Celebrating 50 years of wilderness

Today, September 3, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, landmark legislation that currently protects over 100 million acres of federal lands that belong to you!


Our Service historian, Mark Madison, shares a bit of this wilderness history from those that were critical in seeking out wilderness protection on federal lands and some that ultimately made it happen.

Wild thing…you make my heart sing.

– The Troggs (1966)

The Troggs encapsulated the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act perfectly for the story of wilderness is intertwined with American history and identity. Initially European settlers to North America used wilderness in a pejorative manner. William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower into what he described as a “hideous and desolate wilderness.” Yet as places like New England became less and less wild, eventually wilderness was transformed from vice to virtue. Henry David Thoreau had tested the waters of wild places in Walden Pond and eventually Maine and Canada and concluded by 1851 that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” The seemingly unspoiled American Southwest first came to the attention of a philosophically-minded U.S. forester named Aldo Leopold. Leopold observed the remaining New Mexican wilderness in the 1920s and noted “only when the end of the supply is in sight we ‘discover’ that the thing is valuable.”

Leopold went on to advocate successfully carving out 755,000 acres from national forest land to create the first Gila Wilderness Area on June 3, 1924. For the next 40 years, some forestlands were designated as wilderness areas, but wildlife refuges, parks, and other federal lands were left outside the realm of wilderness protection. In 1935, The Wilderness Society was founded to promote the expansion of the wilderness idea and many of its members began advocating strongly for a national wilderness system.

DID YOU KNOW…Great Swamp Refuge in New Jersey is the first designated wilderness area in the Department of the Interior?

Aldo Leopold suggested an intellectual justification for the new system noting wilderness reveals “what the land was, what it is, and what the land ought to be.” Olaus and Mardy Murie became strong advocates for the remaining wilderness areas in Alaska traveling to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to advocate for its protection. Mardy Murie, an Alaska native, provided a powerful plea for protecting wilderness based on her own life and conservation ethic.

Perhaps there are men who feel no need for nature. . . . But for those who somehow feel unnurtured, missing something, groping for something satisfying, surely there should still be a place, a big place—wilderness.

Finally, Howard Zahniser, a former writer for the Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote the text of what became the Wilderness Act. Thanks to Zahniser, the Wilderness Act may be our most eloquent piece of federal legislation offering this illustrative definition of wilderness:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.


Howard Zahniser, “Our Wilderness Preservation System.”

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964 noting:

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave more than the miracle of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.

Wilderness ActC678-1-WH64_med

The signing of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Credit: LBJ Library Photo by Cecil Stoughton

In the 50 years since the Act, nearly 110 million acres of wilderness lands have been created, over half of them in Alaska. These wilderness areas are as diverse as the concept they represent. The smallest wilderness encompasses a mere 5 acres on Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge while Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park has over 9 million acres of wilderness. Wilderness is found everywhere including in New Jersey where the Great Swamp Naitonal Wildlife Refuge has wilderness within view of the skyscrapers of Manhattan. These precious legacies are managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service as a gift that Americans have given to themselves and future generations.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating 50 years of wilderness

  1. Pingback: The Wilderness Act is 50 years old and getting stronger all the time! « Sylvabiota

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