[Photo by Erin Madison / AP]

[Photo by Erin Madison / AP]

What the Wilderness Act has taught us

Sep 02, 2014

Fifty years ago Wednesday, Lyndon Johnson strolled out to the Rose Garden, pressed a fountain pen between the fingers of his hefty right hand and signed into law the highest level of protection ever afforded the American landscape. "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt," President Johnson said later, "we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning." On that day, America gained a wilderness preservation system. Initially containing some 9 million acres of wildlands, the system now protects more than 109 million acres from California to Alaska, New Mexico to Montana, Florida to New Jersey; every acre afforded the simple right to unfold unshackled by human inventions or appetites.

Johnson's enthusiasm was in part a nod to the fact that in 1964, nature was on the run. We were by then well on our way to spreading more than a billion pounds of DDT on the American landscape. Rampant clear-cutting was happening in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Northern California, including the decimation of many of the last privately held sequoia groves. Wild rivers were dammed. Rural states still offered government-sponsored bounties on a wide range of "bad" animals: mountain lions and coyotes, wolves and weasels, hawks and owls.

Even so, for many Americans, wild landscapes were still a major means both of celebrating the roots of our nation's past and for defining the nature of our generosity to future generations. Across our history, periods of environmental abuse have tended to lead to fierce, highly patriotic indignation. Which is a big part of why the Wilderness Act became law with such a stunning level of consensus, passing unanimously in the Senate and with just a single dissenting vote in the House. Arguably, if the Wilderness Act does nothing more today than remind environmentalists of the patriotic power of conservation, it would be doing a lot. read more