Wilderness Act turns 50: Time to honor land left wild

What is wilderness? As stated in the Wilderness Act, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his 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.”

Many of us enjoy the scenic and solitude benefits that our wilderness areas provide. But wilderness was also set aside for other uses such as scientific, historic, conservation and educational purposes. There is something for everyone in wildness.

Sept. 3, 2014, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson, thereby establishing our National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). The San Juan National Forest, wilderness advocacy groups, and community members and volunteers are planning celebrations throughout the year, culminating on Sept. 27 in Durango with a Wilderness Walk.

Colorado has over 3.5 million acres of federally protected wilderness contained within 41 separate wilderness areas. Locally we have the Weminuche, the largest in the state, with over 500,000 acres; the Lizard Head near Telluride; and the South San Juan near Pagosa.

Below are listed some facts about wilderness captured from the website: www.wilderness.net. This is an excellent website with an abundance of information about the National Wilderness Preservation System. Please go there and become more informed about our great American treasure: wilderness.

The United States was the first country in the world to define and designate wilderness areas through law. Subsequently, countries around the world have protected areas modeled after the Wilderness Act. In 1964; our nation’s leaders formally acknowledged the immediate and lasting benefits of wild places to the human spirit and fabric of our nation. That year, in a nearly unanimous vote, Congress enacted landmark legislation that permanently protected some of the most natural and undisturbed places in America.

When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 54 areas (9.1 million acres) in 13 states were designated as wilderness. This law established these areas as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Since 1964, the NWPS has grown almost every year and now includes 757 areas (109,511,966 acres) in 44 states and Puerto Rico.

Overall, however, only about 5 percent of the entire United States – an area slightly larger than the state of California – is protected as wilderness. Because Alaska contains just over half of America’s wilderness, only about 2.7 percent of the contiguous United States – an area about the size of Minnesota – is protected as wilderness.

Howard Zahniser, famous for his rather large overcoat containing numerous inside pockets, wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956. It took nine years and 65 rewrites. In August 1964, after the Senate had passed it for the second time, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Wilderness Act of 1964 – with only one dissenting vote. He and many other early conservationists such as Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall and Arthur Carhart are credited with championing the concept of land to be set aside for “the good of the whole people.”

Another informative website is www. wilderness50.org. Please mark your calendars for the Wilderness Walk and stay tuned for other community events throughout the year commemorating this great event.

San Juan Mountains Association is a nonprofit 501(c)3 dedicated to public land stewardship and education, and partners with the San Juan National Forest, Bureau of Land Management Tres Rios Field Office and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, BLM, in addition to other organizations in Southwest Colorado.

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