The year 2014 marks 50th Anniversary of Wilderness Act

Wilderness Act of 1964 was the beginning of statutory protection of wild country-

It took seven years to move the Wilderness Act through Congress, but finally in 1964 it passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law. 

While some Forest Service lands had already been administratively protected as a kind of backcountry called “primitive areas” from since the late 1920s to the 1940s, the Wilderness Act gave the full protection of law to undeveloped, road-free lands. It pertained not just to lands in the national forests, but also in the national parks and monuments, national wildlife refuges, and later, land administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

In 1964, 9-million acres of Wilderness areas was established (not created) by the Wilderness Act. After that new Wilderness areas were established, one-by-one by Congress; and sometimes in groups, such as the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. Today, there are 757 wilderness areas. Nine million acres has gone to 110-million acres.

Wilderness was not, is not, created by the Act because wild was the original condition of the land. Wilderness designation only keeps land that has remained nearly pristine to this day from being developed. Designation itself creates nothing except restraints on future development.

Every Congress since 1964 has established some new Wilderness. The only exception is the current “tea party” Congress with its self-styled strong conservatives. Wilderness defenders have have often argued that designating a Wilderness is a very conservative act — keeping things the same by law. This has not found a lot of traction with conservatives who seem to be much more interested in conserving an ideal of a free market economic system and defending or restoring certain social institutions such as the ideal nuclear, patriarchal family.

It is possible that some Wilderness areas will yet be established by this Congress. One possibility is the “Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.”  It would add road-free lands in Montana to the Wilderness System — rugged land on the Rocky Mountain Front adjacent to the long established Great Bear, Bob Marshall, and Scapegoat Wildernesses immediately to the west.

The Missoulian today has a well written and lengthy article on this proposed act, the 50th Anniversary of the Act, and the history of protecting wild country in Montana included past and present politics. See “WILDERNESS ACT AT 50. Devil’s Glen one of many Montana areas considered for wilderness designation. It’s Been 30 Years Since Montanans Agreed On What To Protect.”

It should be noted that no President has ever vetoed a Wilderness Bill except for Ronald Reagan, who vetoed the Montana Wilderness Act of 1988. On this, of historical note: “Reagan Vetoes Bill to Protect 1.4 Million Acres in Montana“. By Philip Shabecoff,  Special to the New York Times.” Published: November 4, 1988




  1. CodyCoyote Avatar

    I’ve heard Ronald Reagan called a lot of things over the years, but never Ronald REASON. ( last paragraph above ; bold type )

    Great Dys-Freudian slip, Ralph . What were you not thinking ?
    By the way , thanks for the silver bullet. You gave me some great ammo to use on my Park County Wyoming commissioners who are hellbent on opening all the federal lands to resource development and ATV’s, nullifying roadless area designation, and opening wilderness areas.

    That silver bullet is the notion that no wilderness area was ever created, because it already was wilderness *. Brilliant in simplicity. I wonder why I’ve never employed that turn of a phrase before…

    * but I have to ask if a few ” new” wilderness areas have been allowed to revert back to pure wilderness from areas that once entertained transient roads , structures, or illegal activity. Downregulated.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Ha! 🙂

      I also wonder what the Interior has in mind for upgrading the national parks for the Centennial – I hope it isn’t rigging it up for computers and Wi-Fi, phone apps, fancy-schmancy coffee and turning it into Disneyland in the rough!

      This administration has lost sight of the Interior’s mission, or maybe it never had sight of it in the first place!

        1. Ida Lupines Avatar
          Ida Lupines

          Hee! I got a chuckle from some of the screennames and comments in this link. See ‘Wastrel Way’ and Skinflin McGinty’.

          Also the reason I have such a bee in my bonnet about the gravel road in King Cove, AK is that I’m looking for a way (something, anything!) to reach a common ground for wildlands and people. It would seem small concessions to make for goodwill and working together to protect our common values, and so environmentalists are not so polarized? I know this is not a new idea?

    2. Ken Cole Avatar

      I think it was an autocorrect error. I fixed it.

  2. Idahome Avatar

    Another bill being introduced into Congress again is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. The greatest concentration of public lands in the lower 48 can be found in Montana, Idaho, eastern Oregon and eastern Washington.

    The goals of NREPA are three-fold:

    1.Protect unroaded and undeveloped lands as Wilderness.
    2.Protect corridors that allow species to move back and fourth over a larger landscape. This region is wild enough to retain all of it’s native species.
    3. Protect over 2,000 mile of river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

    Support the wildest bill on the hill.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine


    2. Louise Kane Avatar
      Louise Kane

      can you post the bill number and any other info you have?

      1. Idahome Avatar

        I should clarify. The bill was last reintroduced in Congress by Carolyn Maloney of New York on March 14, 2013 (H.R. 1187).It has made it to the Hill several times before this.

        A potential hope now for NREPA is that Montanan’s will elect a new senator to replace Max Baucus. Dirk Adam’s campaign strategy includes reintroducing NREPA.

        If Adam’s doesn’t work out, we still have other senators like Maloney, Grivalja and Markey who could champion this bill again.

        Friends of the Clearwater has a great synopsis of NREPA:

        Here is a link to the article written by George Ochenski about Dirk Adams:

        I apologize for the little confusion about this recent introduction. Thanks for inquiring more. There are still ways to encourage NREPA along.

        1. Louise Kane Avatar
          Louise Kane

          Thanks for posting

  3. Monty Avatar

    Republicans love to beat up on Jimmy Carter and praise Ronald Reagan. As Bill Maher said the other night, “President Carter started no wars” but he failed to give credit to Jimmy for the 100 million acre Alaskan lands bill that created and expanded national parks and wilderness areas. The only thing that I remember about Reagan was that he removed the solar panels from the White House symbolically delaying the development of clean energy.

