Tag Archives: wilderness 50

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.

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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.

Great Swamp’s wilderness is one wild place

If you haven’t heard, the Wilderness Act is turning 50. It’s big news for us here in the Northeast, since Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey is the first designated wilderness in the Department of the Interior. We partnered with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) to get a crew out on the refuge to clear trails that sustained damages from Hurricane Sandy. Hear from Emily Bowles, a member of the crew, as she reflects on her experience working in one wilderness treasure.

Emily (right) will be sharing her experience about her and the crew’s work at Great Swamp. Never miss a post!

In the most famous passage of the Wilderness Act, writer Howard Zahniser defines wilderness beautifully and concisely: “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.” As my crewmates and I work to prepare Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge to host the Wilderness Act’s 50th birthday party—which will include a visit from the public lands manager to all public lands managers, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell—we’re finding Zahniser’s words to be astonishingly accurate.


Great Swamp Refuge has 8 miles of public trails and some are in the wilderness area. All refuge trails sustained damages from Hurricane Sandy with fallen trees and debris, but cleanup in the wilderness area isn’t so easy. The crew has a unique challenge, as hand tools, not power tools, have to get the job done, to maintain wilderness character. Learn more

Over the course of our efforts, the Great Swamp’s untrammeled community of life has been on impressive display. Yesterday we saw a juvenile bald eagle first thing in the morning, followed by a native praying mantis. As the day progressed and some dead and dangerously inclined trees were felled, the crew and I came across dragonflies, and a katydid (Tettigoniidae: a bug that to me looks like a cross between a grasshopper and a preying mantis). While we chopped apart an all day blowdown, Ed, strangely, found a spotted turtle… odd since our worksite was a considerable distance from water.

On the way back to the car the crew spotted a large bird in the woods. We couldn’t quite identify it, but the wingspan was large enough for it to have been a hawk. Early this morning, a gray catbird observed us stretching from its nearby perch. “Meow, meow!”  After lunch we spotted a little goldfinch eyeing a puddle to make his birdbath.

The highlight of the day came when we…finish reading this post at SCA’s Follow Me Field Blog!