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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

48 Years of Gratitude for the 1964 Wilderness Act

Boulder River Wilderness
Yesterday marked the 48th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which has been used to protect nearly 110 million acres of land to date.

Forty-eight years ago, the environmental movement was in its infancy. Rachael Carson had only recently published Silent Spring and the nation was becoming more aware of the precarious state of the natural environment. After decades of unchecked dumping of municipal and industrial waste many water bodies were ecologically dead, some were even prone to catching fire. The nation’s public lands were in no better shape and were under constant attack from the mining and timber industries.

It was in the late 60’s that many people began waking up to this unchecked degradation of the natural environment. The 1964 Wilderness Act was one of the first pieces of legislation that passed during this new era of environmental awareness and activism.

In 1955, Howard Zahniser, then Executive Director of The Wilderness Society, composed the first draft of what later became the Wilderness Act. The next year bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate with the purpose of creating a national wilderness preservation system to prevent the destruction of pristine public lands and to keep them wild in perpetuity. Eight years later, after 18 hearings and 66 versions of the bill, President Lyndon Johnson signed The Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964.

It was a bold piece of legislation that would help pave the way for a new conservation movement that focused on ensuring America’s public lands were being managed with conservation in mind by creating a nation-wide Wilderness Preservation system. The Wilderness Act also helped pave the way for other important policies that set management guidelines for our public lands. Today, the Wilderness Act is still used to protect public lands from development and help keep conservation at the forefront of public lands management.

Originally, the law established 9.1 million acres of national forest Wilderness Areas that were previously protected under administrative orders. In Washington, Glacier Peak (458,105 acres) and Mt. Adams (42,411 acres) were designated as Wilderness under the passage of the 1964 Act. It wasn’t until 1976, that the Wilderness Preservation system in Washington was expanded again.

Washington Wild (formerly Washington Wilderness Coalition) was founded in 1979 in part to organize across Washington State from Spokane to Vancouver and from Yakima to Bellingham around an anticipated opportunity to expand the Wilderness Preservation System in Washington State.  In 1984, after years of hard work and perseverance, WW was able to use the Wilderness Act to greatly expand the designated Wilderness in Washington by adding 19 areas to the system and adding over a million acres of new wilderness statewide. 

Today, Washington State is ranked 5th in the nation for the amount of acreage of federally designated Wilderness. Washington currently boosts 31 Wilderness units, totaling 4.4 million acres, and we are still striving to protect wild lands throughout Washington State through advocacy, education, and civic engagement.  

Washington Wild is working hard to continue the legacy of the 1964 Wilderness Act by adding additional areas to the Wilderness Preservation System. In the Olympic National Forest, WW and our coalition partners are advocating for the passage of legislation that would add 126,000 acres of Wilderness to the ONF. This legislation is sponsored by Congressman Norm Dicks and Senator Patty Murray. WW has been working for 3 years to build local support for additional Wilderness designation in the ONF.

Additionally, WW has been leading charge to get legislation passed that would expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area adding low-elevation, old-growth forests to this Wilderness area. It would be a great anniversary gift to the legacy of the Wilderness Act to get some more areas added to the system. WW hopes to deliver this gift to the current and future generations of Washington. 

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