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Spring 2004 Issue
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NOLS & Wilderness
By Erica Krug


When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, originally setting aside 9.1 million acres as designated Wilderness, outdoorsman Paul Petzoldt believed that it was an important step in the right direction, but that much more needed to be done in order to protect our wilderness areas from human impact. Petzoldt, who testified in favor of the bill, believed that rules and regulations were not enough — people had to be educated on how to enjoy the outdoors safely without harming it. Petzoldt wrote about this in his book, The New Wilderness Handbook. “In testifying about the Wilderness Bill, a few of us suggested that people needed to be taught how to use the new official wilderness areas,” Petzoldt wrote. “However, our ideas at that time were vague and not understood by sponsors of the bill, who were convinced that legislation alone would conserve the wilderness.”

It’s not a coincidence that one year after the Wilderness Act was passed, Petzoldt founded NOLS. While he played around with ideas of creating elaborate outdoor tests that people had to pass before they could venture into the backcountry, he decided that one way to help preserve wild areas would be to train people to be conscientious leaders in the outdoors.

“We can enjoy the wild outdoors and still conserve it!” he wrote. “All of us can learn to use the wilderness areas with so little disturbance that signs of our passing will be healed by the seasonal rejuvenation of nature. But, unfortunately, the methods and techniques of practical conservation are known to only a few; therefore most users, no matter how well intentioned, become destroyers.”

Petzoldt knew that spending time in the outdoors in a way that would minimally impact the earth would require more work and sacrifice from people. By training technically skilled leaders of outdoor expeditions, he was not only creating leaders, he was ultimately teaching people to enjoy and care for wild areas. And this, Petzoldt believed, was just as important as government legislation.

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