Why did U.S. citizens feel the need to legally protect wilderness?

When the first Europeans settled in what is now the United States, they found a continent of almost unbroken wildland. In less than 500 years the undeveloped nature of this 2-billion-acre (809-million-ha) undeveloped estate has been reduced by 98%. As wildlands became scarce, Americans began to appreciate their value.

Think about the 1950s and 1960s in American history. What was happening during that time? It was an era of increasing travel via cars, trains, and planes. Concern was growing for air and water quality, and the potential that no lands in the United States would remain wild and free. American citizens in the 1950s wanted some public lands permanently designated as wilderness. The most long-lasting and certain way to protect public lands was through law passed by Congress and signed by the president. In the early 1930s, Bob Marshall, who dreamed of wilderness protected by law, stated, “Areas … should be set aside by an act of Congress. This would give them as close an approximation to permanence as could be realized in a world of shifting desires.” The time was right to create and pass a bill that preserved wilderness.

However, passage of a bill preserving wilderness was not easy. Howard Zahniser wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Act in 1956. The journey of the Wilderness Act covers nine years, 65 rewrites, and 18 public hearings. In August 1964, after the Senate had passed it for the second time, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Wilderness Act of 1964—with only one dissenting vote! President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on September 3 of that year. After signing the act, President Johnson reflected on its significance: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning.”

The first sentence of the Wilderness Act clearly states why Americans felt the need for Congress to preserve wildlands by law:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.

With passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, Americans chartered a new course in world history—to preserve some of a country’s last remaining wild places to protect their natural processes and values from development. Today, thanks to the wisdom, foresight, and perseverance of many dedicated individuals, current and future generations will enjoy enduring wilderness. Select footprints to learn more about the journey of wilderness and some individuals who made it happen.

Do you know?

Question: Who signed the Wilderness Act into law?

Answer: President Lyndon B. Johnson

Do you know?

Question: When was it signed?

Answer: September 3, 1964

Interview with Kelly Hartsell - Park Ranger, Shenandoah National Park

...the Wilderness Act was signed in 1964 and a lot of folks asked why, why was there a need for the Wilderness Act ? , w W e had the national parks, we had national forests, we had refuges, we had public land. But wilderness took a step further down the road of preservation. It said that this is an area that we are going to set aside and let Nature’s course prevail. In national parks, and Shenandoah National Park is a great example, we have a large area of land, we put a road right down through the middle of it, we built visitor centers and amenities, we built campgrounds. The national park here preserved a scenic area and a lot of national parks across the country preserve specific features for example the geysers at Yellowstone , the Grand Canyon of Grand Canyon National Park. Wilderness took it a step further in the preservation ethic in that it preserved an experience, it preserved natural processes, and the need for wilderness – why do we need wilderness – is that in these placed that we protected as national parks they were becoming over-developed. So wilderness was an answer to setting aside national parks and forest areas and as unmanaged and unhindered places as we could do.

Wilderness Timeline

1620 - The journals of William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, describe wilderness as dark, savage, and sinister.

1702-1758 - Jonathon Edwards, the prominent Calvinist pastor, expresses emotion and admiration of nature and its relationship to God.

1798 - English romantic poet William Wordsworth begins to write a philosophical work on nature, man, and society to be entitled "The Recluse."

1803 - President Thomas Jefferson engineers the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the Republic. He urges Congress to fund the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition.

1804 - Washington Allston produces "The Deluge" and "The Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea," some of the first American landscape paintings to portray an intimate relationship between man and nature.

1820-30's - Peak of fur trade; beaver population declines dramatically.

1822 - Pawnee Chief Petalesharo presents a speech to President Monroe describing the nomadic way of Indian life and notes that numbers of game animals such as buffalo are decreasing due to encroaching settlement and exploration.

1827 - Thomas Cole, a leader in the romantic landscape painting movement known as the Hudson River School , produces "St. John Preaching in the Wilderness." Cole believed that the wilderness was passing away and that there was a "necessity of saving and perpetuating its features."

1836 - Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes "Nature." The essay brings about profound changes in American attitudes toward nature. Emerson's "philosopher's camp" is a precursor to camping, leisure, and appreciation of nature.

1837 - Working for the American Fur Company, painter Alfred Jacob Miller produces some of the most accurate documentation of the West and its Indian tribes.

1849 - In his first edition of Oregon Trail , author Francis Parkman calls the land between the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers "the great American desert." Although Parkman's diary mentions encounters with diverse people, his portrayal of a frontier explored only by European descendants introduces the myth of the West to the public.

1854 - Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau [link to profile], author of Walden, writes that wilderness sanctuaries are the "need of civilized man."

1864 - Frederick Law Olmstead pushes for protection of Yosemite Valley and is first to advance the idea of placing certain areas under government protection.

1864 - A major turning point in the conservation movement occurs when George Perkins Marsh publishes Man and Nature, warning citizens to stop the devastation of natural resources during the Reconstruction Era. Marsh later discusses the idea of public parks and offers a policy that compares to original National Park Service policy.

1864 - President Abraham Lincoln signs the Yosemite Bill "to protect an area and conserve it for recreational enjoyment." This is the first time a national government sets aside land for the purpose of conservation.

1867 - The Alaska Purchase is signed by President Andrew Johnson, adding 365 million acres o f public lands to the United States .

