On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System that originally comprised 54 areas totaling 9.1 million acres in 13 states. Those and all that have since followed – now more than 109 million acres across the country – share qualities that the Wilderness Act recognized as deserving of protection and preservation for the ages. In so doing, the legislation embodies a value that is increasingly fleeting: leaving shared treasures untouched. It was forward-thinking, visionary and deserving of honor on its 50th anniversary.
The Wilderness Act begins by acknowledging a trend and the pressure it places on America’s wild places: “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”
Doing so has proved to be critically important, both for ensuring a balance in how the United States uses its resources – wild lands and otherwise – as well as how it constructs its evolution as a nation. Keeping intact the farthest reaches of our public lands, where “earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” as the act promises, is good stewardship: of the land and all who rely on it – knowingly or otherwise – for habitat, clean water, solitude, renewal and beauty.
The standard by which wilderness is measured is brisk. Not just any public tract will do. It must be pristine, undeveloped federal land without permanent improvements. It must provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude,” be at least 5,000 acres in size or large enough to manage for its wilderness values, and possess historic, scenic, educational, ecological, scientific or geological values. Lands that meet this threshold are relatively few in the scheme of total U.S. public land and are worth considering for protected status.
Those who are opposed to the notion of wilderness typically balk at its restrictive management prescriptions, which are designed to keep land in perpetuity as it was when designated wilderness. As such, no temporary or permanent roads, motorized or mechanized vehicles – wheelchairs excepted – motorized equipment, motorboats or aircraft may land in wilderness, nor can any structures be built. New grazing, mining or resource extraction is not allowed, nor is timber harvesting. Management agencies have exemptions to mitigate and manage for fire and respond to emergencies. The Wilderness Act insists that the land it protects be preserved in its pristine state in perpetuity. The federal government owns and manages about 640 million acres; the vast majority of that is available for higher-impact use than wilderness allows. Setting some aside is appropriate – necessary even.
Colorado’s identity – and that of Southwest Colorado – is inextricably linked to the Wilderness Act. There are 41 wilderness areas in the state, totaling more than 3.6 million acres. The Weminuche, Lizard Head, Uncompahgre, Mount Sneffels and South San Juan wilderness areas draw thousands of visitors to the Southwest corner of Colorado each year – either for the scenic backdrop they provide or for more rugged adventure. The story is the same across the state. These wild places are protected forever because they are irreplaceable icons. They are nothing short of national treasures, as is the Wilderness Act.