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Wilderness Anniversary
Should We Celebrate?
By Jennifer Lamb, NOLS Public Policy Director
© Brien Sheedy / John McConnell

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 visitation.

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.

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