Forty years ago, Congress passed the Wilderness
Act. With its signing by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September
3, 1964, the National Wilderness Preservation System was established
to "secure for the American people of present and future generations
the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."
The Wilderness Act established 9.1 million acres of federally protected
wilderness scattered across national forests in 13 states. Today,
the Wilderness System contains 662 congressionally designated wilderness
areas in 44 states, totaling nearly 106 million acres—about
4.6 percent of the total land area in the U.S.—administered
by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.
I had my first wilderness experiences as a child in northern New
England, backpacking with my father in New Hampshire’s White
Mountains. These early outings took place more than 35 years ago,
yet I still vividly recall the sensation of the forest closing in
around me as I set off up the trail; what it felt like to break
out above timberline and look out across wild, unsubdued terrain;
the thrill of finding a perfect camp spot, with no one else in sight
I didn’t know anything about "designated" wilderness
then. But I knew and felt that I was entering a different realm,
one where—in the words of Howard Zahniser, as set forth in
the Wilderness Act—"the earth and its community of life
are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does
not remain." The wilderness experience offered a fresh perspective
on my place in the world that at once dwarfed me to insignificance
and reinforced my sense of connectedness in the grand scheme of
The notion of wilderness conservation originated here in the United
States, and because it’s a good idea, many other countries
have now embraced the concept. Since the passage of the Wilderness
Act, other nations recognizing wilderness have drawn on the U.S.
model and looked to us for technical leadership as well as inspiration
for their wilderness conservation efforts.
The founders of America’s wilderness movement saw a need for
wilderness not just for recreational use, wildlife, or scientific
study, but for sustaining the unique American character shaped by
our national encounter with the wild frontier. One of these founders,
Aldo Leopold, believed wilderness to be a "fundamental instrument
for building citizens."
Former Sierra Club conservation director Doug Scott, now with the
Campaign for America’s
Wilderness, says recognition of this fundamental value of wilderness
was itself an American concept. "It was a new thing,"
Scott says, "to see the pristine natural world not as mere
background or raw material, but as the essential fabric of a distinctive
Experiencing the American wilderness first-hand, and reflecting
on the wilderness system we have assembled, enhances my sense of
patriotism and pride in this country. And no organization deserves
more credit for helping create and defend that wilderness system
than the Sierra Club. So, even as new conservation battles loom,
let us take this occasion to celebrate the American wilderness,
the Wilderness Act, and the Sierra Club’s role in promoting,
protecting, and sustaining them.
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