50 years ago today President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. Initially, the Act founded the National Wilderness Preservation System and protected over 9.1 million acres of land including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana, the Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming, and 51 others. More importantly, the Act created a new level of legislative conservation previously unachieved by other public land agencies.
What is the Wilderness Act?
The Wilderness Act creates a framework for the US government to designate unspoiled areas of land as "wilderness" and therefore protect them with the nation's most strict regulations. Amongst all the Act's legal jargon one phrase summarizes it best:
"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
Simply speaking, the Wilderness Act protects places untouched by humans. No roads, no buildings, no natural resource industries. The natural world is allowed, once more, to do its thing unmolested.
What has it protected?
Upon signing, the Act designated 54 wilderness areas with over 9.1 million acres protected. Areas such as the Boundaries Waters were included in this initial designation. The Boundary Water Canoe Area is now the most visited wilderness area in the United States.
Today there are 758 wilderness areas which protect 109 million acres of public land throughout 44 states. The most notable recent addition was through President Barack Obama's Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which added 2 million acres throughout California, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado. That was the greatest addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System in 20 years.
Where it is going?
Today the Wilderness Act continues to protect millions of acres of pristine land for outdoor recreation, fishing, wildlife-protection, and even national defense. Each year new proposals are considered for additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System. For a detailed list on some of the current proposals check out Wilderness.org.
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Ways to celebrate?
There are many ways to celebrate the 50 (and hopefully many more) successful years of Wilderness Act. Wilderness50 is a coalition of federal agencies, non-profits, academic institutes, and other wilderness user groups whose plan is to elevate the profile of wilderness throughout the 50th anniversary year. For a complete map of events, including workshops, contests, music, presentations, stewardship, and more, check out Wilderness50.
Or visit Wilderness.net and find a new wild place to explore on your own!
Next time you take a backpacking, camping, or fishing trip, spend some time learning what sort of land agency you are using. National Parks protect some of our most stunning natural places, but the roads, development, and crowds that come with them leave a lasting impact.
You'll know you've entered a wilderness area when only your (or a horses) feet can carry you, only trails can guide you, and nature lives in its untrammeled state. And at the end of the trip, there is no one who stays behind.
I think that's pretty special.
-Seach through wilderness areas by name, year, size, and more here.