Celebration of 50 Years of Wilderness Protection


Chad Dawson

The year 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964 that established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). The NWPS is an attempt to designate and protect some wilderness areas that represent the different geographic landscapes and ecosystems of the US – protecting part of the US heritage for present and future generations.

When the U.S. Congress passed theWilderness Act in September 3, 1964, it defined a policy for designating wilderness and recognizes the need to protect significant natural areas because of the rapid loss of such resources:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. (U.S. Public Law 88-577, section 2a, 78 Stat. 890.).

The language above is referred to as the “guiding management intent” because it specifically refers to “use and enjoyment,” provided that areas remain “unimpaired” and ensured “preservation of their wilderness character.”

Section 2c of The Wilderness Act includes an important and often-quoted definition of wilderness:
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...an area of underdeveloped 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 (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value. (U.S. Public Law 88-577, section 2c)

This definition is an ideal tempered by four conditions to make it practical. One of those four conditions refers to “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation”, a phrase often referred to as the guiding principle for recreation management. Certain types and amounts of recreation are permitted, provided the area is “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions”.

Creation of the NWPS in 1964 was just the beginning of legislative designations. Since 1964, there were more than 170 different laws passed by the U.S. Congress designating new areas or adding acreage to existing ones. The initial designation of 9.1 million acres was followed by many years of bipartisan congressional designations to add acres and units to the NWPS. Proposals for additional acreage are continuing to be brought before Congress and its committees.

The NWPS now includes 791 management units and more than 109 million acres of publicly-owned lands managed by four federal agencies. The four federal agencies administering the NWPS are the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of Interior, and the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture. The four federal land managing agencies have developed policy and management approaches to steward the lands under their jurisdiction.

Historic Background
There are few places that are not now, or have not been at some point in history, under human control, habitation, cultivation, or influence. A gradient of human influence and impact exists from urban centers to rural areas to wilderness. The so-called “human footprint” on the world is large and extending rapidly with population growth, road building, food production, power generation, industrialization, and human habitation. Some identifiable “last of the wild places” exists on each continent and might continue to do so with careful conservation of resources and protection worldwide of some remaining representative or remnant areas of each ecologic community type.

The early history of the United States during European immigration was one of cultivating and taming the wild places and taking dominion over the land for human habitation. Wilderness was seen as a place for exploration and primitive travel, and was often feared and avoided by most of the population. As the amount of land with wild conditions began to diminish, it was more appreciated as a change from cities and civilization. The public’s interest in wild places evolved as they became scarce. Special places were first set aside as National Parks, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Tetons; however, at first, these areas were seen as park destinations for the development of recreation and tourism, rather than as preserves.

After World War II, a greater public interest began to emerge to protect areas for wilderness. Some of the concern to save certain places by designating them for protection as wilderness was due to interest in recreation experiences coupled with a growing concern about rapid industrialization and population growth transforming the landscape through human activities. Some would argue that there are few places in the world that are wilderness in the strictest sense of the word. Thus, the more common usage of the term wilderness is in relation to our perception of areas that are little known or predominantly under the influence of natural processes and forces. Although the term had been commonly applied to any large, remote area with natural characteristics, conditions, and processes, by 1964 it gained a legal definition that was applied to federally owned land areas designated as wilderness by congressional action in the United States.

New York States Contribution to the Wilderness Movement
The wilderness preservation movement in New York State began in 1885 with legislation to create the Forest Preserve lands. Later, the citizens of the state passed a referendum in 1894 to add state constitutional protection to the state-owned Forest Preserve lands set aside within the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. The most often quoted portion of the state constitution is Article XIV, which, in part, states: “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” The “forever wild” concept and the personal experiences in the Adirondacks of state residents like Bob Marshall and Paul Schaefer profoundly affected their wilderness vision and advocacy at both the state and national levels.

Howard Zahniser wrote many drafts of the federal legislation that became The Wilderness Act of 1964 from a cabin in the Adirondacks near what is now the New York State Siamese Ponds Wilderness.  The national wilderness movement was strongly influenced by the efforts of these men and others involved in Adirondack preservation efforts. For more about New York State’s and the Adirondacks’ influence on Zahniser and the Wilderness Act, see: Zahniser, Ed (ed.). 1992. Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings Of Howard Zahniser.Utica, NY: North Country Books, and other articles on this website.

