Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act, which set aside public land for special protection. Thanks to this act, we now have 758 official wilderness acres covering nearly 110 million acres across the United States.
Looking back, it seems incredible that it was not until 1964 that we had a legal definition of wilderness or rules to protect it. "Wilderness" is different from national park, national forest, and wildlife refuge. The Wilderness Act defines it this way:
"In contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape...wilderness is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club, produced a tongue-in-cheek definition that is easier to remember: "Wilderness is where the hand of man has not set foot."
Last weekend, I had the privilege of spending time in the Siuslaw National Forest on the central Oregon coast. This national forest includes three wilderness areas--Rock Creek, Drift Creek, and Cummins Creek--total 23,000 acres of nearly pristine old-growth temperate rain forests. These wilderness areas, as well as much of the Siuslaw, are prime nesting habitat for the marbled murrelet. These seabirds nest on wide, mossy branches in the mature and old-growth Sitka Spruce, Douglas-fir, and other native conifers growing in these areas.
To keep the wilderness areas untrammeled, visitors are allowed to hike, back-country camp--though Rock Creek Wilderness Area has no developed trails or trailheads. Given the remoteness of Rock Creek and the fact that I was hiking solo last weekend, I opted for a more trammeled experience in state park.
The upland and marsh trails through the Beaver Creek section of Brian Booth State Park were pleasant, but had been lovingly "trammeled" over the years--mostly by beaver, but more recently by humans. Still, I was delighted to see the sign (above) at the end of a boardwalk over the creek. Though this park is not managed as official wilderness, it is reassuring to know that it will regain some of its wildness in years to come.
The challenging of protecting and managing our wild places has never been greater. The observance of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act has allowed for much reflection (at least in the conservation community) of the value of wild lands and what it means to leave them untrammeled. One thought-provoking article, "The Wilderness Act is Facing a Midlife Crisis," appeared in the New York Times and asks readers to ponder how to manage wilderness in the face of climate change and its impacts--something no one anticipated in 1964. "Why not intervene--carefully, selectively, with humility--in the places that need help the most, with an eye toward giving nature, and us, more option?" asks author Christopher Solomon.
Should some "trammeling" be allowed if it means moving Joshua trees to higher elevations within Joshua Tree Wilderness Areas so we don't lose them (as models predict) by century's end? Should trammeling include removing invasive species in wilderness areas? Should it include clearing old-growth forests of fallen timber to reduce the risk of catastrophic forest fires?
I am not sure anyone (and most especially me) has any answers--at least at the 110-million-acre scale. Perhaps not even at the 110-acre scale. Still, it is important to ask the questions and have a conversation. And even more important to find your way to your nearest Wilderness Area. You can do that at the bottom of here.