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Wilderness Act (1964)

Wilderness Act (1964)

The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System, an area of land that now encompasses over 95 million acres (38.5 million ha). According to the law, wilderness is "an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions." This law represents the core idea of preservation: the need to preserve large amounts of land in its natural condition. This idea, which arose in the late 1800s, is in stark contrast to the desire to control nature and exploit the resources of nature for economic gain.

The early preservation movement focused on protecting natural areas through their designation as national parks. The birth of the wilderness system, however, can be traced back to the period around 1920. In 1919, Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect, recommended that the area around Trapper's Lake in the White Mountain National Forest of Colorado be kept roadless, a recommendation that was followed. A few years later, he recommended that a roadless area be established in the Superior National Forest of Minnesota, a recommendation that was also followed (this area was later named the Boundary Waters Canoe Area ). In 1921, Aldo Leopold , then a Forest Service employee in New Mexico, proposed that large areas of land be set aside as wilderness in the national forests. For Leopold, wilderness would be an area large enough to absorb a two-week pack trip, "devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man." He recommended that such an area be established in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The next year, Leopold's superiors acted on his recommendation and established a 574,000-acre (232,400-ha) wilderness area.

The first attempt to establish a more general wilderness policy by the Forest Service came in 1929 when the agency issued Regulation L-20. This directed the Chief of the Forest Service to establish a series of "primitive areas" in which primitive conditions would be maintained. Instructions on implementing this regulation, however, indicated that timber, forage, and water resources could still be developed in these areas. This effort was plagued by unclear directives and the lack of support of many foresters, who favored the use of resources, not their preservation.

The issue of Forest Service wilderness designation increased in importance in the 1930s, primarily due to the concern of the Forest Service that all of its scenic areas would be transferred to the National Park Service for management. Robert Marshall , head of the Recreation and Lands Division in the Forest Service, led the fight within the agency to increase wilderness designation on Forest Service lands. He and his supporters argued that increased wilderness designation was wise because: 1) it would demonstrate to Congress that the Forest Service could protect its scenic resources and that transfer of these lands to the National Park Service was unnecessary; 2) it would be several years before these resources might be needed, so they could be protected until they were needed; and 3) wilderness and its recreation, research, and preservation uses were suitable for national forest lands. These arguments led to the adoption of the U-Regulations in 1939, which were more precise and restrictive than Regulation L-20.

Three new wild land classifications were established by these regulations. "Wilderness" areas were to be at least 100,000 acres (40,500 ha) in size, designated by the Secretary of Agriculture, and contain no roads, motorized transportation , timber harvesting, or occupation. "Wild" areas would be from 5,000 to 100,000 acres (2,025 to 40,500 ha) in size and were to be under the same management restrictions as wilderness areas with the exception that they would be designated by the Chief of the Forest Service. Lastly, the regulations created "recreation" areas, which were to be of 100,000 or more acres and were to be managed "substantially in their natural condition." In such areas, road-building and timber harvesting, among other activities, could take place at the Chief's discretion. Lands that had been classified as "primitive" under the L-20 Regulation were to be reviewed and re-classified under the U-Regulations.

The wilderness movement lost much momentum inside the Forest Service with the death of Marshall in 1939. Following World War II, preservationist groups began to discuss the need for statutory protection of wilderness due to controversies over the re-classification of primitive lands and the desire for stronger protection. The proposal for such legislation was first made in 1951 by Howard Zahniser, director of the Wilderness Society , at the Sierra Club's Biennial Wilderness Conference. This legislative proposal was put on hold during the battle over the proposed Echo Park dam, but in 1956 preservationists convinced Senator Hubert Humphrey to introduce the first wilderness bill. This original bill, drafted by a group of preservation and conservation groups, would apply not only to national forests, but also to national parks, national monuments, wildlife refuges, and Indian reservations. Within these areas, no farming, logging , grazing, mining, road building, or motorized vehicle use would be allowed. No new agency would be created; rather existing agencies would manage the wilderness lands under their jurisdiction. All Forest Service wilderness, wild, and recreation lands would be immediately designated as wilderness, as well as 49 national parks and 20 wildlife refuges. The expansion (or reduction) of the National Wilderness Preservation System would rest primarily with the executive branch: it would make recommendations that would take effect unless either chamber of Congress passed a motion against the designation within 120 days.

