Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law with these words: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
Hailed as the greatest land conservation achievement in American history, the Wilderness Act originally protected 9.1 million acres of federal land. In the half-century since enactment, the National Wilderness Preservation System – created by the act – has added another 100 million acres of wilderness in 44 states and Puerto Rico.
There are 31 designated wilderness areas in the state of Washington. They include the Olympic, Mount Rainier, Indian Heaven and Lake Chelan-Sawtooth wildernesses.
The farsighted 88th Congress saw many benefits for preserving wildernesses. They envisioned places to experience clean air and water, as a respite from the stresses of daily life. They saw people enjoying the outdoors without the noises and pollution of modern America.
They also expected these wildernesses to create jobs by stimulating economic activity. Today’s robust recreation industry sustains 6 million jobs and generates $646 billion in annual economic benefit.
Today, wilderness areas provide an unexpected, but critical, insight into understanding how nature and wildlife adapt to a changing climate with minimal human influence. In these natural laboratories, scientists observe the ecosystems as they respond over time, providing knowledge that can be applied elsewhere.
In Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, for example, scientists are studying forest resiliency. They let fire burn without suppression in order to learn how best to restore fire-dependent forests on other public and private lands.
A changing climate development sprawl have taught us that our existing protected areas are not sufficient to sustain fish and wildlife. Wilderness areas amount to just 5 percent of land in the United States.
America would benefit from preserving more wilderness areas. There are more than two dozen bills to create additional wilderness areas awaiting Congressional action. Two of the bills would protect drinking water supplies in Tennessee and Colorado.
One of those would expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and protect sections of the Pratt and Snoqualmie Rivers – both popular destinations for recreationists. It’s located north of Cle Elum and west of Leavenworth.
It took a tremendous bipartisan effort to develop the Wilderness Act. Johnson signed the bill on Sept. 3, 1965, but only after more than 60 drafts and eight years of joint work by Republicans and Democrats.
Since then presidents of both parties have protected land. Reagan signed 38 bills adding more than 10.6 million acres of wilderness. Jimmy Carter added 66 million acres in Alaska. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush together protected 6.4 million acres. Obama has so far added just 15,000 acres.
To preserve portions of Earth “untrammeled by man” to help use cope with the future, Congress should pass its pending wilderness bills.