Edward Abbey, the curmudgeonly forest ranger turned author, once said that wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit. In this crowded, digital-obsessed age we live in, I couldn't agree more.
Fifty years ago, some wise politicians must have also agreed when Congress passed the federal Wilderness Act. Signed into law in September 1964, the Act has set aside over 100 million acres of land within 750 officially designated wilderness areas. In the language of the Act, wilderness is defined as a place "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man is a visitor who does not remain."
Anniversaries are an opportunity to assess whether a goal set many years ago has been achieved. For me, the Wilderness Act has been a great success, allowing me to escape from my too busy San Francisco life into places of peace and solace. This summer I hiked in one of the country's smallest wilderness areas, a coastal rainforest in Oregon. Years ago, I hiked one of the largest, an Arctic mountain range in Alaska. In between I've visited many others, always with one idea in mind -- to immerse myself in the earth's true nature in order to find my own.
Of course my happiness with the Wilderness Act is not the only gauge of its success. Some question the Act's assumption that any place is truly "untrammeled by man." Little was known in 1964 about such concepts as landscape ecology, the relationship of one area with another. A nearby city or town, for example, can pollute the air and water of a wilderness area. On a larger scale, impacts from human caused climate change and species extinction extend not only into wilderness areas, but throughout the globe.
Problems aside, at a time when the passage of any legislation by Congress is now near impossible, I am forever grateful that 50 years ago politicians who saw our remaining wild lands rapidly disappearing had the courage to do something about it.