Monday, February 10, 2014

The Wilderness Act 50th Anniversary

WildernessAct1Fifty years ago, the nation as a whole needed a diversion after the shocking assassination of President Kennedy, and all eyes were on the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. President Johnson was hard at work persuading key congressmen to support the Civil Rights Act. The seedling that was to become the Vietnam War was growing. I knew little about any of this. I joined thousands my age trying to impersonate the Beatles with a mop on my head and a “plugged-in” broomstick.

And in Washington DC the final legislative compromises behind another civil right encompassed within the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964 were agreed to. The legislated right to an enduring, living wilderness for every American was nearing. The labors of the Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser reflected in 18 years of his advocacy and 66 drafts of the bill had nearly reached an end.  On September 3, 1964 President Johnson signed the bill. Zahniser had died a few months earlier, just days after the bill’s final hearing.

His vision of a national wilderness system may have arisen when Zahniser accepted an invitation from Paul Schaefer for a guided hike through the Adirondack High Peaks in 1946. After visiting Hanging Spear Falls on the Opalascent River, Zahniser, Schaefer and guide Ed Richard camped at the Flowed Lands.

As Schaefer wrote, “Back at the lean-to we enjoyed our final meal. Then Zahnie went down to the water’s edge and sat in the sun with his feet in the water. After a while I joined him. ‘I’ve been trying to make a comparison of this view to some other one I know,’ Zahnie told Paul, ‘but there’s nothing else I’ve ever seen quite like it. It has the same kind of perfection I have sensed when looking at the Grand Teton…So this was Bob Marshall’s country. No wonder he loved it so.’”

And at some point along the path to Flowed Lands, Zahniser related this thought to Paul and Ed: “In addition to such protection as national parks and monuments are now given, we need some strong legislation which will be similar in effect on a national scale to what Article XIV, Section 1 is to the New York State Forest Preserve. We need to reclaim for the people, perhaps through their representatives in Congress, control over the wilderness regions of America.”

Both of these quotes come from a little book with a large impact, Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, edited by Ed Zahniser (1992, North Country Books).

What is the need for Wilderness areas?

Zahniser answered in a way that grabbed me the moment I read it at Paul Schaefer’s house:

“I believe we have a profound, a fundamental need for areas of wilderness – a need that is not only recreational and spiritual but also educational and scientific, and withal essential to a true understanding of ourselves, our culture, our own natures, and our place in all nature.”

“The need is for areas of the earth within which we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment – areas of wild nature in which we sense ourselves to be, what in fact I believe we are, dependent members of an interdependent community of living creatures that together derive their existence from the Sun.

“By very definition this wilderness is a need. The idea of wilderness as an area without man’s influence is man’s own concept. Its values are human values. Its preservation is a purpose that arises out of man’s own sense of his fundamental needs” (from Zahniser’s paper delivered to the National Citizens Planning Conference on Parks and Open Spaces in 1955, reprinted in Where Wilderness Preservation Began).

I will always remember Paul Schaefer at his Adirondack cabin at age 87, his eyes glistening, reliving his memories of Howard Zahniser and telling several of us how much their campaigns together meant to him – including the ten year campaign to block the big dams on the South Branch of the Moose River near Inlet, the hike through the High Peaks, and where it all has led. Paul’s and Howard’s trust in each other was deep. One of Howard’s last letters in the spring of 1964 was to Paul.

In 2004, Doug Scott of the Pew Wilderness Center wrote A Short History of the National Wilderness Preservation System. In it, he quotes the eulogy to Howard Zahniser by the Sierra Club’s David Brower:

“It was political madness, some political scientists observed, to try to take on so many opponents at once. They simply didn’t have the measure of Howard Zahniser’s skill as a constant advocate… what made the most difference was one man’s conscience, his tireless search for a way to put a national wilderness policy into law, his talking and writing and persuading, his living so that this Act might be born. The hardest times were those when good friends tired because the battle was so long. Urging these friends back into action was the most anxious part of Howard Zahniser’s work. It succeeded, but it took his last energy.”

What has been the impact of the National Wilderness Act? I draw from Doug Scott’s Short History and other material:

• From an initial 9 million acres in 1964, the National Wilderness Preservation System today comprises more than 109 million acres within 757 Wilderness units managed by the four federal land management agencies: Bureau of Land Management, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service;

• The Act “set out a single, consistent wilderness management directive to apply to wilderness areas” in all four land management agencies (Doug Scott);

• Although Zahniser was initially opposed to Congressional power to designate Wilderness areas, he later realized how significant this final compromise proved to be to the growth of Wilderness areas;

• As the Congress has the exclusive power to designate Wilderness, this fact has empowered hundreds of state and local grassroots organizers for Wilderness in their home areas. That grassroots impetus and pressure to study and protect new Wilderness areas has meant that new Wilderness has been designated in every Congress since 1964 . The lone exception, I believe, has been the 2012-2014 Congress;

• Yet, even in the current climate in Washington, new Wilderness proposals are moving ahead. For example, there is news this week that President Obama, with the support of the New Mexico congressional delegation, local government leaders, hunters, ranchers and environmentalists may designate the nearly 500,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Region near Las Cruces, New Mexico as a National Monument. Wilderness designation by the Congress may follow. There are many other Wilderness bills moving through Congress, with both Republican and Democratic support, indicative of the diverse stakeholder support that has emerged for roadless areas, wildlife habitats and preservation of lands and access to those lands for hunting, fishing and primitive forms of recreation – with many economic benefits for rural areas;

• The definitions of Wilderness areas in the Adirondack and Catskill Park State Land Master Plans are nearly identical to the federal Act:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own 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. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; has at least 5 thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

For more about the Wilderness 50th at the national level, go to For more about celebrating the 50th anniversary in New York State, stay tuned to future posts. I will keep Almanack readers updated on news and events and provide more background material. By spring, you will also find NYS Wilderness 50th events starting to be posted at the Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve website,

Photo: President Lyndon Johnson presents the pen to Alice Zahniser, Sept. 3, 1964. Behind Alice is Mardie Murie. Behind Johnson is Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

3 Responses

  1. Ken Tucker says:

    On this 50th anni of the Wilderness Act, let’s remember to give a nod to our GR8 GR8 grandfathers too here in NY where 2014 marks the 120th anni of the Article XIV protections for the #ADKs.

  2. Dave Gibson says:

    Ken, I completely agree with you. Wilderness at the national level owes a significant debt to NY’s Article XIV, a linkage we will publicize throughout the year.

  3. Wally says:

    Sadly, the agencies managing designated Wilderness today often ignore the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act when making decisions, allowing structures to be built and motorized vehicles to intrude. Meanwhile, members of Congress (almost all Republicans)repeatedly introduce bills to undermine the act and other environmental laws. I hope the 50th will bring new support for it.

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