1872 - Artist Thomas Moran exhibits paintings of Yellowstone , helping to promote establishment of the first national park. Yellowstone is designated a "public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people."

1885 - Along with similar lands in the Catskills, the Adirondack Forest Preserve, home to Howard Zahniser, was created by an act of the New York State Legislature.

1891 - The Forest Reserve Act (General Land Law Revision Act), also known as the Creative Act, and in the same month President Benjamin Harrison established the first reserve.

1892 - Conservationist John Muir organizes the Sierra Club to enlist public and governmental support for preservation of wilderness.

1898 - Gifford Pinchot takes office as Chief of the Division of Forestry, later organized into the National Forest Service in 1905, advancing conservation of natural resources.

1903 - President Theodore Roosevelt sets aside vast acres of federal land and creates the first national wildlife refuge at Florida 's Pelican Island .

1908 - Grand Canyon National Monument is established by President Theodore Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, which allows U.S. presidents to proclaim national monuments.

1913 - A landmark conservation battle is lost when legislation is passed to allow development of a dam at Yosemite 's Hetch Hetchy Valley .

1919 - Arthur Carhart, a Forest Service landscape architect, recommends that the Trappers Lake area in Colorado not be developed for summer homes, but allowed to remain wild. His plan is approved.

1924 - Ecologist Aldo Leopold achieves designation of the first official wilderness area - the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico .

1930s - During the New Deal, road building invades more and more wildland. Fierce rivalry between the Forest Service and National Park Service, as Congress establishes new national parks such as Kings Canyon (California) and Olympic (Washington ) from former national forest lands, including “primitive areas”.

1935 - Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Benton MacKaye and others found The Wilderness Society as a national organization based in Washington DC to specialize in advocating wilderness protection. Founder Robert Sterling Yard becomes executive secretary.

1955 - Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower leads successful opposition to development of Echo Park Dam at Dinosaur National Monument . This significant victory for the conservation movement creates political momentum for launching the Wilderness Bill, the legislation that will eventually become the Wilderness Act.

1956 – Olaus and Mardy Murie travel to the upper Sheenjek River on the South slope of the Brooks Range , inside what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This trip begins the campaign to protect the area as a wildlife refuge.

1960 - Just before leaving office, President Dwight Eisenhower establishes the 9 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Range in Alaska , including the Arctic coastal plain still being sought for oil drilling four decades later.

1962 - Scientist Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring, stirring public consciousness about pesticides and the environment.

1964 - Authored by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, the Wilderness Act creates the National Wilderness Preservation System and designated 9 million acres of wilderness. During the signing ceremony in the Rose Garden President Lyndon B. Johnson hands pens, symbolic of the signing, to widow of Howard Zahniser (who died that May) and to Mardy Murie.

1970 - Senator Gaylord Nelson founds Earth Day, focusing national attention on the environment.

1973 - The Endangered Species Act is passed.

1975 - The Eastern Wilderness Act is passed, allowing additional lands with wilderness character and potential to be included in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

1976 - The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) is passed requiring the Bureau of Land Management to inventory roadless areas and recommend them to Congress for designation as wilderness under terms of the Wilderness Act.

1980 - President Jimmy Carter passes the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act establishing 10 new National Park Service sites, 9 wildlife refuges, and additional Bureau of Land Management conservation units.

1980 - The Wilderness Society establishes the Ansel Adams Conservation Award naming photographer Ansel Adams as first recipient.

1984 - President Ronald Reagan (who signed more wilderness protection laws than any other president) signs wilderness laws for 22 states in a single year, protecting some 8 million acres.

1990 – The Americans with Disabilities Act is passed.

1994 - California Desert Protection Act, signed by President Bill Clinton, designates 3.6 million acres of wilderness administered by the Bureau of Land Management in the desert east of Los Angeles , and 4 million acres in Death Valley and other park units.

2001 - Clinton administration issues the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to limit logging and development in nearly 60 million acres of national forests where there were no roads already built.

2002 - With bipartisan support, Congress passes and President George W. Bush signs, four wilderness laws designating half a million acres of wilderness in Nevada, California, Colorado, and South Dakota.

Do You Know?

Question: How did the American view of Wilderness change over time?

Answer: In the early 1600’s, wilderness was viewed as something savage and feared. Later, in the 1700’s, due to early Puritan religious influence, wilderness was admired and revered in a religius light, as a connection to God. Still later, after the Louisiana Purchase and settlement of the frontier, Americans no longer viewed wilderness as a vast, unlimited resource, but began to see it as passing away and becoming scarce. This led to the beginning of today’s conservation movement as artists, authors, activists, politicians and every-day Americans begin to value wilderness preservation, which led to passage of the Wilderness Act and subsequent legislation.


Historical perspectives

Who gets credit for preserving wilderness? Countless Americans contributed to the development of the wilderness preservation movement in the United States . Following are brief biographies of just a few people who were instrumental in the ultimate preservation of wilderness areas through congressional designation. The life, work, and passion of these people can inspire our own efforts to take care of our wilderness legacy. Read below to meet a few of the citizens who turned their vision of wilderness preserved by law into reality.

