This story appears in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Fred Lavigne is looking for a tree. It’s a beautifully clear day, with a sky the deep blue of delftware. Though the calendar says early spring, in the Sandwich Range Wilderness in central New Hampshire there are still several feet of snow on the ground. A thin layer of ice coats the snow, making it sparkle underfoot.
We’re surrounded by trees: towering spruces, scraggly beeches, maples, oaks, birches. But Lavigne, a sometime logger and full-time outdoorsman, is looking for one tree in particular. We’ve left the trail behind, and he’s navigating the steep terrain by memory, on snowshoes. Finally he finds what he’s been searching for, a red pine with a wide, sticky gash right at eye level. Plucking a coarse black hair from the frozen sap, Lavigne says that the gash was made by bears as a form of communication. (Though what exactly they’re telling each other no one’s quite sure.) Farther on we come to a dead beech with a much longer and fresher gash—the work of a pileated woodpecker. A bit beyond that, we reach a clearing.
“You see, nature does its own logging,” Lavigne tells me. The gap was produced by the demise of an enormous spruce, which lies before us like a fallen giant. With a ski pole Lavigne points out some balsam fir seedlings that moose have nibbled on. We spend several more hours snowshoeing through the forest, mostly off the trail, and, as Lavigne happily observes, do not come across any other human footprints.
The Sandwich Range Wilderness isn’t very big—just 55 square miles—and it’s certainly not remote: Some 70 million people, including my own family, live within a day’s drive. But for precisely these reasons, it’s a good place to reflect on the legacy of the Wilderness Act, which turns 50 this year. As I follow Lavigne through the woods, I wonder what explains our enduring attachment to wilderness and what these days that term even means.
The Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964. But to understand the genesis of the act, you have to go back another three decades, to the 1930s. During the Great Depression tens of thousands of Americans were put to work by the federal government in national parks and forests. They cleared trails, erected shelters, and laid down mile after mile of pavement. The Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park was opened in 1933, Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in 1939. The new highways opened up the parks to millions more visitors.
But the very success of these efforts troubled many conservationists, who worried that the country’s most majestic landscapes were being turned into so many roadside attractions. A group of them, including Aldo Leopold, got together to defend the national parks and forests against overuse. They called themselves the Wilderness Society, and their first mission statement denounced the roadbuilding “craze.”
“The fashion is to barber and manicure wild America as smartly as the modern girl,” it said. “Our duty is clear.” In 1924, while working with the Forest Service in New Mexico, Leopold had persuaded his superiors to designate 755,000 acres of the Gila National Forest as roadless wilderness. The challenge was to persuade Congress to give that idea national scope.
The Wilderness Act went through more than 60 drafts before it finally passed. It created a new category of federal lands that could be overlaid on the old like a transparency on a map. Congress—and only Congress—could place land in the new category. Once designated as wilderness, a tract would be off-limits to commercial ventures like logging and new mines. It would be available for humans to explore, but not with mechanized vehicles. Horses and canoes are allowed; mountain bikes have been ruled out.
“A wilderness,” the statute observed in surprisingly lyrical terms, 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.” The 1964 act set aside 54 such areas.
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt,” President Johnson said after signing the act, then “we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
Since Johnson signed the act, the number of wilderness areas has increased to more than 750. They range from the tiny Pelican Island Wilderness in central Florida, which is just 5.5 acres, to the immense Wrangell–St. Elias Wilderness, which at nearly 9.1 million acres is bigger than Belgium. All told, officially designated wilderness covers 5 percent of the U.S., an area larger than California. The newest wilderness area, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, was added just this past March.
Few, if any, of these areas are wild in any rigorous sense. They’re certainly not “untrammeled by man.” A visitor to the Sandwich Range in the late 19th century would have encountered a landscape very obviously shaped by humans. Most of the slopes had been clear-cut for timber, and there were several working sawmills in the area; Lavigne pointed out where they’d once stood. To the extent that the place now appears wild, it’s because the forest has regrown.
And what goes for the Sandwich Range goes for pretty much every wilderness area east of the Mississippi; at various points they’ve all been logged or grazed or farmed or graded or some combination of these. (During World War II what’s now the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia was used for live artillery practice.) Most western landscapes have also been altered, if not by European settlers, then by the Native Americans they displaced.
“The myth of the wilderness as ‘virgin,’ uninhabited land had always been especially cruel when seen from the perspective of the Indians who had once called that land home,” the environmental historian William Cronon has observed.
“In truth, ‘Wilderness’ is a state of mind and heart” is how photographer Ansel Adams once put it. “Very little exists now in actuality.”
Today even the most remote wilderness areas, like the Bering Sea Wilderness off Alaska or the Innoko Wilderness in the state’s interior, are being dramatically altered by the grand geophysical experiment that humans are conducting. Sea ice is disappearing, permafrost is thawing, and woody plants are invading the tundra, all thanks to global warming. The impossibility of escaping human influence, even in those few parts of the globe that people have never inhabited, has led some scientists to propose that we are living in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene.
In the age of man the Wilderness Act may seem futile—but it has arguably become more important. Designating land as wilderness represents an act of humility. It acknowledges that the world still transcends our comprehension, and its value, the use we can make of it.
“I look at wilderness today as the control in the grand experiment,” says Garry Oye, just retired as chief of wilderness stewardship for the National Park Service. “Throughout time we’ve demonstrated that we really don’t understand natural systems. Having these blocks of land protected as wilderness shows some restraint.”
There are practical as well as ethical arguments for such restraint. In the Anthropocene many—perhaps most—species are on the move, tracking the changing climate. Plants and animals that find their routes blocked by cities or airports or highways are likely to be in trouble. Wilderness areas, which allow for less impeded movement, may provide the best hope for new plant and animal communities to form.
“The reason designated wilderness is so important is because it legislatively and permanently sets aside big pieces of land,” says Peter Landres, an ecologist at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in Missoula, Montana. “These big pieces are needed to let ecological and evolutionary processes play out. So if I’m an animal and I don’t like it here, I can move over there. Yes, wilderness is affected by climate change, but it’s exactly because our world is now so dominated by people that it’s so important to have places where we let nature be.”
And defining wilderness loosely, as land that’s relatively untrammeled, opens lots of places to the designation. Fifteen years ago Fred Lavigne led a successful campaign to add 10,000 acres to the Sandwich Range Wilderness; that increased the size of the wilderness by 40 percent, which means 40 percent more room for bears and moose and woodpeckers to move around. Some 30 proposed wilderness areas now await approval from a gridlocked Congress. None of the proposals would have made it even that far without broad local support. There would be no better way to celebrate the Wilderness Act’s golden anniversary than for Washington to approve them.