On its 50th anniversary, a look at the historical forces that forged the Wilderness Act, and what wildlands mean to us today. By Hal Herring

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors July-August 2014 issue

For a few years at the end of the 1980s, I managed a small ranch west of Stevensville, in the shadow of the mighty Bitterroot Mountains. Our irrigation water came from North Kootenai Creek, by way of an old and oft-plugged headgate a half mile up the canyon above the ranch. A trail ran beside the creek, which varied by season from a knee-deep pour of water as clear as mountain air—a luxurious place to lie down in the noon heat of summer—to a frothing monster that could and did take the lives of children and grownups alike during years of heavy snowmelt.

My life was smaller then, circumscribed by the six-days-a-week commitment to the ranch, but it was huge, almost boundless, in another way. On Sundays, or when haying was done and the irrigating work not yet resumed, I would follow the trail beyond the headgate, threading the shoulder-high thimbleberry bushes in the shade of the mighty cliffs, watching the dippers flit back and forth in the shafts of sunlight falling to the creek, and simply walk west. The drainage—one of the dozens of colossal U-shaped glacier scours that carve the range from west to east—yawned endless, bound by the black fortress cliffs and towers to the north, the vast tongues of gray talus tumbling beneath them. Ancient fire-scarred ponderosa pines cast their scent of vanilla from sun-heated bark, and raspberries, currants, and serviceberries grew in verdant thickets wherever there was enough light. After 4 miles or so, you passed the wooden sign that marked the border of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, and the trail became a bit narrower, the landscape even more overwhelming. The Kootenai Lakes lay another 5 miles in, an alpine world of fierce cirques and sodden, melt-saturated meadows carpeted with a hallucinatory blend of blooming wildflowers. This was summer elk country, and mountain goat country, along with marmots, black bears, moose, and an occasional big mule deer buck stalking the subalpine firs and whitebark pines, alone and wary. This was, to me, solitude writ large, self-reliance, adventure, freedom. It was Wilderness, with a capital W, a place far apart from that crowded world where the concerns of mankind overwhelmed every other sound and almost every thought.

Over the next 15 years or so, I spent some part of each year in different parts of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, hunting, snowshoeing and skiing, fishing, and wandering aimless as a spiderweb on the wind, in fair weather and foul. A few times I crossed the mountains all the way to the Selway River in Idaho, where I slept nights in the white sand carried there by snowmelt floods, caught rubber boas on the trail and dodged rattlers in the scree, ate blue grouse and cutthroats and suckers cooked on tiny fire pits gouged out of the river gravels. I was caught in a forest fire, benighted by cliffs and blizzards, and humbled by exhaustion, heat, and cold, and by the profound and ancient truth that here you were truly on your own, to exult or despair according to your abilities and tenacity.

I look back on those days and weeks now and am astonished how powerful those experiences were, how a wild place like that can inhabit you, become a part of who you are, forever.

“Man himself a visitor”
The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 50 years ago, the same year I was born. I and the millions of Americans born that year and since have never known an America without a designated wilderness, from the 5.5-acre Pelican Island in northern Florida to the Selway-Bitterroot to the sprawling 9 million acres of glacier, alpine forest, and raging rivers in Alaska’s Wrangell-Saint Elias. The United States is home to over 109 million acres of designated wilderness (53 percent in Alaska) scattered across 44 states and Puerto Rico. That’s a lot of room to roam and experience some of the last landscapes on our planet not dedicated solely to the material progress of mankind. The Wilderness Act itself may say it best: “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....”

On a planet of over seven billion human souls (more than double the population in 1964), and at a time when industrialization and agricultural conversion have, while raising living standards for countless millions of people, transformed an estimated half of the entire surface of the planet, Americans have set aside almost 5 percent of their lands as wilderness, a choice that is utterly unique in the world. To understand that choice is a life’s work of scholarship, a time machine flight through our history and beyond to the oldest notions that spiritual truths and meaning could best be sought far from the distractions and fleshpots of the settled places. The Israelites sought and found
wisdom during their 40 years’ sojourn in the deserts, Shinto Buddhism in Japan celebrated wild nature in a way that Europeans never did, and the Chinese of the 5th century revered wilderness as the resting place for the human spirit exhausted by man’s endeavors and wrote some of the world’s most beautiful poetry in homage to it.

By contrast, until the late 19th century, wilderness in America was viewed as desolation, its mere existence an illness to be quickly cured with axe, rifle, and plow. And yet, no designated wilderness areas exist in Israel today, none in China, and only one, closed to public access and consisting of fewer than 14,000 acres, in Japan. It was Americans who would lead the world in protecting wild country and making it available to anyone seeking adventure or solace.