Aldo Leopold (1887–1948)

The richest values of wilderness lie not in the days of Daniel Boone, nor even in the present, but rather in the future. - Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)

As a government employee in the Forest Service, Aldo Leopold advocated for the vision of a national system of wilderness, in his life work and in his writings. In the early 1920s, Leopold began proposing the preservation of wilderness areas in the most permanent way possible. At that time, America already had two land management bureaus - the National Park Service and the Forest Service - whose missions were nature preservation and conservation. Yet, Leopold realized that in preserving the quality of wilderness both bureaus were flawed because both allowed development in one form or another.

Leopold began working within the Forest Service to provide for a greater level of protection of primitive wilderness areas. His voice is responsible for the first Forest Service wilderness area - established in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico, in 1924 and eventually became what is now the Gila Wilderness. Even with the Gila Primitive Area designated administratively as wilderness, Leopold stated, “Let no man think that because a few foresters have tentatively formulated a wilderness policy that the preservation of … wilderness is assured.” Through his writings, Leopold substantiated the wilderness cause with scientific observations and research, and continued to advocate congressional protection of wilderness throughout his life.

Growing up in the Midwest , Leopold spent much of his childhood exploring the outdoors and recording his observations about nature. His skills of observation and description led him to combine his passion and work as a forester and writer. In 1935, the same year he helped to establish The Wilderness Society with Bob Marshall and others, Leopold started to invest his time, energy, and philosophy of land management into restoring a piece of worn out farmland in northern Wisconsin. His observations of that piece of land were published as part of a collection of essays in a book, A Sand County Almanac, published after his death in 1949.

Beyond his descriptions of the natural world, Leopold articulated an innovative idea known as the “land ethic.” It was a new way of thinking and acting toward the land in the mid-1900s. “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man. … That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” Furthermore, he stated, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold’s writings are a lasting inspiration to those challenging the priority of industry and so-called “development” with a sense of humility and ecological conscience.

To read more about and by Aldo Leopold, consider finding some additional references.


“Wilderness” essay from A Sand County Almanac

 The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold (1991) edited by Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Outdoor Essays and Reflections) (1968) by Aldo Leopold and Charles W. Schwartz

Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire (1996) by Marybeth Lorbiecki

Of Things Natural, Wild, and Free: A Story About Aldo Leopold (1993) by Marybeth Lorbiecki

Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (1991) edited by Curt Meine

The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries (1999) edited by Curt Meine and Richard L. Knight, including “Wilderness: A Place of Humility” by Terry Tempest Williams


Arthur Carhart (1892–1973)

If we are to have broad-thinking men and women of high mentality, of good physique and with a true perspective on life, we much allow our populace a communion with nature in areas of more or less wilderness condition. - Arthur Carhart

Arthur H. Carhart’s life stands as testimony that a good idea will grow and prosper in and of itself. Born in 1892 in Mapleton, Iowa, Carhart graduated from Iowa State College in 1916 with a degree in landscape architecture. In 1919 the Forest Service hired Carhart as its first full-time landscape architect, even though his official title was “recreation engineer.”

One of Carhart’s first assignments was to survey a road around Trappers Lake in the White River National Forest in Colorado , and to plot several homesites on the lakeshore. Carhart completed the assignment, but recommended to his supervisor, Carl Stahl, that development should not be permitted on the shore. Instead, he strongly urged the best use of the area was for wilderness recreation. This was a bold suggestion for such a young employee, and Carhart was quite surprised when Stahl endorsed his recommendations. In 1920 Trappers Lake was designated as an area to be kept roadless and undeveloped. It remains so to this day. That designation marked the first application of the wilderness preservation concept in Forest Service history.

While no one person can be called “father of the wilderness concept,” Carhart has been referred to as "the chief cook in the kitchen during the critical first years." Carhart’s ideas and vision were shared by another individual who became a significant figure in the wilderness movement. This was Aldo Leopold, then Assistant District (Regional) Forester for District 3 (Region 3) in New Mexico .

On December 6, 1919 , Leopold visited with Carhart in Colorado . Following their talks Carhart wrote what was then simply a ‘Memorandum for Mr. Leopold, District 3.” This memorandum became one of the most significant records in the history of the wilderness concept:

There is a limit to the number of lands of shoreline on the lakes; there is a limit to the number of lakes in existence; there is a limit to the mountainous areas of the world, and ... there are portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made, and … which of a right should be the property of all people.

Encouraged by Carhart’s kindred spirit, Aldo Leopold went on to champion creation of the Gila Wilderness Reserve in New Mexico - the first wilderness reserve, officially designated on June 3, 1924 .

Arthur Carhart left the Forest Service in 1923, cutting short his federal career to pursue private practice in landscape architecture, city planning, and writing. Before leaving the Forest Service, however, he toured the Quetico-Superior region in Minnesota and recommended that these areas of superlative wild scenery be managed for their value as wilderness. Carhart’s efforts eventually led to development of what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

During his long life Carhart continued to write about and work for the ideal of wilderness. On March 3, 1973 , at the age of 81, Carhart said of himself: “I sometimes wonder how I had the nerve as a young punk to get my superiors turned around on some of these things. I feel real good about how it all turned out.”


