Preservation: The Wilderness Act of 1964 marks 50 years


Fifty years ago, on Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964. Eight years, 66 revisions, and 18 hearings in the making, this landmark conservation legislation now protects more than 109 million acres in 750 wilderness areas across 44 states.

Conservationist Howard Zahniser (1906-1964) conceived the original Wilderness Act. He had grown tired of, “a wilderness preservation program made up of a sequence of overlapping emergencies, threats, and defense campaigns.” Unfortunately, Zahniser died four months before the bill was signed into law.

But passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 is a testament to this longtime leader of the Wilderness Society who treasured the value of wilderness.

He wrote, “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.”

The most well known wilderness areas include the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming, the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, and the Ansel Adams Wilderness in California.

Ultimate protection

“Wilderness” is the highest form of land protection. Roads, vehicles, permanent structures, logging, and mining are prohibited.

These are places that can only be accessed by those wanting to experience a true pristine environment. They provide wildlife with critical habitat, filter and cleanse the air we breathe, protect vast watersheds, boost local economies with tourist and recreation dollars, and provide an escape from the hustle and bustle of the modern world.

These are places where at night 3,000 stars twinkle and the Milky Way illuminates the heavens. By day, they are totally quiet except for the sounds of nature — leaves rustling in the wind, a deer bounding through the woods, birds singing.


Though my own time spent in true wilderness is limited, just knowing it is there soothes me. If I never spend another minute in a wilderness area, I smile knowing that my daughters and my grandchildren will have the opportunity to enjoy it.

And for that, I thank Mr. Zahniser and other like-minded conservationists who, 50 years ago, acted while there was still wilderness to be protected and saved.
Wilderness vs. wildness. Among those who write about nature, there is an interesting and persistent confusion regarding the terms “wilderness” and “wildness.”

The confusion began with Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). In his essay Walking, he wrote:

“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Wildness means “loose from restraint or control,” and I think that is exactly what Thoreau meant when he chose that word. He was, after all among other things, an abolitionist and tax resister. So his use of “wildness” was effective and correct.

That sentiment stood for decades until the publication of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There in 1949. In it, Leopold paraphrased Thoreau:

“Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world.”

Then in 1956 in The American Transcendentalists, Their Prose and Poetry, Perry Miller compounded the confusion by treating wildness and wilderness as synonyms: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”

My variation

The confusion is understandable because the words are so similar. With the Wilderness Act came a new and more precise definition of wilderness, so I think there’s an even better way to articulate the essence of wilderness.

Let me offer a variation on the theme, consistent with our current understanding of wilderness:

“In wilderness is the salvation of the Earth.”

* * *

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the Smithsonian Channel will premiere AERIAL AMERICA: WILDERNESS, a special episode of its popular series, on Sept. 7 at 9 p.m.

The hour-long episode will take viewers on an aerial tour of America’s most breathtaking natural landscapes and national parks protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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