed Wayburn, along with many others, created and shaped that vision. A series of biennial conferences organized by the Club and beginning in 1949 was a critical forum for this thinking.

Leading the work of making the law reality fell to Howard Zahniser and David Brower, the executive directors of the Society and the Club. "Zahnie" and Dave's partnership was forged in the campaign to block the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument in the early 1950s. Buoyed by that victory, Zahniser drafted a wilderness law as he and Brower mobilized the campaign. It took eight years to pass the Wilderness Act, but it was ultimately adopted unanimously in both the House and the Senate and signed into law on September 3, 1964, by Lyndon Johnson.

The law changed everything. It removed agency discretion, reserving to Congress sole authority to designate and change boundaries. Agencies may offer recommendations, but in the more than one hundred laws designating wilderness areas Congress has enacted since 1964, it has often found well-justified, well-advocated citizen proposals superior.

That this is statutory protection is the key to preservation in perpetuity. It is difficult to enact wilderness-designation laws; our legislative system wisely gives greatest weight to those who favor the status quo. But as wilderness areas become designated, their defenders gain the advantage. Once set aside, these lands are not easily assailed.

The impulse to protect patches of our once all-wilderness planet, leaving some places where nature may unfold in its own way, is all about our obligation to generations unborn. It would be morally inexcusable not to be wildly generous with them. Should our generation preserve "too much," those who come after will smile on our good grace in leaving the choice to them. Most likely, they will judge that we protected too little rather than too much.

The work of wilderness preservation is far from done; hundreds of millions of acres of wild public land, including Alaskan rainforests, Colorado canyonlands, and Utah redrock, still deserve a fair review. Anyone can lead the way. A hardware dealer in small-town Montana, a pear grower in central California, a homemaker in suburban New Jersey, a casino waitress in rural Nevada--those are everyday people who saved wilderness in their states. The Wilderness Act we celebrate here gives us the tool. So don't just celebrate it. Use it!


Doug Scott, a former Sierra Club conservation director, is policy director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness. This essay is drawn from his new book, The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our National Heritage Through the Wilderness Act (Fulcrum Books, 2004).

Take Action: To learn more about legislation to protect wilderness, visit www.sierraclub.org/wildlands. To join other activists at a wilderness conference this fall, see www.wilderness40th.org.


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