The view from 10,000 feet on Horse Ridge, looking towards the glaciers and high peaks located deep in the wilderness of Wyoming’s Wind River range. (Photo: C. Parrish)
The view from 10,000 feet on Horse Ridge, looking towards the glaciers and high peaks located deep in the wilderness of Wyoming’s Wind River range. (Photo: C. Parrish)
"Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?" - Aldo Leopold

When Henry David Thoreau ventured into the Maine Woods in 1846, there were a couple of year-round settlements in the howling wilderness up on the West Branch of the Penobscot, wolves at the door and bears in the shadows. It was being heavily logged, true, but wild it was, in a swashbuckling kind of way.

The country was still young, and it seized the American imagination: this big rolling wilderness where opportunity seemed boundless. It was a country to tame, to civilize, to farm, to make fortunes from, to make a name for oneself through those quintessential American attributes of ambition, self-reliance, independence and hard work. For a time, the wild game, timber and other natural riches of the American landscape seemed limitless, too, or nearly so.

By the 1920s, Aldo Leopold, a trained forester and a hunter who was to become the first expert in wildlife management in the country and who pioneered the concepts we use today in everything from deer herd to marine fisheries management, promoted the understanding that animals live in an intricate give-and-take with the wild land they inhabit and, intentionally and unintentionally, we change that system and shape it by our actions or lack thereof.

As a young forester, Leopold was paid to kill coyotes, wolves and other predators that took down deer in a corner of New Mexico. The success of the predator control led to unforeseen results:?the deer herd grew so large that they competed for scarce food, some deer starved and others became sickly. So did the land. The over-browsing of plants and trees created erosion and soil that ran off during rainstorms, muddying streams.

This experience led Leopold to advocate for putting three quarters of a million acres of desert and mountains in New Mexico into wilderness designation, as an experiment. What would happen if there were no development, no roads, no predator control? He succeeded, and in June 1924 the Gila Wilderness on the Gila National Forest was the first area in the world designated as wilderness.

Wilderness, wrote Leopold, is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.

It was this understanding of the land as an ecological system, made up of soil, the soil biota, water, plants, trees, fungi, the animals that inhabit it and feed off each other, that led Leopold to become an advocate for establishing wilderness areas on land already owned by the federal government. In his vision, wilderness areas would never see roads, tourist hotels, trams, mining or logging. In today's terms, they would never have cell phone towers or allow heli-skiing or sight-seeing flights. There would never be the sound of a generator or a snowmobile.

Leopold argued that the undoing of complex natural systems without realizing it by "knocking off a chip here and a slab there," and, at the same time, loving the wild places to death by making them more accessible by road and comfortable to stay in, left fewer and fewer wild places where modernity did not hold sway.

Leopold accepted that other federal lands would have those expanded recreational options. Other federal lands would be drilled for oil and natural gas, would be mined for uranium and logged for timber, and be subject to the immediate economic needs of the nation and political sway of the day.

But not these lands.

As humans, we also needed those wild places as much as the animals and the land did, said Leopold: mountains that required effort to scale, great stretches of unfettered and unfenced and unroaded land where big game could roam and a hunter could go deep into wilderness after it, fresh rivers to canoe, streams to ford that bears and fishermen could pull salmon from. Places where a man or woman could lead a string of pack horses for days at a time or set off on foot to test oneself and reconnect with our human nature. And places that could also stand as a contrast to the developed landscape - living museums, as Leopold called them. Living research laboratories, we would call them, today, these places that are primarily affected by the forces of nature and that can hold onto things we do not yet know we value and provide answers to questions we have not yet thought to ask.

It was exactly this sentiment that President Lyndon B. Johnson expressed 50 years ago this week in the Rose Garden as he gathered with others who had taken up the banner of wilderness designation.

Howard Zahniser, the head of The Wilderness Society (which had been founded by Leopold, forester Bob Marshall, and forester Benton MacKaye, who also was the first to call for construction of the Appalachian Trail), had drafted the wilderness bill eight years earlier, in 1956.
After revisions to the bill that allowed cattle grazing in some areas, mineral exploration in others, exceptions to the non-motorized rule for fighting fires and some other uses, commercial services, and a list of other exceptions, the bill made it to LBJ's desk on September 3, 1964.

"This is the highest tradition of our heritage as conservators and users of America's bountiful and natural environments," said President Johnson, as he prepared to put his pen to the act that would designate nine million acres - 54 wilderness areas in 13 states - in the first National Wilderness Preservation System in the world.

Leopold and Bob Marshall were gone. Olaus Murie, a wildlife biologist who was another founding member of The Wilderness Society and who helped establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, had died the year before. Zahniser had died just four months earlier.

Their decades of work had paid off.

After eight years and 66 revisions, the Wilderness Act passed Congress with broad support, with the Senate voting 73-12 in favor of passage, and the House voting 373-1.

Notably, the Wilderness Act did not allow any federal land to be declared wilderness without public review and approval from Congress. That is still the case. These were lands in the national forests, the national parks, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national refuge lands that could be brought up before Congress and the public at large to ask them:?Here is an opportunity to designate this federally owned land as free from development, as wilderness forever. What is your pleasure?

"This is a new, strong national consensus to look ahead; more than that, to plan ahead; better still, to move ahead," said President Johnson in his bill-signing speech. "We know that America is not made strong by leadership that reacts only to the needs or the irritations or the frustrations of the moment. True leadership must provide for the next decade, not merely the next day."

Among the first wilderness areas created by the passage of the Wilderness Act was the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains, where I worked as a U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Ranger for three years in the mid-1990s.

I can attest to how much self-reliance is necessary when working alone in a roadless 100-mile-long mountain range on extended backpacking patrols of 10 days at a time, and I can attest, too, that wilderness allows a perspective that modern life with all its distractions does not - that of being part of a large and evolving natural system and not necessarily at the top of the food chain in it; the ability to read the landscape with all one's senses, as well as one's intellect. Leopold was right: It's a rare experience in the modern world to be stripped of any illusions about your level of knowledge, your ability to adapt, your capacity to act. On your own, in the wilderness, you quickly come to understand your strengths and your limits.

The elk hunters and fly fishermen, back-country photographers and mountain climbers, horse-packers and long-distance backpackers, all felt something of that, too. Cell phone reception may have changed that, but I doubt even the smartest phones work in the Dry Creek drainage or at the top of Wyoming's highest mountain, Gannett Peak.

Fifty years after the Wilderness Act became law, there are 110 million acres of federal land in 750 designated wilderness areas from coast to coast. It is the largest wilderness system in the world and has served as a template for other countries.

It's a long process to get federal land designated as a wilderness area, taking an average of eight to ten years to go through the public and legislative process.

Maine has two designated wilderness areas: the 14,000-acre Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness area in the White Mountain National Forest on the New Hampshire border, and 7,000 acres of the 23,000-acre Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge located near the Canadian border in Washington County.

A third wilderness designation has been under consideration in Maine since 2004: 13 islands of the 60 islands in the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which is headquartered in Rockland.

"These are really de facto wilderness areas, now," said Coastal Islands Refuge Manager Beth Goettel. Nothing would change from the current practices on the seabird nesting islands.

And that, according to Leopold's wilderness philosophy, is exactly the point.