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Leaders in Wilderness Preservation: A History of the Wilderness Act
By Heidi Weber, NOLS Public Policy Intern

The 1964 Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System to acknowledge, protect, and manage designated wilderness, and to create a process whereby Congress could designate and protect additional public land as “Wilderness.”

One of the first leaders of preservation was John Muir (1838-1914), who was the founder and first president of the Sierra Club. Through his writings, wanderings and activism, he contributed to the protection of many of our National Parks.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was inspired by Muir. In 1924, prior to the signing of the Act, Leopold prompted the USDA Forest Service to recognize 574,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico as “Wilderness.” This was the first area to be recognized as such in the United States. In 1935, Leopold partnered with Bob Marshall (1901-1939) to create The Wilderness Society, and it was Marshall’s intent that America’s wilderness be protected by federal law.

Several years after Marshall’s untimely death, Howard Zahniser (1906-1964) filled Marshall’s void and became the executive director of the Wilderness Society in 1945, which consisted of a staff of two.

By 1956, Zahniser had drafted a bill to protect America’s wilderness. In that same year, the bill was introduced into the Senate. After eight years of debate and 66 bill revisions, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964.

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