Bob Marshall (1901–1939)

In order to escape the whims of politics … [wilderness areas] should be set aside by act of congress, just as national parks are today set aside. This would give them as close an approximation to permanence as could be realized in a world of shifting desires. - Bob Marshall, “Suggested Program for Preservation of Wilderness Areas” Memorandum to Secretary Ickes (1934)

Bob Marshall was a voracious outdoorsman. The sheer magnitude of miles he traversed, peaks he climbed, and little known regions he explored constitute a great accomplishment. However, his drive and passion to preserve these places and experiences for all people moved him to organize the forces necessary to protect wildlands.

Marshall’s wilderness passion and government savvy were influenced by his father, Louis Marshall. As a delegate to New York constitutional conventions in the 1890s, Louis was instrumental in developing and then defending language in the state constitution to protect and preserve state-owned forest preserve lands - Adirondack and Catskill State Parks in New York - to “be forever kept as wild forest lands.” While the federal legislation passed by Congress 70 years later to protect public land as wilderness was very different, and did not include New York State wilderness areas, the seeds for protecting wilderness by statute were planted by the foresight of Bob Marshall’s father. The younger Marshall continued in his father’s footsteps through his work in federal government positions (the Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs as Chief Forester) and through his strong voice as an outspoken conservationist and wilderness advocate.

The passion Marshall felt for the wildlands he explored inspired him to found The Wilderness Society, an organization formed to save America ’s vanishing wilderness. Near the proposed Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, Marshall and four colleagues set in motion the creation of a society focused on wilderness preservation. A dynamic group of eight gathered in Washington , D.C., on January 3, 1935, for the initial organizing meeting of the society. “All we desire to save from invasion is that extremely minor fraction of outdoor America which yet remains free from mechanical sights and sounds and smell.” Marshall’s energy, efforts, and financial backing helped launch the new organization. His sudden death in 1939 at age 38 was a shock, yet many individuals carried on in the example of Marshall’s tireless energy and spirit. Twenty-five years later, Americans realized his legacy with the passing of the Wilderness Act. Marshall’s extensive writings and his vision continue to inspire the wilderness movement now inherited by those who share his passion and devotion.

To read more about and by Bob Marshall, consider some additional references.


“The Problem with Wilderness” by R. Marshall

Arctic Village (1933) by R. Marshall

The People’s Forests (1933, reprint) by R. Marshall

Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range (1970, 2nd edition) by R. Marshall and G. Marshall

A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall (1986) by J. M. Glover


Margaret (Mardy) Thomas Murie (1902–2003)

I am testifying as an emotional woman and I would like to ask you, gentlemen, what’s wrong with emotion? Beauty is a resource in and of itself. … I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by, or so poor she cannot afford to keep them. - Mardy Murie, congressional testimony on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act

Referred to as the “grandmother of the conservation movement,” Mardy Murie is a role model for wilderness educators. After a childhood spent in Washington State and as a child and young adult exploring the wildlands in Alaska, Murie devoted her adult life to preserving wilderness areas across North America . Her patience, passion, and perseverance made her a natural leader in the wilderness movement during the 20th century. Through her words, Murie conveyed to the public, and Congress, the need to permanently preserve wilderness through legislation.

Murie was partly raised in frontier Fairbanks, Alaska, in the early 1900s. After graduating from the University of Alaska in 1924 as its first woman graduate, she married a pioneer arctic researcher for the U.S. Biological Survey, Olaus Murie. They spent their honeymoon researching caribou on a 500-mile (805-km) dogsled journey through the Brooks Range of Alaska. Traveling in wildlands became a way of life for the Muries.

When research brought the Muries to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, they eventually set up a permanent residence from which they continued to travel and promote wilderness preservation. In 1945 their passion for wilderness led them to a national role when Olaus accepted a position as director of The Wilderness Society. As a team, the Muries worked closely, though often remotely, with Howard Zahniser, the society’s executive secretary.

During this time, Olaus and Mardy joined efforts to promote congressional preservation of wildlands. Their diligent and dedicated work to protect Alaska ’s remote Brooks Range and the Sheenjek River culminated in the establishment of what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. After Olaus died in 1963, Mardy continued to advocate for a National Wilderness Preservation System. She stood alongside Alice Zahniser, Howard Zahniser’s wife, in the White House Rose Garden on September 3, 1964 , when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, less than a year after Olaus’ death.

Mardy continued to be a strong advocate for wilderness preservation until her own death on October 19, 2003 , at age 101. While serving on the governing council of The Wilderness Society, Mardy was in the forefront promoting the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Mardy’s lifetime service to conservation was acknowledged in 1998, when President Clinton bestowed upon her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The visionary approach of both Mardy and Olaus Murie led the way for wilderness preservation in America .

Interview with Ed Zahniser - Writer-Editor, NPS Harper's Ferry Center

Traveling in the Sheenjek what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with Olaus and Mardy Murie and then down in Mt. McKinley National Park with Adolf Murie and Louise Murie, it was an experience I think it took me years and years to assimilate. But just to be in the presence of people like that who were so knowledgeable about the natural world and so fiercely dedicated to its preservation was just very instructive to me. Plus I had the background of my own family’s valuation of wildness and naturalness. The striking thing about the Muries, all four of them, Olaus and Mardy, Adolf and Louise, was how such gentle people could be such fierce advocates. So I guess that meant to me that you didn’t have to be an angry person to be an effective advocate, because these were some of the most gentle people I’ve ever known and they were fierce advocates. That was the greatest life lesson for me…

To read more about and by Mardy Murie, consider some additional references.


