September 5th, 2012 by

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. Credit: USFWS/Flickr

I’d like to take a moment to celebrate a major landmark in U.S. environmental policy that happened this week 48 years ago. Approved on September 3rd, the Wilderness Act of 1964 became the first piece of legislation in the U.S. to grant protection of designated wilderness areas under federal law. To protect these areas, the Wilderness Act first inaugurated a legal, yet surprisingly poetic, definition of 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 community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The bill not only captured the essence of wilderness, but it also protected these designated areas under law. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, it established the National Wilderness Preservation System. Originally, the system was comprised of around nine million acres of wilderness. That’s less than half of a percent of the total land base in the U.S. But today, the system covers more than 107 million acres of lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In order to add land to the National Wilderness Preservation System, land management agencies — as well as organizations and coalitions — determine what areas need federal protection and see if they fit the criteria listed under the Wilderness Act. Recommendations are then submitted and reviewed by Congress on a state-by-state basis. Click here for an infograph of how the U.S. Forest Service recommends new wilderness areas. Once an area is federally designated wilderness, it’s protected from road construction, logging, mining, and motor vehicles.

Rocky Mountain National Park. Credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

Last month, the four federal land agencies pledged to raise awareness about wilderness protection and provide opportunities for public participation in stewardship goals by signing a memorandum of understanding with the Society for Wilderness Stewardship. Agencies see the memorandum as an opportunity to increase stewardship activities over the next few years, leading up to the celebration of the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary in 2014.

This is a good thing because there’s still a need to increase wilderness protection and land stewardship. According to the PEW Environment Group, there are still about 200 million acres of federal land that should be, but are not yet, protected under the Wilderness Act. These areas include parts of national forests like the Tongass National Forest, wildlife refuges like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and national parks like Rocky Mountain National Park. The only way to ensure that these areas receive the highest form of protection is to get Congress to list them under the National Wilderness Preservation System.