The Katmai Wilderness in Alaska protects 15 active volcanoes and—equally important—large numbers of brown bears. ©Eric Rock

Today, November 6, 2012, is Election Day in the United States. This is the day when the American people decide who will become their next president. It also denotes the end of ubiquitous, annoying and often bitter political campaign ads—at least for a while.

So, on this day, it’s especially appropriate to point out that there was a time not so long ago when politicians from all parties could work together to produce something visionary and even eloquent. On September 3, 1964, Congress enacted The Wilderness Act. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 73–12 and the House by 373–1. It’s hard to imagine such a strong, bipartisan consensus in today’s Congress.

Nine million acres of public lands were designated as wildernesses with the initial passing of the act; and since then, more than 100 million acres have been added. But, surprisingly, the act’s ability to protect wild lands may not be its greatest worth: it may be in how it allows those lands to be selected.

Congress designated about 89 percent of Yosemite National Park as the Yosemite Wilderness. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

An act of eloquence

In Section 2(a) of the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress described the need for designating wilderness areas:

“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.”

And in Section 2(c), Congress defined 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.”


Congress defines “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.”

Partly because of such eloquence, the Wilderness Act has often been described as the “gold standard of legislative craftsmanship.” The other part of its beauty is that Congress considers additional proposals for lands to be included under the act every year—some recommended by federal agencies, but many proposed by grassroots conservation groups. The law gives ordinary citizens the tools to fight bottom-up campaigns to protect treasured places, from forests to deserts and from mountains to marshes.

People like you and me have put those tools to spectacularly good use. The Wilderness Act included 54 initial areas covering 9.1 million acres. Today, almost 50 years later, there are 756 wildernesses covering nearly 110 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico—nearly 5 percent of America’s total land area.

Currently, Congressional bills are pending to designate new wilderness areas in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, Utah, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia. And grassroots coalitions are working on proposals for wilderness areas in Arizona, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. The U.S. Forest Service has recommended new wilderness designations, which citizen groups may propose to expand.

The geography of hope

During the debate in Congress over the Wilderness Act more than 50 years ago, writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote in his Wilderness Letter of 1960, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” He ended the letter by saying that wilderness is “a part of the geography of hope.”

During the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2004, people across the nation demonstrated a very hopeful attitude toward and great support for protecting our last wilderness areas. There were “hikes for wilderness” in many states; festivals, such as the Wilderness Fest in Alaska and Wilderbash in Colorado; and many other outdoor activities, lectures and conferences. In 2014, it is hoped that you and your community will find a way to become part of this historical commemoration honoring America’s legacy of wilderness.

A few years ago, a Republican, Jim DiPeso, wrote in The Daily Green, “Fighting for wilderness is like building cathedrals. It’s a lifetime enterprise of the spirit, an expression of our finest aspirations and a gift to unborn generations whose prospects are in our trust.”

You could call grizzly bears a “wilderness-dependent species.” ©Eric Rock

Politics aside, I say, amen to that.

If you could start a grassroots movement for designating the next new wilderness, where would it be and what would you name it?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


Join Natural Habitat Adventures on an exploration of some of America’s greatest wilderness areas on one of our U.S. national park tours, such as a Yellowstone safari or a canyons adventure.