National Public Radio (2002), “All Things Considered , ” (Howard Berkes’ Report report on Mardy Murie ), National Public Radio (2002) [Link to audio]

“The Need for Wilderness” by M. Murie (complete essay) [Link to complete essay – ready – separate attachment]

Arctic Dance: The Mardy Murie Story (2001) (VHS video) [Link to http://www.muriecenter.org/] produced by Charles Craighead and Bonnie Kreps, narrated by Harrison Ford

Two in the Far North (1962) by Margaret Murie

Wapiti Wilderness (1966) by Margaret Murie


Howard Zahniser (1906–1964)

The wilderness that has come to us from the eternity of the past we have the boldness to project into the eternity of the future. - Howard Zahniser, testimony in Wilderness Preservation System hearing (1964)

Howard Zahniser gave substance to the ideals of the wilderness movement and ensured its future by writing the legislation that turned an idea into law. As the primary author of the Wilderness Act, Zahniser went beyond the constraints of formal bureaucratic language to instill within its language some of the inspiration of wilderness. Between 1956 and 1964, Zahniser wrote 65 drafts of the bill and steered it through 18 public hearings. Not only was Zahniser the primary author, he was the lead proponent. His earnest passion and ardent ideals carried the legislation through many roadblocks and compromises. He never gave up.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1906, Zahniser enjoyed exploring the outdoor areas around the Allegheny River in his youth. His talents in writing, editing, and debating during college, combined with his interest in the outdoors, led him to work for the Bureau of Biological Survey (which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) as an editor, writer, and researcher. The people he worked with through the survey, such as Olaus Murie, inspired a deepening interest in conservation and wilderness preservation. In 1945 Zahniser went to work full time for The Wilderness Society as executive secretary. In this capacity, he led the society through several campaigns that increased public and political awareness of wilderness preservation. With the momentum built from the successful opposition to a proposed dam in Dinosaur National Monument in the early 1950s, Zahniser led the way to compose and secure passage of a bill to assure protection for wilderness on federal public lands. Zahniser devoted most of his energy during the last nine years of his life to actualizing the vision of a National Wilderness Preservation System protected by law.

Although he died in his sleep a few months before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, Howard Zahniser’s tireless efforts inspire each generation to take up the challenge of wilderness preservation. He lived his life as an example of his words: “It is a bold thing for a human being who lives on the earth but a few score years at the most to presume upon the Eternal and covet perpetuity for any of his undertakings. … Yet we who concern ourselves with wilderness preservation are compelled to assume this boldness and with the courage of this peculiar undertaking of ours so to order our enterprise as to direct our efforts toward the perpetual.”

Interview with Ed Zahniser - Writer-Editor, NPS Harper's Ferry Center

My father’s devotion to the wilderness bill effort, which consumed actually the last 9 or 10 years of his life, is I think quite remarkable… I do think that he was driven very much by a religious sense of life and that he had inherited from his parents the fact that we should leave the world a better place than we found it, and that that’s really a moral obligation. I think there was that in his past. He was also from a very early age a great lover of birds. You know, the more you love birds and the more you learn about birds, you realize their ties to the land … pretty soon you understand that birds need to live in the world and so you have to make accommodations for birds to live in the world. I think my father grew from birds to this appreciation of wilderness by a similar path. I think he was also very attracted by the personalities that he was around when he was working for the fish and wildlife service and bureau of biological survey in Washington D.C. and from 1930 to 1945 when he went to work for the Wilderness Society. His mentors were people like Edward Preble (for whom I’m named) who was a self-taught naturalist and just a wonderful guy. He took my father under his wing and just instilled in him this sense of the values of nature. Olaus Murie was an early contact of my father’s as early as 1937 when they did a radio program together. Olaus Murie was just someone who was able to call down all owls as an incident in the movie about his wife Mardy Murie’s arctic dance shows. Olaus was a great influence on my father. My father knew Robert Marshall through my father’s charter membership in the wilderness society. There were people involved like Ernest Oberholtzer, Sigurd Olsen later on, just really wonderful people, all of whom I knew, except Robert Marshall. I never knew Robert Marshall. They certainly were role models, and that they felt so deeply and were so committed themselves to these values was enormously attractive to my father. And that with his own religious view of life and background that when this opportunity to become a part of this movement presented itself in a viable way, he just took it on as a life mission.

Read a detailed biography of Howard Zahniser online at: http://www.greenville.edu/zies/whatis/zahnie.htm

To learn more about Howard Zahniser, consider reading these references:


“Wilderness Forever” by H. Zahniser

“The Need for Wilderness Areas” by H. Zahniser

A son’s perspective on Howard Zahniser

Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser (1992) edited by E. Zahniser


Other wilderness thinkers, leaders, and advocates

Read below to learn more about other individuals who were instrumental in preserving, protecting, and building awareness about wilderness.

Edward Abbey (1927–1989)

Abbey’s writings, such as his books Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, express his passion for wild undeveloped lands, especially in the desert Southwest. Though not directly involved in the preservation of federal wilderness areas, Abbey raised public awareness about the power and significance of wildlands.

Ansel Adams (1902–1984)

Adams conveyed to the world his passion for wildlands through his photographs. He spent 37 years on the board of the Sierra Club, during which time he raised his voice loudly and often for wilderness preservation. “Wilderness is not only a condition of nature, but a state of mind and mood and heart,” he said.