Why, within the span of just two generations, did a people who once feared and reviled wilderness begin to value it so much that they protected more wild lands than any other nation in history? Part of the answer lies in our love of America’s creation story—of the pioneering men, women, and children venturing into the unknown, of the ruggedly independent fur trappers, of Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, Jim Bridger, and John Colter, and the Native Americans they lived with and often fought. Our bookshelves sag under the weight of stories about brave frontiersmen and -women, forged like the hardest steel by the howling dangers of the wildest country. This is the literature and the history that produced John Muir, wandering the high Sierras alone, and Henry David Thoreau in his simple cabin in Concord, writing about Maine’s unconquered Mount Katahdin. This is the history that inspired the influential historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who, in 1893, set off a blazing debate with his “Frontier Thesis” by writing that “American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the...Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.” Turner, like many of his contemporaries,
including Theodore Roosevelt, worried that the closing of the American frontier, with its demands for both cooperation and strong, pragmatic individualism, would pose a direct threat to the future of democracy. Roderick Nash, in his classic study Wilderness and the American Mind, wrote
of the 1890s, “With a considerable sense of shock, Americans...realized that many of the forces which had shaped their national character were disappearing.”

The first half of the 20th century would do nothing—this is an understatement—to dispel those worries. Forests continued to fall, entire rivers were rerouted or drained for economic development, the dust from what was once the Great American Prairie blotted out the sun and stained the streets of New York City. But a conservation ethic began to flower, too, in response to those disasters and
excesses. It would take time—and more trouble—for that to come to full bloom.

Wilderness Time (Click to enlarge)

Wilderness Timeline

When the American economy began to take off after World War II, a nation of outdoor people suddenly found themselves with the time and mobility to take to their woods and fields and rivers. The automobile was king, and the country was in motion, with bountiful natural wonders to see and experience. But there was plenty to see that was disturbing, too.

It was a time of roaring factories, increasing pollution, and urban and suburban sprawl that devoured the rural landscapes cherished, if taken for granted, by many Americans. Over it all hung the threat of the Cold War. For wilderness historian Rick Potts, who spent a 35-year career managing wilderness areas in the West, this complex intersection of American history, a booming economy, and the Cold War explains a lot about how the 1964 Wilderness Act came about. “When you read Roderick Nash, he says that in order to understand why you need wilderness, you first have to have civilization,” Potts says. “Well, we had plenty of civilization by the mid-1950s. At that same time, we had two civilizations that hated each other, both of which had the power to actually destroy the planet.” A natural American reaction to both a bustling, growing nation and the threat of nuclear annihilation, Potts says, was to seek solitude and peace in our last remaining wilderness areas, and to make sure they endured.

As free as Jim Bridger
And endure they have. Even as the pop­ulation of the United States has, like that of the world, more than doubled over the past half century, we’ve held on to some of the wildest landscapes left on the planet. The solitude and peace that our parents and grandparents sought and found in the American wilderness is just as plentiful now as it was in 1964. The self-reliance that Turner and Roosevelt worried that we would lose is still highly valued, and those of us who venture into wildernesses still have it. At a time when accessing big game on private land is becoming increasingly difficult, a hunting
license, some time, and boot leather are all that’s required to reach trophy elk and mule deer country where we can roam and camp at will, almost as free as Jim Bridger or Daniel Boone. Fantastic fishing, backpacking, wildlife watching, and more exist only a few miles from wilderness area trailheads. It’s as good as it has ever been, there for anyone who will simply walk to reach it. Those with the will to do so can enter a world of raging rivers, snow-fed wildflower meadows, vast and ancient forests, yawning desert canyons—a world of peace and solitude and indisputable danger, where wolves howl, grizzly bears brawl over mates, and one false step can easily be your last. What other nation on earth can boast of such abundant access to so much liberty? What other nation on earth would even come up with that idea, much less pass a law like the Wilderness Act?

It’s been some time since I last saw the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, though I’ve been lucky enough to hunt or fish or just wander all over Montana, from the Anaconda Pintler and the Absaroka-Beartooth to the Scapegoat, which is closest to where we live now. My wife and I have fed our son and daughter on the cutthroats and elk of the Bob Marshall, the huckleberries of the Great Burn (proposed wilderness), and the pure wild freedom of the mountains in those and other wild areas. Both son and daughter are on the very brink of being able to walk us into the ground, to leave us behind in their own hunting and seeking. They’ll be self-reliant and strong, as wilderness requires.

The decades to come will challenge those of us who love wilderness, as this country’s population expands and the short-sighted few demonstrate a shameless willingness to sell our birthright, won by the vision and hard work of Americans who came before us. But if the past is any guide, the United States will never go down that ugly path. Instead, we will cherish the gift of America’s wilderness,
nurture it where needed, and expand it where possible and practical. In that likely future, my children, and their children and countless others of those generations, from all over the world, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, on some whitewater creek, in some far valley, to the music of bugling elk and screeching gray jays.Bear bullet

Hal Herring of Augusta is the conservation blog editor for Field & Stream and the author of Famous Firearms of the Old West.


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