The Wilderness Act

Uncompahgre National Forest, CO

Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society

This landmark conservation bill that created a way for Americans to protect their most pristine wildlands for future generations. 

The 1964 Wilderness Act, written by The Wilderness Society's Howard Zahniser created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which protects nearly 112 million acres of wilderness areas from coast to coast. 

What Did The Wilderness Act Achieve? 

The Wilderness Act is considered one of America’s greatest conservation achievements. The act created our National Wilderness Preservation System and provided the means for Americans to induct unspoiled areas into the system. 

The Wilderness Society played an instrumental role in passing the Wilderness Act, and has since utilized this tool to contribute a total of nearly 112 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System and immediately placed 54 areas into the system. Those areas included 9.1 million acres in 13 states, including some of our most iconic wilderness areas:

Among some of the very first wilderness areas created by the act were: 

  • Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
  • Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming
  • Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana
  • Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

Today the wilderness system contains nearly 112 million acres of lands enjoyed by all Americans. These wilderness lands all exist within our national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management lands.

Today's wilderness system includes:

  • More than 750 wilderness areas from coast to coast
  • 111,706,287 million acres of protected wilderness
  • Wilderness areas in all but six U.S. states

A Quick History of the Wilderness Act

Former Wilderness Society Executive Director Howard Zahniser drafted the bill in 1956 to protect some of the nation's last remaining wilderness. 

By 1955, Zahniser had grown disillusioned with piecemeal attempts at preservation. “Let us be done with a wilderness preservation program made up of a sequence of overlapping emergencies, threats, and defense campaigns,” he said. He sat down and composed the first draft of what later became the Wilderness Act.

After eight years and 66 revisions, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3, 1964. Sadly Zahniser died four months earlier. He was not able to see his dream signed into action, but the legacy he left will be enjoyed by Americans for generations to come.

Instrumental figures in creating the Wilderness Act

Howard Zahniser (February 25, 1906 – May 5, 1964)

Howard Zahniser was the legendary leader of The Wilderness Society who authored the original Wilderness Act. Zahniser led The Wilderness Society through two decades of wilderness battles and landmark accomplishments. 

Zahniser wrote 66 drafts of the Wilderness Act between 1956 and 1964 and steered it through 18 hearings. Its passage in 1964 stands in testament to the dedication and perseverance of this man who deeply felt the worth of wilderness. 

“I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.”

Bob Marshall (January 2, 1901 – November 11, 1939)

Robert (Bob) Marshall, principal founder of The Wilderness Society, set an unprecedented course for wilderness preservation in the United States that few have surpassed.

Marshall shaped the U.S. Forest Service's policy on wilderness designation and management.  He wrote passionately on all aspects of conservation and preservation and was among the first to suggest that large tracts of Alaska be preserved.

One of the first wilderness areas protected as a result of the Wilderness Act was the Bob Marshall Wilderness in western Montana, affectionately referred to as "the Bob.”

Harvey Broome (July 15, 1902 – March 8, 1968)

Harvey Broome, revered for his conservation work in the Smoky Mountains, was president of The Wilderness Society for nine years.

Broome worked closely with Executive Director Howard Zahniser to persuade Congress to create the National Wilderness Preservation System.  That finally happened in 1964 when Congress passed the Wilderness Act.  Broome stood proudly with other conservationists to watch President Lyndon Johnson sign this important bill into law. 

Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 – April 21, 1948)

A Yale-educated professor of wildlife management and founder of The Wilderness Society, Aldo Leopold worked with the Forest Service to protect the nation’s first wilderness area.  He also wrote A Sand County Almanac, the seminal book on the land ethic.

With degrees in hand, Leopold joined the Forest Service in 1909, advancing swiftly as a ranger and supervisor in New Mexico.  By 1919, his thinking had evolved from a narrow focus on forestry and wildlife management to an expanded awareness of the need to protect wilderness in America.

In 1924, Leopold convinced the Forest Service to protect 500,000 acres of New Mexico's Gila National Forest as wilderness. It was the National Forest System's first officially designated wilderness area. 

Sigurd F. Olson (April 4, 1899 – January 13, 1982)

Sigurd F. Olson, former president and governing council member of The Wilderness Society, was an American author, environmentalist and lifelong advocate for wilderness.

Olson helped write The Wilderness Act of 1964 and his lifelong dedication to preserving wilderness resulted in permanent protection for the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.

Olson was president of The Wilderness Society from 1963 to 1971. His work was critical to gaining protection for the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Point Reyes National Seashore. 

Mardy Murie (August 18, 1902 – October 19, 2003)

Margaret “Mardy” Murie learned to love wilderness on the windswept Alaskan tundra during a youth in Fairbanks. After her marriage to renowned biologist Olaus Murie, Mardy plunged into environmental politics.

Mardy was a powerful conservationist in her own right, leading the crusade to protect Alaskan wilderness after Olaus’ death.

Mardy attended the signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 after Olaus’ death. She continued the work that she and Olaus had begun together, joining the governing council of The Wilderness Society and working for the protection of wild Alaska until the end of her life. 

Olaus Murie (March 1, 1889 – October 21, 1963)

Scientist, visionary and former governing council member and president of The Wilderness Society, Olaus Murie’s vision helped establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and shaped a new way of thinking about predators and ecosystems.

In 1937, Murie joined the governing council of the young Wilderness Society. Murie’s greatest quest became protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. In 1950, The Wilderness Society named Murie its president. 

Although he did not live to see the Wilderness Act passed, its enactment was in part attributable to his work and convictions.

Wallace Stegner (February 18, 1909 – April 13, 1993)

Former Wilderness Society governing council member Wallace Stegner was best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary giant, but he was also a committed conservationist.

Stegner joined the conservation movement in the 1950s while fighting the construction of a dam on Dinosaur National Monument’s Green River. In 1960, he wrote his famous Wilderness Letter on the importance of federal protection of wild places. This letter was used to introduce the Wilderness Act, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964. 

Wilderness today

The 21st century has been a mixed bag for wilderness. In the early years, measures such as the Roadless Area Conservation Rule served notice that America had not forgotten its bedrock stewardship values. Later, hundreds of thousands of acres were protected through dedicated pieces of legislation in Utah, Nevada, California and elsewhere, culminating with President Barack Obama’s 2009 passage of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which added over 2 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

However, since then, Congressional partisanship has led to an inertia that belies our conservation legacy. As we prepare to commemorate the 1964 passage of the Wilderness Act, we're also facing an era in which lawmakers have sparsely used the framework of that bill to protect public land. Indeed, would-be wilderness areas throughout the country now find themselves in a precarious position despite the mandate of ordinary Americans, who made their love of public lands abundantly clear during the two-week government shutdown of 2013.

Fortunately, progress may be on the horizon: in the current Congress, millions of acres’ worth of land has been proposed for protection as Wilderness Area. Some of the bills intended to protect these special places boast bipartisan sponsorship, a rarity in the current political climate.

Why wilderness designations matter

The Wilderness Act has ultimately allowed Americans to preserve more than 750 wilderness areas in states from Alaska to Florida. The benefits of this land conservation are profound:

Wilderness areas:

  • Provide habitat for wildlife and havens for threatened species
  • Filter and clean the air we breathe
  • Protect watershed and provide clean drinking water to communities
  • Boost nearby economies with tourism and recreation dollars
  • Provide outstanding places to recreate and to escape the bustle of the modern world