Wendell Berry (1934– )

Author of numerous books of essays, novels, and poetry, Berry often reflects upon the human relationship with place. His own place is his Kentucky farm, where Berry focuses time, energy and thought on sustainable living. Much of his writing delves into the human connection to wilderness.

Stewart Brandborg (1927– )

Raised in the mountains of Montana , Brandborg was on the front line with Howard Zahniser in the late 1950s and early 1960s working for passage of the Wilderness Act. From 1964 to 1976, he served as executive director of The Wilderness Society, which included the time of negotiations for the Alaska National Interest Lands Claim Act of 1980.

Harvey Broome (1902–1968)

One of the eight organizers of The Wilderness Society in 1935, Broome worked tirelessly on behalf of wilderness preservation. His eloquent wilderness writings were inspired by the Great Smoky Mountains, where he spent much of his life exploring.

David Brower (1912–2000)

As the first executive director of the Sierra Club (19521969), Brower filled a leadership role for many conservation issues, including the opposition of a dam in Dinosaur National Monument in the early 1950s and the campaign for the Wilderness Act in the 1960s.

Rachel Carson (1907–1964)

Rachel Carson was the first woman to take and pass the Civil Service Exam. During her time as a biologist and editor for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (which later became the Fish and Wildlife Service), Carson wrote several books about oceans and marine life. Success in her publications let her retire from government work to write full time. Because of the public and political reverberations from her book, Silent Spring, Carson has been credited with revolutionizing the modern environmental movement.

Frank Church (1924–1984)

Serving as a senator from Idaho from 1957 to 1981, Church was the wilderness bill’s sponsor in the Senate. In Congress, Church spoke to define the meaning and significance of wilderness, and through his words, the intent of the Wilderness Act was clarified. After passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, Senator Church was involved in legislation designating wilderness areas across the United States, including the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act in 1975.

Ernie Dickerman (1910–1998)

Many have calledDickerman the “grandfather of eastern wilderness” because of his tireless efforts in local communities and in Washington, D.C., promoting the opportunity of designating wilderness areas in the Appalachians. At home in Tennessee near the Great Smoky Mountains, and later in life in the mountains of western Virginia, Dickerman was a charter member of The Wilderness Society in 1935, and later was instrumental in forming the Virginia Wilderness Committee.

William O. Douglas (1898–1980)

Douglas was an ardent conservationist during his time as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (19391975). In 1954 Douglas organized a 189-mile (304-km) hike along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath to protest a proposed highway in the canal right of way. The highway plans were abandoned. By spending time in Olympic National Park and the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, Douglas also focused efforts to preserve these areas. During the time of the long legislative struggle to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964, Douglas published two books: My Wilderness—the Pacific West and My Wilderness—East to Katahdin.

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas (1890–1998)

Referred to as “the mother of the Everglades ,” Douglas wrote and spoke prolifically and passionately about the value of the wetlands in southern Florida . Her book, A River of Grass, was instrumental in raising public awareness that led to the establishment of Everglades National Park in 1947. The designated wilderness area in Everglades National Park established in 1978 bears her name.

Celia Hunter (1919–2001)

A champion for Alaska ’s wildlands and wilderness values, Hunter focused much of her energy on advocacy for the Pacific Northwest . Hunter arrived in Alaska as a military pilot in the 1940s and decided to stay. There she initiated and maintained efforts for wilderness legislation, in particular the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). In the late 1970s Hunter took on a national role as executive director of The Wilderness Society.

Benton MacKaye (1879–1975)

A passionate spokesperson against the uncontrolled urbanization of America, MacKaye envisioned a wilderness pathway in the eastern United States to which city-bound Americans could escape. Today, this vision is actualized as The Appalachian Trail. MacKaye’s idea of a network of wildlands contributed to the concept of a national wilderness preservation system. MacKaye was one of the eight founders of The Wilderness Society.

George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882)

Throughout his 80 years Marsh had many careers as a lawyer, newspaper editor, sheep farmer, mill owner, lecturer, politician and diplomat. He also tried his hand at various businesses, but failed miserably in all - marble quarrying, railroad investment and woolen manufacturing. He invented tools and designed buildings including the Washington Monument. As a congressman in Washington (1843-1849) Marsh helped to found and guide the Smithsonian Institution. However, Marsh is best remembered today for his contribution of Man and Nature, a book in which he warned of the destructive impact of human activities on the environment. He is credited with being one of the first writers to raise concerns of this nature and, although he may have missed the mark on some of his predictions, it is notable how relevant his volume is today. It sparked the Arbor Day movement, the establishment of forest reserves and the national forest system.

John Muir (1838–1914)

Muir is a legendary figure for wilderness advocates because of his undaunted and adventurous outdoor spirit. Even though Muir lived before organized efforts for a legislated national wilderness preservation system, his own advocacy for wildlands laid the groundwork for public support for future wilderness legislation. Many of his writings speak eloquently of the necessity of wilderness. Congress designated the John Muir Wilderness Area (580,293 acres [234,845 ha]) as part of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Ernest Oberholtzer (1884–1977)

A defender of the northern Minnesota wildlands, Oberholtzer worked diligently to secure legislation that would protect wilderness areas. Ober - as he was called by friends - was one of the eight founders of The Wilderness Society. His visionary work and tireless advocacy led to the preservation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota , and Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario , Canada .

Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946)

Gifford Pinchot, America 's first professionally trained forester, rose to national prominence as a conservationist and political progressive under the patronage of President Theodore Roosevelt. As a politician he fought for wiser use of natural resources and for fuller justice for the average citizen. In 1898, Pinchot was appointed Chief of the Division of Forestry, a recognition of his advanced training in forestry and the need to protect American forests. In 1905, the Division was given control of the national forest reserves, and was renamed the Forest Service. It was Roosevelt and Pinchot who gave the name "conservation" to the movement for the preservation and wise use of all natural resources. They observed what they considered to be the reckless exploitation of these resources for private profit, and they predicted that unless scientific management of resources was required, America would fail to meet its future needs. Under Pinchot, the Forest Service added millions of acres to the national forests, controlled their use, and regulated their harvest.

Elizabeth Titus Putnam (1933– )

Founder of the Student Conservation Association, Elizabeth Titus Putnam lived by three basic precepts: trust the land; take care of everything; and if you feel something needs to be done, do it. By establishing the Student Conservation Association, Titus Putnam has provided opportunities for youth to learn about conservation, while completing much needed work in wilderness areas, for nearly 50 years. Since 1957, the Student Conservation Association has grown to become the oldest and largest provider of conservation services that trains the next generation of conservation leaders.

Wallace Stegner (1909–1993)

A novelist, teacher, and conservationist, Stegner wrote extensively about the environment. Focusing much of his writing on the environmental complexities of the American West, Stegner also actively campaigned in support of the Wilderness Act. His letter to a resource manager in the Kennedy administration, now referred to as the “Wilderness Letter,” makes many clear statements about the need for preserved wilderness areas. In The Sound of Mountain Water (1969) he wrote, “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be … a part of the geography of hope.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

Known for his many books, such as Walden and The Maine Woods, Thoreau promoted preserving natural areas from society’s industrialization and so-called development. His time was spent exploring and writing about New England . Originally stated in a speech on April 23, 1851 , at the Concord Lyceum, a quote from his essay “Walking” is often misread and misinterpreted: “In wildness is the preservation of the World.” In this passage, “wildness” is a concept and state of being aligned more with wilderness character than a designated place.

Stewart Lee Udall (1920– )

During Udall’s time as secretary of the Department of the Interior, several major conservation laws were passed, including the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the National Trails System Act. Udall was influential in the establishment of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which includes the first Department of the Interior-designated wilderness area. In his work of environmental philosophy titled, The Quiet Crisis, Udall pressed for preservation of public lands for future generations and called for a rethinking of “land attitudes.”

Robert Sterling Yard (1861–1945)

Yard is intimately associated with the beginnings of the National Park Service and the organization of the National Parks Association (now National Parks Conservation Association [NPCA]) in 1919. At the age of 76, Yard was one of the founders of The Wilderness Society. He served as The Wilderness Society’s first president until his death in 1945.


Current Perspectives

In 1964 the Wilderness Act was almost unanimously supported in Congress. This congressional support reflects the desire of the American public for wildlands protected as permanently as possible.

By reading parts of the Wilderness Act and learning about people who worked to establish wilderness areas, you have explored reasons why citizens in the 1950s and 1960s spoke for wilderness. Why do people in the 21st century value wilderness? What is your perspective on the purpose of public lands preserved as wilderness?

Listen to some people share their ideas of why wilderness is important today.

Interview with Kathy Billings - Superintendent, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Wilderness first affected me personally when I was in college and had my first experience backpacking in Yosemite National Park in the wilderness. And realizing once we were in the backcountry that it was the first time I ever realized that I was on my own and had to take care of myself. And that night, the first night we were there, of course the bears came, and of course they got our food because we didn’t know how to deal with being in a wild place. And that wilderness experience taught me a lot about how much I didn’t know about my world and taught me a lot about how I have to depend on myself and learn about my world in order to live with my world. And I think that was my very first wilderness experience in terms of knowing a wild place and appreciating a wild place and understanding the incredible quiet and solitude of a place that restores spirit. And ever since then, whenever I need my spirit renewed, that’s where I go, is the wilderness.

Interview with Tim Devine - Wilderness Program Specialist, Rocky Mountain National Park

First on a personal note, to me, wilderness is a place that really kind of mixes up your senses. It’s a place really where you can go and hear a sunset. You can smell adventure. You can feel the colors that are there. You can taste the wind. And you can see in the future. It’s really a place of inspiration. I guess it goes all the way back to when I was a kid and I grew up camping and hiking with my family and was active in outdoor groups that was kind of outside all of the time in Boy Scouts and other groups, out in the outdoors doing adventures and hiking and different activities. In high school I went on several field trips across the country that visited National Park areas and forest service areas. I just kind of fell in love with being outside. I wanted early on to do my part and protect it for one, but then also passing that on to other people and sharing it with other people. So after high school I went to college and got a degree in wildlife and recreation management. I started volunteering for the park service while I was still in college actually, and one thing just led to another. I worked seasonally in parks across the country. I’ve worked at many wilderness parks: Everglades , Mount Rainier , Olympic, here at Rocky, so a lot of different ecosystems. I eventually landed a permanent job and was able to steer my way through into the wilderness realm of the National Park Service.

