An anniversary is generally a cause for celebration;
parties are planned, friends gather, glasses are
raised, everyone smiles. In early September, the
Wilderness Act of 1964 – the ultimate legislative
tool for the permanent protection of public wildlands – will
turn 40. Having recently turned 40 myself, I’m
not completely sure that the milestone is cause for
a party, but I guess that’s a personal issue.
In the national wilderness community though, many
advocates question whether the Act’s 40th birthday
is cause for celebration.
Their reluctance stems from the knowledge that, while
protected by law, the long-term health and natural
character of many wilderness areas (and areas with
wilderness potential) are threatened by a host of
external forces. Add to that the fact that the federal
agencies charged with managing designated wilderness – the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau
of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service – face shrinking
wilderness management budgets at a time when more on-the-ground resources than
ever are needed to keep pace with increasing demands on public land. Last September,
I attended a meeting of a diverse coalition of groups that gathered to plan
an event in honor of the anniversary. We had difficulty coming to terms with
whether the event should be presented as a celebration or a more somber “acknowledgement.”
While I agree that wilderness faces some stiff challenges,
I believe that celebration is warranted – and it’s not just because I appreciate a good party.
Four decades ago, our conservation leaders and elected officials had the foresight
to create a formal legal structure to protect the country’s most spectacular
natural places. We shifted as a society from looking at wilderness as something
to be conquered to seeing it as a resource to be protected. That, in and of
itself, is worth celebrating.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National
Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) “to secure for the American people of present and future
generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” The
NWPS represents 44 states and 662 wilderness areas, encompassing 105 million
acres (five percent of the U.S.), 52 percent of which is in Alaska. By federal
mandate, the responsible agencies manage this system to preserve its wild character.
Certain uses and activities, such as motorized vehicles, are prohibited.
But the party poopers are right. The threats to wilderness
are real. According to the National Forest Foundation,
recreational use in designated wilderness has increased
10-fold in the past 40 years and more than 12 million
people visit wilderness each year. More people
want more access to wilderness. At the same time,
increasing extraction of resources such as timber,
oil and gas, and other minerals from public land
not protected, but perhaps suitable for wilderness
designation, is decreasing the total number of
acres of wildlands suitable for primitive back
country recreation, thus intensifying wilderness
As anyone within earshot of the national news knows,
fire has become another critical issue on public
land. In wilderness, naturally occurring fire helps
maintain ecological health and balance. Decades of careful fire suppression,
however, have caused unnatural changes in many wilderness areas, rendering “natural” wildfire
a thing of the past and setting us up for potentially devastating ecological
effects when a fire does burn. Restoring conditions for natural fire – if
acceptable politically – will be an enormous management challenge.
Perhaps one of the most subtle but potentially harmful
threats to wilderness is society’s lack of awareness of it. According to a 2001 poll by Ken
Cordell, a Forest Service scientist, only about half of all American adults
know that the NWPS exists. The National Forest Foundation tells us that the
majority of Americans are unaware of the critical ecological, economic and
social benefits of wilderness. Yet it is public support for protecting, maintaining,
and expanding the NWPS that will keep it alive.
As communities continue to grow in size, scope, commercial
intensity and technological sophistication, we
push to the outskirts of our cities and towns.
A glance from an airplane window over Tucson, Las
Vegas, or Denver, for example, reveals our increasing
desire to live away from it all while being connected
to everything. As a result, we are eating away
at the public lands that serve as wilderness buffer
zones, encroaching on wilderness areas to the point
that they are becoming islands in a sea of development.
Organizations such as NOLS have a significant role
to play in upholding the primary tenet of the Wilderness
Act – protecting wilderness for future
generations. Research on the biological impacts of recreation shows that the
behavior of backcountry visitors is one of the most significant factors in
determining impact. Yet the agencies lack the resources to teach visitors proper
backcountry behavior. Herein lies our critical contribution as educators. What
wilderness needs is public awareness and education, so let’s celebrate
what we do at NOLS and our connection and contribution to wilderness. You are
all invited to the party.