Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on 3 September 1964, the Wilderness Act defined wilderness “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.” It not only put 1.9 million acres under federal protection, it created an entire preservation system that today includes nearly 110 million acres across forty-four states and Puerto Rico—some 5% of the land in the United States. These public lands include wildlife refuges and national forests and parks where people are welcome as visitors, but may not take up permanent residence.
The definition of what constitutes “wilderness” is not without controversy, and some critics question whether preservation is the best use of specific areas. Nevertheless, most Americans celebrate the guarantee that there will always be special places in the United States where nature can thrive in its unfettered state, without human intervention or control. Campers, hikers, birdwatchers, scientists and other outdoor enthusiasts owe much to Howard Zahniser, the act’s primary author.
In recent decades, environmental awareness and protection are values just about as all-American as Mom and apple pie. Despite the ill-fated “Drill, Baby, Drill,” slogan of the 2008 campaign, virtually all political candidates, whatever their party, profess concern about the environment and a commitment to its protection. As a professor, I have a hard time persuading my students, who were born more than two decades after the first Earth Day (in 1970), that environmental protection was once commonly considered downright traitorous.
For generations, many Americans were convinced that it was the exploitation of natural resources that made America great. The early pioneers survived because they wrested a living from the wilderness, and their children and grandchildren thrived because they turned natural resources into profit. Only slowly did the realization come that people had been so intent on pursuing vast commercial enterprises they failed to consider their environmental impact. When, according to the 1890 census, the frontier was closed, the nation was no longer a land of ever-expanding boundaries and unlimited resources. Birds like the passenger pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet were hunted into extinction; practices like strip-mining left ugly scars on the land, and clear-cutting made forest sustainability impossible.
At the turn of the last century members of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs called for the preservation of wilderness, especially through the creation of regional and national parks. They enjoyed the generous cooperation of the Forest Service during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, but found that overall, “it is difficult to get anyone to work for the public with the zeal with which men work for their own pockets.”
Not surprisingly, Theodore Roosevelt framed his support for conservation in terms of benefiting people rather than (non-human) nature. In 1907 he addressed both houses of Congress to gain support for his administration’s effort to “get our people to look ahead and to substitute a planned and orderly development of our resources in place of a haphazard striving for immediate profit.” It is a testament to Roosevelt’s persona that he could sow the seeds of conservationism within a male population deeply suspicious of any argument even remotely tinged with what was derided as “female sentimentality.” Writer George L. Knapp, for example, termed the call for conservation “unadulterated humbug” and the dire prophecies of further extinction “baseless vaporings.” He preferred to celebrate the fruits of men’s unregulated resource consumption: “The pine woods of Michigan have vanished to make the homes of Kansas; the coal and iron which we have failed—thank Heaven!—to ‘conserve’ have carried meat and wheat to the hungry hives of men and gladdened life with an abundance which no previous age could know.” According to Knapp, men should be praised, not chastened, for turning “forests into villages, mines into ships and skyscrapers, scenery into work.”
The press reinforced the belief that the use of natural resources equaled progress. The Houston Post, for example, declared, “Smoke stacks are a splendid sign of a city’s prosperity,” and the Chicago Record Herald reported that the Creator who made coal “knew that smoke would be a good thing for the world.” Pittsburgh city leaders equated smoke with manly virtue and derided the “sentimentality and frivolity” of those who sought to limit industry out of baseless fear of the by-products it released into the air.
Pioneering educator and psychologist G. Stanley Hall confirmed that “caring for nature was female sentiment, not sound science.” Gifford Pinchot, made first chief of the Forestry Service in 1905, was a self-avowed conservationist. He escaped charges of effeminacy by making it clear that he measured nature’s value by its service to humanity. He dedicated his agency to “the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man.” “Trees are a crop, just like corn,” he famously proclaimed, “Wilderness is waste.”
Looking back at the last fifty years, the Wilderness Act of 1964 is an important achievement. But it becomes truly remarkable when viewed in the context of the long history that preceded it.
Headline image credit: Cook Lake, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming. Photos by the Pinedale Ranger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.