Celebrate 50 Years of The Wilderness Act

Sep 2014

What does the term wilderness mean to you? Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, one of the first major accomplishments of the modern environmental movement. This landmark bill set aside 9.1 million acres of undeveloped land for the use and benefit of Americans and established the National Wilderness Preservation System. Where are we today after 50 Years of the Wilderness Act?

wilderness act ma

Webster’s defines wilderness as ‘a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings, an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community’. The legal definition for the government, written by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, states “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscapes 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.”  They sound pretty similar. Over these fifty years more than 95 million acres has been added to that initial wilderness, and although that might sound like a lot, it only makes up 5% of the land in the United States.

wilderness-act-waterfallMost of this area is in Alaska-over 52%.  Massachusetts, I was surprised to discover, has only one area on the south of Cape Cod,close to Chatham, the Monomoy Wilderness.  It is interesting to see the different areas of the country : California, Nevada and Arizona have the biggest lists.


I was curious about the role New England played in all of this.  More than 100 years earlier, Henry David Thoreau experienced the spiritual values of this open space, inspiring us to reflect on the many opportunities it affords us in both body and spirit.  He studied original accounts from the Puritans and encouraged us to protect species of birds and plants from invasive species-otherwise known as man more than 100 years before the Wilderness Act entered the picture.   Rachel Carson, a courageous writer and conservationist who served on Kennedy’s environmental committee , created quite a stir when she wrote “Silent Spring” in 1962.  This expose of contaminants in Cape Cod’s water supply eventually led to the creation of the EPA.  The chemical companies outrage and lobbying that followed the publishing of her book,  foreshadowed the stalemate we seem to have reached today in Washington.

wilderness mountain actYou would think that the 50th Anniversary would be the perfect opportunity for congress to act and add additional Wilderness land. As a matter of fact, there has been no new land designated as wilderness since 2009.  None of the 27 different areas up for review have been approved.  While in the past this environmental topic has usually been looked upon as bi-partisan, it now represents the current uncompromising problems in Washington. (But yes, that is fodder for another topic of conversation). Current areas up for designation include magnificent places in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Tennessee, Maine and more.  – Celebrate 50 Years of the Wilderness Act by  taking action to encourage your Congressman to pass these bills before it’s too late.

  1. I hadn’t heard of the Wilderness Act before, but assumed there must have been something of that ilk. Here in the UK (in England and Wales actually), we had the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 that protected vast areas of land including a couple of areas where I live. Perhaps Lyndon Johnson was following our example?

  2. anna parker says:

    this is really interesting to read about – as I had no idea, even having visited and enjoyed that part of cape cod I had no idea! Clearly good work in the background for another 50 years!

  3. noel says:

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing all this wonderful information about the wilderness Act Alison

  4. Never knew anything about the Wilderness Act either Alison but it’s interesting to read about some of the spots that are near the top of the list! I’m sure that many would have put Alaska near the top with the acres and acres of barren landscape but some of the others are interesting.

    I actually just read an article on CNN after reading your post (similar to the one you linked to) and saw some gorgeous spots around the States though the Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Colorado is definitely one I would love to explore further if I had to pick just one.

  5. Alison,

    This is such an important piece that you have written. Like many of the others commenting, I was also living in “blissful” ignorance. Well not really blissful obviously!

    I have already tweeted and FB’ed this. Every little helps.

    Great post,


  6. What an informative and important post!