The Wilderness Act: A Triple Anniversary


This year marks a triple anniversary for a pioneering American innovation, which is achieving unparalleled popularity in these parts as well as other corners of the world. The innovation is the conservationist vision for creating wilderness areas as destinations to replenish the soul and wild places to preserve for future generations.

Saving wilderness has been a struggle for many generations. A century ago, in 1924, 755,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico became the world’s first designated wilderness. Hitherto, particularly in Europe, wildlands were hunting grounds reserved for royalty or marked for development.

The year 1964 saw President Lyndon Johnson sign legislation creating the National Wilderness Preservation System, protecting 9.1 million acres for “use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner that will leave them unimpaired for future uses as wilderness and preserve their untouched character.”

In 1984, the third of our triple anniversaries, President Ronald Reagan signed a million-acre Washington Wilderness bill, largely the work of two men who had campaigned against each other the year before – Sen. Dan Evans and U.S. Rep. Mike Lowry. By this time, national acreage designated as wilderness by Congress had soared above 100 million acres. It has since climbed to 111.7 million acres – in 44 of 50 states.

Washington state has experienced great battles over its wild places. The timber industry’s clout has steadily diminished. Our state’s wilderness areas, created by popular demand, range from the 6,000-acre Juniper Dunes Wilderness, northeast of the Tri-Cities to the 877,000 Daniel J. Evans Wilderness which encompasses 95 percent of Olympic National Park. Evans started hiking the back country when he was 12 years old.

Wilderness battles used to feature lineups of protesting logging trucks, hostile county commissioners, and bumper stickers bearing such slogans as “Sierra Club: Kiss My Axe.” Nowadays, in a technology-driven economy, popular hiking destinations feature lineups of cars at the trailhead and permit systems to prevent popular places from being overrun. When hikers Bill and Peg Stark first ventured into the Enchantment Lakes, a vertical mile above Leavenworth, they felt as if they were the first persons ever to visit this wonderland. Nowadays, the Enchantments are the most sought-after permit in the National Forest system.

Still, wilderness preservation encompasses only 5 percent of America’s land mass, and just 2.7 percent if you exclude Alaska. Protection used to be a bipartisan cause, harking back to Teddy Roosevelt. Not, Republicans in Congress have become hostile to it. Two million acres were added early in the Obama Administration – most prominently the spectacular Owyhee River canyon in Idaho – but a decade went by with little new designation.

Climate change is also impacting our wildlands. Temperatures have risen while the winter snowpack has fallen. The Hinman Glacier in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Anderson Glacier in the Olympic National Park have completely melted away over the past quarter-century. The South Cascade Glacier, monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey since 1959, has retreated and lost more than half its volume. 

Nationally, the case for wilderness was initially made by a small cadre of people working in far distant corners of the country. The first wilderness in New Mexico was created by an imaginative U.S. Forest Service superintendent and author (A Sand County Almanac) named Aldo Leopold. The 1964 Wilderness Act had its inspiration deep in the Brooks Range of Arctic Alaska with researchers Olaus and Mardy Murie and pilot-conservationist Celia Hunter. The actual legislation was drafted by Howard Zahniser, executive director of The Wilderness Society.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation played a role as well. Its longtime chief, Floyd E. Dominy, championed the Echo Park Dam project, sited in the middle of Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument. The project spawned outrage, as well as studies challenging BuRec’s overstated estimates of its benefits. While blocked, it opened up thinking of what could be done to prepare for future battles. In Zahniser’s words, “Let us be done with a wilderness preservation program made up of a sequence of overlapping emergencies, threats, and defense campaigns.”

Washington played a prominent role in the evolution of wilderness preservation. During a 1937 tour of the Olympic Peninsula, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was shocked at the expanse of ugly clearcuts and said in an aside: “I hope the son-of-a-bitch who logged that is rotting in hell.” He returned to the other Washington and helped design a national park in the Olympics which pioneered the preservation of rain forest valleys in addition to high places. Conservationists succeeded in beating back repeated efforts to remove timber-rich valley lands, particularly on the Bogachiel and Calawah Rivers, from the park.

The Forest Service and Kennicott Copper played into the hands of conservationists, notably with the creation of the 566,075-acre Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. In bed with the loggers, the federal agency proposed a “primitive area” composed mostly of rocks and ice, pointedly leaving unprotected the Suiattle River valley. 