Interview with Kelly Hartsell - Park Ranger, Shenandoah National Park

I grew up in East Tennessee and I did most of my early hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee and North Carolina. I think I first became inspired for about wilderness when I went out west for the first time and I saw the vast open landscapes that were completely different from anything I had seen before. And I realized there was a world larger than what I was seeing in my backyard. And I realized there were places still left to discover in the year 2000 in the century that’s going to take us to a lot different places. I realized that wilderness is still out there. And I’ve become inspired by wilderness because of the people who came before me who worked very hard to protect the places so that I have the opportunity to go out there and hike, camp, look, at the wilderness that’s out there. So wilderness is an inspiration both in the physical sense – I like to go out there, I like to climb the peaks, I like to hike the trails but I think the inspiration I take most from it is the people who fought for wilderness preservation. They had in their hearts something that said this is worth preserving and they preserved it for me. It becomes even more important because now that legacy is passed on to me. I’m now part of the preservation process.

Interview with Steve Bair - Backcountry Wilderness and Trails Manager, Shenandoah National Park

We need that part of our American history, I guess, our American tradition, of this frontier; we need some remnant of that frontier to understand where we came from in this country and how this country developed. It sounds like a lot of double-talk, but wilderness is a very important part of our history, and, I mean, here we are, preserving historic buildings, historic documents, so why not preserve some historic lands?

Interview with Doug Morris - Superintendent, Shenandoah National Park

I think Shenandoah’s wilderness is significant because Shenandoah expanded the definition of wilderness. Wilderness very early in its formation, long before 1964 or the passage of the Wilderness Act, I think was judged in a very limited way. And that was great natural landscapes, virgin or untouched landscapes, often in the west. And I think Shenandoah, with its establishment, expanded the concept that wilderness could be much more. It could be a restored landscape; it could be a landscape near heavy populations of people.

Interview with John Buchheit Wilderness Biology Technician, Shenandoah National Park

Wilderness is important because it provides balance. It’s one end on a continuum. On one end on a continuum, we have modern society, mechanization, lightning speed communication, crowding, pollution, noise, both the positive and negative features we associate with life in the 21st century … On the other end of the spectrum is wilderness. I think in the past 100 to 200 years the balance has tipped almost completely to the side of mechanization, modern civilization. And by having wilderness, by setting aside wilderness, we provide a little bit of balance there.

Interview with Laura Buchheit - Wilderness Education Specialist, Shenandoah National Park

I think that the value of wilderness comes from its contrast to our progressed developed mechanized mechanical society. We have a place that we can escape to. It’s one end of the spectrum of lands that we can use and enjoy. We can use these lands that can be designated as wilderness for recreation for escape from our daily mechanized lives, and we can use them as a restored value to find our place, to explore our place, in our natural world - how we fit into the natural community, or as the Wilderness Act puts it, the earth and its community of life.

Interview with Ruth Scott - Natural Resource Specialist, Olympic National Park

I have a real passion for wild places – I feel very strongly there need to be places in the world that we can step out of our framework of civilization and enjoy nature, and so for me, one of the most important aspects of the work is working towards restoring those values that make wilderness the really unique and special treasure that it is, and making sure that that concept is not only a part of the staff’s understanding but the public as a whole begins to understand what that means more and more and how precious that resource of wildness really is. And also the excitement of seeing how other countries in the world are beginning to think more about this idea of preserving lands in their wild state and restoring areas that have been changed or altered by humans over thousands of years.

Interview with Gary Somers - Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources, Shenandoah National Park

Wilderness is important because we can’t allow everything to be developed. We can’t allow everything to be mined, fished, harvested, built on. There is a long, long relationship between humans and wilderness. Now that relationship has changed through time tremendously from a wilderness as something to be feared into being down to becoming what it is today, as it’s a small portion of what’s left of the natural world that needs to remain that way for a whole variety of reasons. They may be some of our last refuges of biodiversity. They may be some of the last areas where even types of cultural resources are adequately protected in their totality, even though people don’t tend to think that way. Even if I never set foot in the heart of a large wilderness, knowing that it’s there, and knowing that it’s providing a level of protection, a level of inspiration… It’s just very important.

Interview with Ed Zahnizer - Writer-Editor, NPS Harper's Ferry Center

The Wilderness Act really is a statement of humility, of the fact that we don’t know, and we probably will never know, enough about this huge complex world in which we live to manage it. We need to have some of it to instruct us just by being itself. You know when acid rain, or acid deposition, became a great problem, we finally had to learn about how soil works. And the more we study soil, the more complex it gets. It’s just like sending the Hubble telescope out into space. That doesn’t simplify anything - you just find out “wow, there is even more stuff out there that we don’t understand.”

Interview with Peter Allen - Park Publications, Rocky Mountain National Park

I backpack every year. When I didn’t work so much, the longest trip I did was 34 days. When a person does trips of a month or more, wilderness becomes home. It is a very different sort of place from the busy hustle of our every day cities and everyday lives. And for me, that is a central experience – the recreation that occurs in the wild area.



Introductory Video Text

Introduction to wilderness

What is wilderness?

Where is wilderness?

Why did U.S. citizens feel the need to legally protect wilderness?

How is wilderness managed?

Who is involved with wilderness today?

Wilderness up close

How can you help?



Wilderness Index

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