Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The National Wilderness Preservation System, Part 1: Birthed by Congress in Language Both Poetical and Practical

This is the first installment of a three-part series on the National Wilderness Preservation System. Part 1 examines the beginnings of the system by enactment into law of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Part 2 will chronicle past great progress and the current great stagnation. Part III will demand a rededication to wilderness for the benefit of this and future generations.

Figure 1.  Mount Hood is within the Mount Hood Wilderness (established in 1964, and expanded in 1978 and 2009). The picture was taken from Larch Mountain near the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness (established in 1984 and expanded in 2009) . Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

Figure 1. Mount Hood is within the Mount Hood Wilderness (established in 1964, and expanded in 1978 and 2009). The picture was taken from Larch Mountain near the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness (established in 1984 and expanded in 2009). Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

The passage of the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964, is an extraordinary landmark in the history of American conservation and law. It culminated an epic struggle begun in the 1950s, the groundwork for which was laid in the 1930s, if not the 1870s. With the president’s signature, Congress went on record with a remarkable articulation of the wilderness ideal.

Purposes, in Poetical and Practical Terms

Anyone who has ever been bored or confused reading federal statutory language will be struck by the poetry Congress used in the preamble to the Wilderness Act of 1964:

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.

Congress then went on to specify exactly what would constitute federally designated wilderness:

For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by the Congress as “wilderness areas,” and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a 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.

Poetical and Practical Guidelines on Inclusion and Management

Congress was very careful to distinguish what kind of land qualifies for inclusion in the wilderness system and how such lands are to be managed once part of the wilderness system. Congress described wilderness in poetical terms in Section 2(c) of the Wilderness Act:

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 community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Congress then defined wilderness in practical terms:

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.[emphasis added]

Congress has been flexible about allowing past developments in several wilderness areas, including an old clear-cut 1 square mile in size (in the Grassy Knob Wilderness), a major logging road with old clear-cuts at its terminus (in the Cummins Creek Wilderness and several others), and numerous “jeep trails.” Congress knew that, over time, these unnatural features would be reclaimed by nature. Opponents of wilderness designation often use the argument that only lands that have been managed as wilderness—without any human impacts—qualify as wilderness, but Congress has mainly decided otherwise.

In providing for the management of wilderness, Congress was restrictive:

Except as otherwise provided in this Act, each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area and shall so administer such area for such other purposes for which it may have been established as also to preserve its wilderness character. Except as otherwise provided in this Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.

Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

Figure 2.  Three Arch Rocks in the Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge and Three Arch Rocks Wilderness, both the one and the same 17 acres in size.  Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

Figure 2. Three Arch Rocks in the Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge and Three Arch Rocks Wilderness, both the one and the same 17 acres in size. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

A Remarkable and Prescient Act

Consider just how remarkable the passage of the Wilderness Act was. Our nation’s history has almost entirely been one of ever-expanding settlement and the conquest of nature. Destruction of wilderness was simply a by-product of “progress.” In the waning days of the 88th Congress, our elected officials not only waxed poetic but also stated unequivocally that “progress” can go too far and that, unless specific actions were taken to preserve wilderness, an “increasing population,” “expanding settlement,” and “growing mechanization” would eventually “modify all areas” of the country (emphasis added).

For an institution that can rarely see beyond the next election, the passage of the Wilderness Act was unusually prescient. Most of the wilderness initially preserved by Congress in the act remains protected to this day. Even those who profit or receive psychic benefit from the inexorable march of “progress” recognize the political folly of trying to undermine the value of protected wilderness. Since enactment of the Wilderness Act, the debate has evolved to consider how much, what kind, and where, but whether we need wilderness is no longer in question.

Note: Much of part 1 first appeared in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (Timber Press, 2004), by the author.