The Wilderness Act at 50: The Golden Anniversaries Begin

Posted on August 5, 2014 by Stephen R. Brown

On September 3, the Wilderness Act turns 50 years old.  This milestone marks the beginning of the golden anniversaries for the golden age of environmental statutes.  During the next dozen years we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), the National Forest Management Act (1976), the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (1976), and soon after, the Superfund statute (1980).  These 50th anniversaries are a time to reflect on the success and failures of each statute, as well as their capabilities to adapt to environmental issues that were hardly contemplated a half century ago.  Although the Wilderness Act does not receive the air time as its media-specific cousins, it still is a useful model to evaluate an environmental statute as it reaches this vintage.  

Today it seems almost incomprehensible that any federal statute of significance could pass a house of Congress with only one dissenting vote.  Yet that’s what occurred when the House passed the bill in 1964 after eight years of debate and countless revisions.  The Act probably never would have reached its current form were it not for the tireless work of Howard Zahniser and the decades of support dating back to legendary figures such as Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold and others.  With this legacy, it's not surprising that Act’s language defining “wilderness” borders on prose:

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 Wilderness Act is elegant in its simplicity, yet enormous in geographic scope.  On the day of its enactment, the Act immediately designated 9.1 million acres, mostly in National Forests that already were managed as primitive areas.  Since 1964, formal wilderness designation has grown to nearly 110 million acres in more than 750 different named areas.

Structurally the Act sets criteria for wilderness, reserves to Congress the authority to designate wilderness, and sets guidelines for management.  The guidelines take the form of rigid categories of what can and cannot occur in a wilderness area.  Generally that means no roads, few structures and no forms of mechanical transportation.  The Act’s guidelines do not contain numeric standards, detailed permitting, or stringent enforcement regimes.  This is not surprising because, unlike the media specific statutes like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Act was not intended to correct problems of the past, but instead is designed to preserve for the future a resource that was perceived to be vanishing. 

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