On a warm September day in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed what is now recognized as one of the most significant legislative acts in American environmental history. This was the national Wilderness Act. Before then, federal lands, even those protected as national parks or national forests were expected to serve a variety of functions. The national forests, for example, permitted logging, mining, and grazing. The national parks were often centered on opulent hotels and other all-too-civilized amenities. The idea of setting aside part of the public domain as wilderness, even though this word was and is difficult to define, was radical then, and it remains controversial today. It was a monumental step, and its roots lie in the Adirondacks.
How European-Americans have thought about this amorphous thing we call wilderness has been a complicated, often torturous story. (How Native Americans navigated these shoals is another story altogether, but their views have seldom if ever been consulted as this country has gone about the process of setting land-use policy.) If we go back far enough, we find a pervasive hostility to what many of us now treasure. In 1620, for example, the Pilgrim William Bradford contemplated the forests of eastern Massachusetts, which seemed to stand between his band of cold and hungry settlers and any sort of security, and declared despairingly that nothing lay before them other than “a hideous and desolate wilderness.” Wilderness, in other words, was the enemy. If these people expected to survive, let alone prosper, the wilderness had to be eliminated as soon as possible.
As the country slowly developed, establishing agriculture and building towns, Bradford’s original antipathy largely persisted. It’s no wonder that it did. The wilderness represented everything antithetical to a comfortable, prosperous life. It was only in the nineteenth century that some Americans began to contemplate the possibility that the elimination of all the remaining wilderness was not necessarily a good thing. The currents of European Romanticism suggested that nature could be a source of wisdom and meaning. At the same time, all this civilization, with its frenetic commerce and often stinking cities, appeared to be producing a sick culture with sick people. What, a few people asked, if we took some of our land and protected it as unspoiled nature?
One place where this question was asked was the Adirondacks, a pocket of wild country close to the new nation’s bustling urban centers yet largely untouched by the ravages of a rapidly industrializing and resource-hungry society. Before the Civil War, a few adventurous souls took the arduous journey to the Adirondacks and found meaning and value that their urban lives did not offer. In 1858, Albany journalist Samuel Hammond, pondering a deliriously happy camping and hunting trip in the central Adirondacks and worrying about what modern commerce would do to the wild places that so inspired him, wrote these—for the time—radical and startling words: “Had I my way, I would mark out a circle of a hundred miles in diameter, and throw around it the protecting aegis of the constitution. I would make it a forest forever. It should be a misdemeanor to chop down a tree, and a felony to clear an acre within its boundaries. The old woods should stand here always as God made them, growing until the earthworm ate away their roots, and the strong winds hurled them to the ground, and new woods should be permitted to supply the place of the old so long as the earth remained.”
These are sentiments that William Bradford could never have comprehended. The fact that Hammond could write them, over two centuries after Bradford’s first encounter with the New World, shows how attitudes could and did change. In the Adirondacks, the chief threat to all the benefits that Hammond and others perceived in the wilderness was ruthless and irresponsible logging. In those days, loggers took the big trees, lopped off their crowns, and left piles of highly inflammable debris on the forest floor. The consequence was often catastrophic fires. These fires threatened the very existence of the forests that Hammond and others treasured. At the same time, New York commercial interests were concerned that these same forests, if loggers and fires eliminated them all, would no longer be able to protect the flow of water so vital to the Erie Canal, the Hudson River, and other key transportation arteries.
These two interest groups—recreationists like Hammond and those dependent on a viable transportation system—came together and argued that New York should protect what remained of its natural heritage in the Adirondacks (as well as in the Catskills). The result was the establishment of the Forest Preserve in 1885, creation of the Adirondack Park in 1892, and, most important, the inclusion of Article 7, Section 7, in the New York State constitution written in 1894. We are all familiar (or should be) with the words of that provision (since renumbered as Article 14, Section 1). But because they are so important (and also because they are so rhetorically stirring), they bear repeating: “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed, or destroyed.”
If we study the record of the convention that approved these words, we can see that wilderness in our modern understanding was not the primary goal. The watershed argument carried the day, and many of the delegates assumed that the ban on logging would eventually be lifted. The evolution of that article into the powerful protection of wilderness that we know it to be today was a twentieth-century phenomenon. But evolve it did, and by midcentury, championed by New York conservationists like Robert Marshall and Paul Schaefer, it would be one of the seminal forces behind the Wilderness Act.
The connection between New York’s Article 7 and the events of 1964 can be found in a 1946 camping trip in the High Peaks involving Schaefer and Howard Zahniser, of the Wilderness Society, which had been established in 1935 by Robert Marshall, among others. Zahniser was new to the Adirondacks but had already spent many years advocating for protection of wilderness on America’s federally owned lands. He had been working tirelessly to save individual parcels of the West from dams and other depredations.
Zahniser and Schaefer were at the beginning of a long-term friendship and collaboration, and on this camping trip Zahniser learned about the protections enjoyed by the Adirondacks and saw that this was just what we needed for the whole country. It was the solid protection of the Forest Preserve that inspired him to seek something similar for federal lands. Camped on the edge of Flowed Lands, Zahniser and Schaefer discussed the conservation history of the Adirondacks, and Schaefer explained how the people of New York State had (mostly) resisted efforts to change the constitutional barrier to development of the Forest Preserve.
After digesting Schaefer’s Adirondack history lesson, Zahniser thought about the protection granted the Forest Preserve by the state constitution and lamented the lack of any such safeguards for the federal wilderness. Schaefer later recorded Zahniser’s epiphany: “We need some strong legislation which will be similar in effect on a national scale to what Article 14, Section 1, is to the New York State Forest Preserve. We need to reclaim for the people, perhaps through their representatives in the Congress, control over the wilderness regions of America.” Zahniser spent the rest of his life writing, refining, and indefatigably promoting just this sort of law. Schaefer doubtless polished Zahniser’s words a bit, but it’s safe to say that the birth of the national Wilderness Act occurred on this camping trip in the High Peaks.
Johnson’s signature on the new legislation did not end the story. As James Turner shows in a recent and excellent work of scholarship on the half-century since, the struggle to protect our wilderness has become ever more complex, always subject to the turbulence of American politics. Both in the Adirondacks and throughout the country, the designation of land as wilderness has generated conflict and resistance. Advocates for wilderness protection generally live in the cities and their suburbs, while those living and working nearer to land proposed as wilderness often oppose such a designation. They see classifying public lands as wilderness as yet another exercise of state power, centered in distant population centers, over local affairs. From the remotest corners of Alaska to our own Indian Lake, proposals for wilderness designation have led to the same political conflicts that characterize so much of recent history. Turner argues that the Wilderness Act is a paradigm of American environmental policy. Some of us love it, and some hate it.
Nonetheless, the amount of protected wilderness has grown, both nationally and here. In 1964, the newly established wilderness system contained fifty-four Wilderness Areas with 9.1 million acres. By 2009, it had grown to 109.5 million acres. And here in the Adirondacks, the Forest Preserve has grown: in the mid-1960s, it comprised about 2.2 million acres. Today, it’s about 2.6 million acres. (There is another three hundred thousand acres of Forest Preserve in the Catskill Park.) And within the Adirondack Forest Preserve there are more than 1.1 million acres explicitly designated as Wilderness. Wilderness is both a local and a national treasure; what started in the Adirondacks has become a nationwide passion.
Photos: Above, President Lyndon Johnson signs the Wilderness Act in 1964 (courtesy of the National Park Service); middle, Howard Zahniser (courtesy of Wilderness.net); and below, Howard Zahniser at Hanging Spear Falls in 1946 (courtesy Ed Zahniser).
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here