This was the precursor: Forty years before the Wilderness Act, 755,000 acres in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, including the Middle Fork of the Gila River, became the world’s first designated wilderness.

Gila Wilderness

This was the precursor: Forty years before the Wilderness Act, 755,000 acres in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, including the Middle Fork of the Gila River, became the world’s first designated wilderness.

50 Years of Wilderness

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964 to give future generations a “glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning.” Did it work?

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.

Read This Next

Meat production leads to thousands of air quality-related deaths annually

At last, a malaria vaccine has passed important clinical trials

Oil company accused of ignoring community concerns about water, wildlife

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet