The Wilderness Act, 50 years later

08/31/2014 12:00 PM

08/29/2014 10:33 AM

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and as a conservation photographer and writer, I can think of few laws that are more worthy of celebration.

The Wilderness Act may be the most hopeful piece of legislation ever passed, based on one of the noblest ideas humanity has ever conjured: the idea that our wild lands have value in and of themselves, that they are not simply commodities to be cut up and sold by human beings.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3, 1964, he stated: “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.”

Thanks to Johnson, the 1964 Congress and a long history of wilderness thinkers and advocates, we now have those glimpses in the 750-plus wilderness areas now protected under the act.

The Wilderness Act was a rare recognition that we as a species, if given the opportunity, would destroy the last remaining wild areas of America.

And it was an even rarer acknowledgment that we need to live in a world where large areas of wild land exist outside our reach and exploitation.

We need wild places, as Wallace Stegner said, for “our sanity as creatures.”

But have we forgotten that?

Since 2005 and the Real ID Act, Congress has stripped the wilderness areas on the U.S.-Mexico border of environmental protections. The Wilderness Act no longer applies along 2,000 miles of some of the most biodiverse lands in the United States. And despite the presence of many endangered species and imperiled ecosystems, and despite ample evidence that border walls and militarization do not stop human migration, the Senate immigration reform bill, passed last year, would expand that environmental waiver.

Other wild places, like the Clearwater Basin in Idaho, one of our wildest remaining mountain landscapes, await protections under the Wilderness Act. Advocates began proposing a Clearwater wilderness decades ago, only to see the acreage whittled away in the interest of timber extraction, road construction and off-road vehicle use.

Wilderness areas offer one singular hope for the wild species that inhabit them: the hope of a future to live out their lives in this great ecosystem of Earth, which is here as much for the jackrabbits, green jays and kit foxes of the borderlands and the salmon, black bears and wolves of the Clearwater as it is for us.

Our pact with wilderness, made 50 years ago this week, and our commitment to honor that pact, will determine their future — and ours.

Krista Schlyer is a photographer and writer living in the Washington, D.C., area. She is a senior fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers, and author of the book “Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall,” winner of the 2013 National Outdoor Book Award.

©2014 Krista Schlyer

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