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    I’m old enough to remember Carter’s presidency well. He was the victim of some bad economic conditions — high inflation and high interest rates, but his greatest burden was when radical Iranian “students” took a number of Americans hostage for over a year. Television coverage of this was non-stop the entire time. It was like the current coverage of the missing jetliner, but for over a year.

    “America held hostage” came on tv every night for a hour. In its bad effect the program might of well been produced by the radical Islamist Iranian government.

    Carter was extremely good on environmental and outdoor issues. A hundred million acres of wilderness and national parks was set aside in Alaska. Many of the most important environmental laws came with his support.

    1. WM Avatar

      Carter, in my opinion, was probably the smartest, best well-read and worldly (except Bush I for worldly anyway), and altruistically motivated (as leaders should be) President in the last century. Unlike most D presidents he actually understood business and agriculture, as a peanut farmer, and he understood the military because he was an academy graduate and a senior naval officer in the budding nuclear age.

      He did not, however, understand the West, very well. I remember the infamous water project “hit list” which sounded the death knell for more large scale water development in the West. It doomed any support he had there, and I remember some pretty vile comments from WY Senator Malcolm Wallop and other Western R’s. This was also about the time the EPA was flexing its muscles, and not doing it very strategically (think the Hulk in china shop). Carter caught some of that blow-back too.

      By the way, Carter, as I recalled, also lead the effort to get the US to convert over to the metric system to keep pace with the rest of the world – 1.6 kilometers/mi, 2.54 cm/inch and all that.

      Importantly he championed a national energy policy based on common sense conservation, as well as innovation.

      I often wonder what America would be like today had Carter had another term. He was (and still is) one of the good guys.

      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan

        WM and all,

        I liked Jimmy Carter immensely, and for me the 1970s was a time of incredible optimism and progress, most of which has since been reversed. Of course more than a generation has passed and many people may think that great inequality of wealth, hostility toward wildlife and wilderness, lack of interest in retarding and cleaning up pollution is the normal state of affairs — how it has always been. Not so!

        The bad trend began with Ronald Reagan. Then after he was gone, progress again started to be made, but it ended with 9-11 and George W. Bush.

        During the time of Jimmy Carter, who was a born-again Christian (Baptist), Christian evangelicalism was not associated with a fear of science and the hatred of any change in our social relations that we see today.

        1. Louise Kane Avatar
          Louise Kane

          +1 its a shame the public perception of Carter’s presidency was ” so badly “marred” by the out of control Iranian hostage situation that ended just days after his Presidency. I loved his honesty and the intolerance he showed toward racial inequality. I also remember him saying something like the energy crisis was the “moral equivalent of war” and that he installed solar panels on the White House and asked Americans to conserve rather than looking solely to more development. The Superfund was established during his presidency and he was and is a peacekeeper and humanitarian. Reagan and his hollywood bonhomie-like persona not to mention right wing ideology was a hard shock after such an introspective and intelligent president. I always thought it was too bad Carter did not get to appoint any Supreme Court Justices. I remember reading one time that Carter felt his Presidency was undermined by Ted Kennedy’s attempts to win the democratic nomination and that the loss of the liberal left as well as resinating the draft (that he later thought was a mistake) really hurt him. Reagan came in with a Republican congress and I too think that was a time of radical change. I was a new mother at the time and remember watching Reagan’s inauguration speech with my friend and the babies and feeling very very discouraged.

        2. Kathleen Avatar

          My most enduring memory of JC is when he stood between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin after signing the Egyptian/Israeli peace treaty and they were all clasping hands…he was genuinely glowing with happiness…all three of them were. It seemed like such a hopeful time. *sigh*

          view pic

          1. Nancy Avatar

            “It seemed like such a hopeful time”

            Agree Kathleen 🙂


      2. Louise Kane Avatar
        Louise Kane

        WM you always surprise me when I least expect it!

        1. Ida Lupines Avatar
          Ida Lupines

          Yes he does. 🙂

  5. alf Avatar

    A minor correction or clarification of Ralph’s remark that : “Wilderness was not, is not, created by the Act because wild was the original condition of the land. Wilderness designation only keeps land that has remained nearly pristine to this day from being developed. Designation itself creates nothing except restraints on future development.”

    According to Wikipedia, the so-called “Eastern Wilderness Act” (P.L. 93-622), signed into law by President Ford on 03 Jan 1975, was a reaction by congress, led by WA Senator Henry Jackson and ID Sen. Frank Church, to the Forest Service’s (mis)interpretation of the “other” Wilderness Act (P.L. 88-577), by which the FS tried to apply such an extremely strict, high, “purity” standard to Wilderness designations that all but the most pristine areas would be disqualified, and virtually none in the east could qualify for that designation.

    (The “Eastern Wilderness Act” applies only to lands east of the 100th meridian.)

    “…the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act not only explicitly protects lands which have suffered previous abuse, but that also have the ability to recover, and therefore be designated for wilderness protection.”
    Frankly, because the “original” Wilderness Act speaks of an “ENDURING resource of Wilderness”, I believe that the lesser standard of the Eastern Wilderness Act should be applied to the original Wilderness Act as well, so for example, some of the “cherry stem” road intrusions into Wilderness areas could be reclaimed and included within the Wilderness boundaries, or two Wildernesses (or potential Wildernesses) could be combined into one, when split by a relatively low standard road. (Here I’m thinking specifically of the East and West Pioneer Roadless Areas on the Beaverhead NF in SW Montana.)

    “BTW, when I capitalized “Wilderness” and “Roadless Areas” I do because they’re congressionally designated Wildernesses or officially recognized Roadless Areas by the administering agency, not just defacto undefiled areas.)


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Ralph Maughan