I remember witnessing advocacy and anger at a hearing in Bellingham, during which a nabob from the Puget Sound Pulp & Timber Co., lampooned wilderness advocates as “birdwatchers.” To which a local Explorer Scout leader replied: “You’re the birdwatcher, mister. The bird you’re watching is the eagle on the dollar bill.”

Kennicott proposed to construct a giant copper mine in the middle of the wilderness,  citing legal authority under the permissive 1872 Mining Law. The Sierra Club ran full page newspaper ads headlined “An Open Pit Visible From the Moon.” It wasn’t true, of course, but author John McPhee observed in his book Encounters With the Archdruid, exaggeration has been a basic weapon of the conservation movement and frequently deployed.

A Mt. Vernon physician, Fred Darvill, bought three shares of Kennicott stock, allowing him to show up in New York at the company’s annual meeting. He came armed with pictures of Image Lake, a famous beauty spot adjoining the mine site. The result was national attention to a remote place. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a protest hike against the proposed mine. Eventually the project was abandoned.

The state’s last lineup of logging trucks took place as Congress took up creation of an Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the “land of 600 lakes” between Stevens and Snoqualmie Passes. Again, the Forest Service and timber companies tried to exclude valleys. When Congress finally hammered out a 394,000-acre bill, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz urged a presidential veto. Then-Gov. Dan Evans came to the White House armed with a Mountaineers book on the area’s beauties. President Gerald Ford signed the legislation.

The biggest creation to wilderness came when Congress rushed passage of the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act, weeks before Reagan took office.  It not only created America’s largest park – the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve – but gave wilderness designation to 56 million acres of land in the 49th state. Much of the protected land is temperate rain forest in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

The results of a century of struggle: 43.9 million acres of America enjoy the double protection of national park protection and wilderness designation. A total of 36.16 million acres of national forest land are incorporated into the National Wilderness Preservation System. Twenty million acres of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land plus 8 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land are similarly protected. One BLM wilderness, a haven for rock climbers, begins across the street from the Red Rock Casino & Spa in Las Vegas. 

In its most famous phrase, written by Zahnister, the 1964 Wilderness Act defined wilderness 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.” The definition has been tested in court, most prominently a challenge to the Forest Service for using a helicopter to supply rebuilding of the Green Mountain Lookout in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. An adverse court ruling, directing removal of the new lookout, was reversed by Congress.

Claims that federal lands are being “locked up” have receded over the years, and the Sagebrush Rebellion has largely died down. We’ve even seen one indication in Congress of wilderness popularity. An additional 1.3 million acres of designation was put into a 2018 bill crafted to enhance environmental credentials of endangered Republican senators in Colorado and Montana.

Years ago, a delegation from the Federation of Western Outdoors Clubs came calling on the supervisor of the Wenatchee National Forest. “Just what do you people want?” asked Andy Wright. The answer was a national park, with wilderness protection for surrounding national forest lands. They got it. There is now more protection in the North Cascades than proposed in books and maps outlining conservationists’ original campaigns to protect the “American Alps.”

One iron rule has governed preservation campaigns: Always ask for more.  The rule is backed up by lots of folks seeking places untrammeled by man and told where to go by Washington Trails Association maps and Mountaineers’ hiking guides.

The starvation of Forest Service budgets has left access roads and trails to go to seed, putting more and more people on fewer trails. When needles on larch trees turn gold in early October, long lineups of cars can be found at Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway and the Teanaway River’s north fork bordering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Super-fit hikers have taken to doing a one-day, 16-mile traverse through the Enchantments. 

The latest cause – it is now 13 years old – is the Wild Olympics campaign. It would create 126,661 acres of’ new wilderness protection on Olympic National Forest land, which surrounds the national park like a donut. Nineteen streams and tributaries would receive an additional layer of protection as Wild and Scenic Rivers. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer has twice achieved passage of the legislation, but the Senate has yet to act.

Starting more than 70 years ago with the preservation campaign for the North Cascades, and extending to the Wild Olympics campaign, impetus has come from the bottom up. It’s a citizen movement. The late Sen. Henry Jackson, when lobbied, would deliver a message to conservationists: Go out and demonstrate support. Make me do it. He is the namesake of a 103,297-acre wilderness in eastern Snohomish County.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. Thank you, Joel. Stellar history!!!! I have passed it along to my group of peers, the local chapter of the “Great Old Broads for the Wilderness”.


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