The state designation of some of the Adirondack Forest Preserve lands as “wilderness” was first proposed by the state legislature in 1960 and finally adopted in 1972. The New York State definition of wilderness is nearly identical to the federal wilderness definition.  Today, there are 20 wilderness management units in the Adirondack Forest Preserve with more than 1.1 million acres and five wilderness units in the Catskill Forest Preserve with more than 143,000 acres.  New York is one of 12 states that have a state wilderness system that is separate from and, yet, complements the NWPS.

US Wilderness Policy
Some management of wilderness resources and experiences is necessary as visitor use increases and surrounding land management and use affect the wilderness area. The idea that we need management in an area that was intended to be free of the influences of modern human activities may appear paradoxical. However, wilderness stewardship is the management of human uses of wilderness and internal and external influences on wilderness to protect and preserve an area’s solitude and naturalness, including natural processes and conditions.

The NWPS has established wilderness areas that are representative or remnants of ecosystem types that form the core areas to maintain natural conditions and processes. These wilderness areas are serve as the genetic pool necessary to support landscape wide sustainability, especially were they have connectivity with other necessary natural features and lands. They also provide basic ecological services necessary for human life such as clean water and air.

The guiding principles for managing wilderness areas revolve around the idea that wilderness needs to be managed as a pristine extreme in the landscape to maintain the distinctive qualities that define and separate wilderness from other land uses. Wilderness is managed from the biologically centered perspective. Environmental integrity and primeval conditions of wilderness are the basis for any human enjoyment, values, and benefits.

Managing wilderness as an ecosystem and not as a separate set of resource types (e.g., water, forests, wildlife) focuses managers on a more comprehensive perspective on the protected area. Most wilderness areas represent the remnants of ecosystems or entire ecosystems and, as such, need to be protected for present and future generations if they are to be available to experience and enjoy. In addition, it is imperative that human uses and influences be managed to preserve wilderness conditions and characteristics because without such stewardship these remaining areas would lose their unique value in the U.S. landscape.

If wilderness is to be managed to maintain or improve wilderness conditions and not allow degradation on sites or across the area, then an understanding of the carrying capacity of the area to sustain recreational use is essential. One of the major components in managing wilderness recreational use is to manage use in favor of recreation and human activities that depend on wilderness conditions to achieve their goals, while not degrading the wilderness conditions. In other words, there are other places to have various recreational experiences that do not require wilderness conditions. Thus, only those activities that require such conditions should be allowed in wilderness, and only as much as the area can sustain while maintaining its wilderness conditions and processes.

Wilderness As A National And International Movement
The American public is strongly supportive of wilderness designation and the NWPS. A summary of seven different surveys in the United States from 1999 through 2002 that showed 48% to 81% of respondents supported designating more wilderness land in the United States into the NWPS.  Although there is widespread public support for wilderness, there are divergent and polarized viewpoints on how to define wilderness, ranging from extreme protectionists who believe that humans have no place in wilderness to the utilitarian interests that hold that wilderness is a setting for economic development for recreation and tourism activities.

The U.S. legislative model has influenced some forms of international wilderness protection, although the variation in level and type of protection is complex and based on the cultural and legislative history in each country. The concept of wilderness is universal, but the national legislative approach used in the United States has been widely adopted by other countries, such as Canada, Australia, Finland, Russia, and South Africa. Many countries around the world have strong public support for wilderness and related organizations that support wilderness designation and stewardship.

Wilderness preservation is a national and international movement comprising grass roots and membership organizations interested in protection and stewardship of our dwindling wild areas. Although the concept and values of wilderness are supported by the general population of the United States and many other countries, it is the continued support and work of many people and organizations that stimulate the legislative and administrative branches of our government to continue their efforts to maintain parts of our country wild for present and future generations.

The NWPS is an inter-generational attempt to protect natural landscapes and natural functioning ecosystems in perpetuity. Recreation is accommodated, but only when and where compatible with the primary purpose of wilderness, which is preservation of naturalness. In today’s world of increasing population and expanding development, preserving wild lands requires some level of management. The Wilderness Act acknowledged that perhaps some areas of the United States should stay wild for its own sake and to provide solitude and wilderness experiences. The long-term results are that the natural forces and processes that shaped and formed the lands in the NWPS will be evident in the wilderness areas that we leave for future generations.

