Fifty years ago today, on September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law The Wilderness Act. I think it may be the best law ever signed by a President. The Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which today includes more than 750 wilderness areas in the United States, encompassing more than 109 million acres, including four Federal Wilderness Areas in North Dakota.
Last night at supper, Lillian said “We should celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by going to a wilderness area and going for a hike.” Done. As the sun rises in the east this morning, we will be headed west to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where we will get out of the car and hike into one of North Dakota’s four small wilderness areas—the others are in the South Unit of the Park, the Lostwood Wildlife Refuge and the Chase Lake Wildlife Refuge. I hope there will be people at all of them, celebrating this morning. But not too many.
I am lucky enough to be married to a woman who has dedicated her life to Wilderness. Lillian was raised on a Bad Lands ranch, and, through her mother, who was raised on that same ranch, has the Bad Lands in her blood. It was the idea of preservation of some of those Bad Lands that brought us together—you’ve read about the famous “Bullion Butte Topo Map” on this blog before. Here’s a refresher if you’ve forgotten.
Fifteen years ago, Lillian and a friend founded an organization seeking to expand the federal wilderness area in North Dakota, and named it the Badlands Conservation Alliance. They incorporated it as a 501 C 3 non-profit organization and set to work. They understood that North Dakota needs more Wilderness. There are four more areas, in our Bad Lands, which are still roadless and are classified federally as “suitable for wilderness.” I’ve written about them before. You can read more about them here. BCA’s work has shifted from one of promotion of formal Wilderness designation to one of survival for the “suitable for wilderness” designation, as a result of the Bakken Blitz. But someday . . .
As I sat at my computer last night, I wanted to write my thoughts about the importance of wilderness. And then I thought of Wallace Stegner’s famous Wilderness Letter and decided I could not do better. I’ll share an excerpt from it here, some of the greatest words ever written, and provide a link to the entire text of the letter. I hope today you will take the time to read it, and thank the Congress of the United States—those were the days, the 1960’s, when Congress actually did good things—and President Lyndon Johnson, for giving us this marvelous gift.
Here’s the excerpt from Stegner’s letter. You can read the whole thing by going here.
Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; If we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.
Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there–important, that is, simply as an idea.
The Wilderness Act itself is a marvelous piece of work. I don’t know who actually wrote the words, probably some Congressional staffer with help from an environmental lobbyist, but it was good enough to inspire a Congress, a President, and then a Nation, to act.Here’s how it starts:
WILDERNESS SYSTEM ESTABLISHED STATEMENT OF POLICY
Section 2.(a) 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. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as ”wilderness areas”, and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness; and no Federal lands shall be designated as ”wilderness areas” except as provided for in this Act or by a subsequent Act.
And then it contains this magnificent definition of what Wilderness is:
DEFINITION OF WILDERNESS
(c) 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 (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.
“Untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor . . . ” Doesn’t that sound like a place you’d want to go to? Today? Well, the coffee is made, there’s a hint of false dawn in the east, and there are some wild things in some wild places calling to my partner and me. We will drive both directions today with the sun in our rear view mirror. In between, we will spend this day, with a water bottle in one hand and a walking stick in the other, with those wild things in those wild places. What could be better than that?
If you want to know more about Wilderness and how you can get involved, visit the Wilderness Society’s website. It has a wonderful domain name: www.wilderness.org. And if you want to see what good government can provide, something we’v e not seen much of lately, here’s a link to the actual Wilderness Act itself.