The Wilderness Act, which turns 50 this summer, will be featured in an episode of the television series “This American Land” shown on Public Broadcasting Service stations nationwide. The segment features interviews with wilderness advocates working to permanently protect some of the nation’s finest wild lands, watersheds, and wildlife habitat as wilderness.
Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964, the act has been used to preserve over 100 million acres of wilderness and ensure that all Americans, now and in the future, will have access to some of the most stunning and diverse wild lands in the United States.
“Our mission is to bring our viewers the kind of serious yet entertaining conservation journalism that broadens their knowledge of critical issues with stories that they won’t see anywhere else,” says series executive producer Gary Strieker. “Each segment focuses on unique and little-known places that deserve protection.”
The first places that gained protection through the act’s National Wilderness Preservation System five decades ago include the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness in California, and North Carolina's Linville Gorge.
“Wilderness is a uniquely American idea—the idea of valuing the wildest places in nature because they’re wild,” said Doug Scott, a retired public lands policy manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts and wilderness historian, who is featured in the program.
Only Congress has the authority to designate a place as wilderness, which is defined under the law as “primitive” federal public land owned by all Americans and set aside for protection. Almost any activity that does not involve mechanized equipment can be enjoyed in a wilderness area, including hiking, camping, and fishing. Exceptions to the exclusion of mechanical devices can include those needed for fighting fires, facilitating traditional uses of the land by Native Americans, and securing the continuation of permissible cattle grazing.
Local residents play an important leadership and advocacy role for wild lands and wildlife habitat, often working for several years to generate support in their community and persuade a member of Congress to introduce legislation. The extended gestation period of many wilderness bills began with the act itself: Howard Zahniser, the chief architect of the Wilderness Act, wrote 66 drafts of the legislation over nearly a decade before it finally became law.
The 2014 Congress has before it two dozen wilderness bills, introduced by Republicans and Democrats, which have strong home-state support and together would protect over 4 million acres of public lands.
The 50th anniversary segment will be shown as part of the current season of “This American Land,” which begins in August. Check local PBS listings for its schedule.