Selected Bibliography
  • Abbey, Edward. 1969. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
  • Backus, David (Editor). 2001. Sigurd F. Olson: The Meaning of Wilderness – Essential Articles and Speeches. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Brower, David. 1990. For Earth's Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower. Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith.
  • Brower, David. 1964. Wildlands in Our Civilization. San Fransico, CA: Sierra Club.
  • Cajune, J., Martin, V.G., and Tanner, T. (Eds.). 2008. Protecting wild nature on native lands: Case studies by native peoples from around the world (volume 1). Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing.
  • Callicott, J. B. and M. P. Nelson (Editors). 1998. The Great New Wilderness Debate. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.
  • Cordell, H.K., Bergstrom, J.C., and Bowker, J.M. 2005. The multiple values of wilderness. State College, Pennsylvania: Venture Publishing, Inc.
  • Cronon, William (ed.). 1995. Uncommon Ground: Towards Reinventing Nature. New York, NY: W.W. Norton ; 1995.
  • Dawson, C.P. and Hendee, J.C. 2009. Wilderness management: Stewardship and protection of resources and values (4th edition). Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
  • Flader, Susan. 1974. Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude Towards Deer, Wolves, and Forests. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press.
  • Foreman, Dave. 2004. Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  • Frome, Michael. 1997.  Battle for the wilderness (revised edition). Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press.
  • Frome, Michael. 1992. Regreening the National Parks. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Glover, James M. 1986. A Wilderness Original: The Life Of Bob Marshall. Seattle, WA : Mountaineers.
  • Harvey, M. 2005. Wilderness forever: Howard Zahniser and the path to the Wilderness Act. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
  • Harvey, Mark (editor). 2014. The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zahniser. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
  • Kerasote, Ted (ed.). 2001. Return of the Wild: The Future of Our National Lands. Island Press.
  • Kormos, C.F. (ed.). 2008. A handbook on international wilderness law and policy. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing.
  • Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Lorbiecki, Marybeth. 1996. Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire. Helena and Billings, MT: Falcon Publishing.
  • Meine, Curt. 1989. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Muir, John.  1980. Wilderness Essays.  Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs-Smith Publisher.
  • Muir, John. 1973. Gentle Wilderness: The Sierra Nevadas. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club.
  • Muir, John. 1998. Heaven on Earth: Explorations into the Wilderness. Austin, Texas: Press Intermezzo.
  • Murie, Adolph. 1963. A Naturalist in Alaska. New York, NY: Devin-Adair.
  • Murie, Margaret and Olaus. 1966. The Wapiti Wilderness. New York, NY: Knopf.
  • Nash, Roderick. 2001. Wilderness and the American Mind (4th Edition). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Oelschlaeger, Max. 1991. The Idea of Wilderness from Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Olson, Sigurd F.  2001. The Meaning of Wilderness: Essential Articles and Speeches. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Olson, Sigurd F. 1976. Reflections from the North Country. New York, NY: Knopf.
  • Schaefer, Paul. 1989. Defending the Wilderness: The Adirondack Writings of Paul Schaefer. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  • Scott, D. 2004. The enduring wilderness: Protecting our natural heritage through the Wilderness Act. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing.
  • Sutter, P.S. 2002. Driven wild: How the fight against automobiles launched the modern wilderness movement. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
  • Vickery, Jim dale. 1986. Wilderness Visionaries. Merrillville, IN: ICS Books, Inc.
  • Wolf, Tom. 2008. Arthur Carhart: Wilderness Prophet. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.
  • Zahniser, Ed (ed.). 1992. Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings OfHowardZahniser.Utica, NY: North Country Books.

Further Reading on the Internet
Wilderness.net (www.wilderness.net)
International Journal of Wilderness (www.ijw.org)
The Wilderness Society (www.wilderness.org)
Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org)
American Wilderness Coalition (www.americanwilderness.org)
Campaign for America’s Wilderness (www.leaveitwild.org)
Wilderness Watch (www.wildernesswatch.org)
National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org)
The WILD Foundation (www.wild.org)
Conservation International (www.conservation.org)


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OVERVIEW: New York State is where wilderness preservation began in America read more >
Guidelines and Suggestions for NY State Wilderness 50th Anniversary Celebrations read more >
The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act
read more >
The Adirondack Park: Where Wilderness Preservation Began read more >
Celebration of 50 Years of Wilderness Protection read more >

Archives for Wilderness 50th Celebration











The mission of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve is to advance New York’s ‘Forever Wild’ legacy and Forest Preserve policies in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and promote public and private land stewardship that is consistent with wild land values through education, advocacy and research.

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