By 1964, when the Wilderness Act was passed, this original bill had changed substantially. Sixty-five different bills had been introduced and nearly 20 congressional hearings were held on these bills. The chief opposition to the wilderness system came from commodity and development interests, especially the timber, mining, and livestock industries. The wilderness bill met with greater success in the Senate, where a bill was passed in 1961. The House proved a more difficult arena, as Wayne Aspinall of Colorado, chair of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, opposed the wilderness bill. In the end, the preservationists had to compromise or risk having no law at all. The final law allowed established motorboat and aircraft use to continue; permitted control of fires, insects, and diseases; allowed established grazing to continue; allowed the President to approve water developments; and allowed the staking of new mineral claims under the Mining Law of 1872 through December 31, 1983, and development of legitimate claims indefinitely. The act designated 9.1 million acres (3.7 million ha) as wilderness immediately (Forest Service lands classified as wilderness, wild, or canoe). National park lands and wildlife refuges would be studied for potential designations, and primitive lands were to be protected until Congress determined if they should be designated as wilderness. The act also directed that future designations of wilderness be made through the legislative process.

Since the passage of the Wilderness Act, most of the attention on expanding the wilderness system has focused on Forest Service lands and Alaska lands. In 1971, the Forest Service undertook the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE I) to analyze its holdings for potential inclusion in the wilderness system. It surveyed 56 million acres (22.7 million ha) in a process that included tremendous public involvement. Based on the review, the agency recommended 12 million additional acres (4.9 million ha) be designated as wilderness. This recommendation did not satisfy preservationists, and the Sierra Club initiated legal action challenging the RARE I process. In an out-of-court settlement, the Forest Service agreed not to alter any of the 56 million acres (23 million ha) under study and to undertake a land use plan and environmental impact statement .

In response to RARE I, Congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Act (1975), which created 16 eastern wilderness areas and directed the Forest Service to alter its methods so that it considered areas previously affected by humans. In 1977, the Forest Service launched RARE II. Over 65 million acres (26.3 million ha) of land were examined, and the Forest Service recommended that 15 million acres (6 million ha) be declared wilderness. Preservationist groups were still not satisfied but did not challenge this process. Based upon these recommendations, additional wilderness has been designated on a state-by-state basis. The Forest Service recommendations have been the starting ground for the political process typically involving commodity groups opposed to more wilderness and preservationist groups favoring designations beyond the Forest Service's recommendations. Thus far, RARE II additions have been made for all but a few states. The completion of RARE II designations will not mean the end of the designation process, however, as preservationists will continue to fight for more wilderness land. The Alaska National Interest Conservation Land Act (1980) led to more than a doubling of the wilderness system. The act designated 57 million acres (23 million ha) as wilderness, primarily in national parks and wildlife refuges.

As of 1992, 95.3 million acres (38.6 million ha) of land are designated as wilderness. The Forest Service manages 386 areas of 34 million acres (13.8 million ha), the National Park Service 41 areas of 39.1 million acres (15.8 million ha), and the Fish and Wildlife Service 75 areas of 20.6 million acres (8.3 million ha). The lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were not included in the Wilderness Act, but the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 directed the agency to review its lands for wilderness designation. The BLM now manages 66 areas of 1.6 million acres (648,000 ha), but this figure will increase as the wilderness review and designation process is completed. Ironically, as more lands are designated wilderness by law, de facto wilderness in the nation has been steadily declining.

[Christopher McGrory Klyza ]



Allin, C. W. The Politics of Wilderness Preservation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Dana, S. T., and S. K. Fairfax. Forest and Range Policy. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.

Nash, R. Wilderness and the American Mind. 3rd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

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