50 Years of the Wilderness Act: Protecting Our Common Ground

In fewer than 100 days, Americans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of a conservation landmark: the signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964. Over the years, people from coast to coast have used the act to guarantee that future generations can enjoy our nation’s diverse wild lands. Among the national treasures that gained immediate protection as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System under the act were the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, the John Muir Wilderness in California, and the Great Gulf Wilderness in New Hampshire.

Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System is more than 109 million acres strong. It seems like a lot, but it constitutes less than 5 percent of the U.S. landmass at a time when 6,000 acres of open space are lost every day. Much still needs to be done. In fact, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have introduced legislation to protect additional national landscapes. More than two dozen bills that would safeguard wilderness from coast to coast are pending in Congress.

These measures are supported by diverse coalitions in local communities—business owners, public officials, sportsmen, members of the faith community. And in a growing number of places, former adversaries such as the timber industry and mountain bikers are working together to find common ground on land-management issues.

The 50th anniversary offers an opportunity to commemorate one of our nation’s most successful legislative endeavors, reflect on the beautiful places that are part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, and celebrate the many Americans striving to add even more.

Since September 2013, Pew has highlighted one of these citizens each week—in total, more than 50 reminders of why we work to protect the public lands we care so much about.  

Fifty years of the Wilderness Act: Protecting America’s common ground. Take a look at all the voices.