The Wilderness Act

US #5298l features the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado. Click image to order.

On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act.  The act protected 9 million acres from development and created the National Wilderness Preservation System that consists of more than 111 million acres today.

There has long been a debate over the protection of wilderness areas.  Wilderness is defined as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Some believed that it was important to protect these areas; that they are necessary to balance out industrial expansion.  Those that oppose it argued that it was senseless to lock away the valuable resources that these lands held. 

US #3378 pictures the Pacific Coast Rainforest, an area of pristine wilderness in Olympic National Park. Click image to order.

The fight reached a high in the 1950s when the federal government proposed building the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument.  Several environmental groups including the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club opposed the development, arguing that the land should be protected to preserve its natural resources.  By 1955, the government decided to abandon the project.

Item #CNWAOL25D – Olympic National Park is home to several designated Wilderness areas. Click image to order.

Among those who participated in the fight was Howard Zahniser, an officer in the Wilderness Society.  After their victory, he proposed that they take further steps to protect more lands, by introducing legislation.  He composed the first draft of his Wilderness Act in 1956.  It would place all wildlands and unspoiled areas (without roads or accommodations) into a wilderness system.  This system would protect those lands from development and set up a system to add in lands from national parks, monuments, and other federally protected lands.

US #2189 from the Great Americans Series. Click image to order.

That same year, Hubert H. Humphrey and John Saylor submitted Zahniser’s bill.  It faced significant opposition, particularly from people involved in the western mining, grazing, and timber industries.  Over the next eight years, the bill was rewritten 66 times.  Finally, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson openly expressed his support for the bill, which led to several compromises that helped it to pass Congress.  President Johnson then signed it into law on September 3, 1964. 

US #1503 was issued on Johnson’s 65th birthday.  Click image to order.

The final Wilderness Act set aside far less land than Zahniser had originally imagined, some exceptions were made for usage, and Congress had to pass an act to add more land to the Wilderness System.  While they had scored a major victory in getting the bill passed, some environmentalists were disappointed at the number of compromises that had been made.  

Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System consists of over 800 designated wilderness areas, consisting of over 111 million acres.  The National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the US Fish, and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management manage these lands. 

Click here to read the Wilderness Act and here to visit the Wilderness Society’s website.

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8 responses to "The Wilderness Act"

8 thoughts on “The Wilderness Act”

  1. Good article Mystic. Touches on the struggle we face with protecting the natural beauty of our great nation for present and future generations to enjoy against the greed of some (not all) well financed big corporations. Some (not all) politicians cannot resist taking money from these corporations who contribute to their campaigns in exchange for voting favorably on legislation that impacts their bottom line. And some administrations have been known to underfund the agencies that oversee the National Wilderness Preservation System.

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    • Fair enough, Bond. Just remember, one can say the following and still be every bit as correct as you were in your words, and have the same convictions in their beliefs. ” Good article Mystic. Touches on the struggle we face with protecting the future livelihoods of our great nation for present and future generations to enjoy against the greed of some (not all) well financed environmental groups. Some (not all) politicians cannot resist taking money from these organizations who contribute to their campaigns in exchange for voting favorably on legislation that impacts their bottom line. And some administrations have been known to overfund the agencies that oversee the National Wilderness Preservation System.

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  2. We should be grateful that LBJ was one of our presidents who understood the value of a compromise. No one gets everything, but everyone gets something. I’m afraid that today, both sides would have dug in and neither would have gotten what was best for all. Another lesson to be learned thanks to Mystic.

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  3. All of the above persons are correct in there comments, it just goes to show that there are difference in opinions ,I for one am a vet so I go with Brian

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  4. I have commented on articles about National Parks several times by quoting author Wallace Stegner, “National Parks are the best idea America had.” I’m going to expand that by saying that creating National Parks and setting aside Wilderness Areas are the two best ideas America ever had. I have visited several Wilderness Areas here in California where you can hike, camp, fish, hunt, take photographs, and simply enjoy nature. But no structures can be build nor roads built. Motorized vehicles and even bicycles are prohibited on the trails. As Theodore once commented about the Grand Canyon, (this may be a paraphrase) “Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve it.”

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