Wilderness 101, Part Two

By Beacon Staff

Our previous Wilderness 101 class covered how Bob Marshall almost single-handedly created the “wilderness movement” in American politics and set the stage for the eventual passage of the law governing wilderness areas on American public lands: The Wilderness Act of 1964.

When Marshall died in 1939, various federal agencies had set aside roughly 5 million acres of tribal wilderness and around 15 million acres of wilderness and primitive areas elsewhere.

But these set-asides were not permanent. Places such as New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, set aside in 1924, and U.S. Forest Service “primitive areas” – such as Montana’s South Fork, Pentagon and Sun River units set aside in 1941 and later combined into the Bob Marshall Wilderness – were all administrative units that could be changed by agency fiat at any time.

For wildernists, making these “wild” areas permanent, while possibly creating more, was the goal. Leading the charge was Howard Zahniser, then executive director of the Wilderness Society (TWS). In 1956, Zahnhiser convinced Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) to introduce the Wilderness Act, which Zahniser had written. The bill passed Congress and became law upon President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature on Sept. 3, 1964.

The Act not only outlines what Congress (and wilderness activists) intended for big-W “Wilderness Areas,” in terms of “wilderness character” and how to define it, but also lays out the process for how and when “Wilderness” should be created.

First, “Wilderness Areas” are “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness was further defined as “undeveloped Federal land” of “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.”

Wilderness areas further had to look like wilderness, have “outstanding” opportunities for solitude, and/or have biotic, geologic, historic or scientific traits worth preserving – all in tracts of at least 5,000 acres.

Next, considering Congress had passed the Muiltiple Use and Sustained Yield Act in 1960, Congress specified which uses would be prohibited. With few exceptions for emergency or necessary administrative needs, “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 [wilderness].”

It is important to note in a 1964 testimony Zahniser gave on behalf of TWS, he presented the Act as “a positive program that will establish an enduring system of areas where we can be at peace and not forever feel that the wilderness is a battleground.”
Clearly, the Wilderness Act was intended to settle the question of permanent wilderness designation and was written and passed as such by Congress. It was certainly written that way:

Section 3 (a) of the Act designated all existing “wild” Forest Service areas, 9.1 million acres worth, as wilderness areas, therefore establishing the “enduring” protections sought by Zahniser and others.

But what about the rest? Section 3 (b) of the Act subjected all Forest Service “primitive” areas (distinct from “wild”) to targeted wilderness-suitability review by the Secretary of Agriculture, to be completed in phases “within ten years after September 30, 1964.” Furthermore, formal wilderness-area designation (and expansions of primitive areas over 5,000 acres) would be effective only upon an act of Congress.

Section 3 (c) instructed the Secretary of Interior to “review every roadless area of five thousand contiguous acres” in national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges, with a similar September 1974 phased deadline. Lands administered by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management are not mentioned in the Act at all.

In other words, the law, basically written by the Wilderness Society, intended that the wilderness issue would not drag on forever, but be settled, on a land base that was fairly limited in extent.

What happened? Hey, remember 1964? The first part of the “Great Society” Sixties? Tonkin Resolution, the Beatles, the Stones? Dope, riots, assassination and internal dissent? Apparently the “don’t trust anyone over thirty” crowd that now lead today’s wilderness organizations never learned much respect for old folks’ rules. Next class we’ll discuss how they made their own rules.

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