NOW Home Page
Politics & Economy
Science & Health
Arts & Culture
Society & Community
TV Schedule
For Educators
Topic Index
WPA Environmental Preservation Poster
Science and Health:
America's Wild Places
More on This Story:
Wilderness Act Overview

For generations Americans have had a conflicted relationship with the wild places of the nation — whether to use and develop natural resources or to preserve them. One of the most famous theories of American exceptionalism, Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 Frontier Thesis, contends that the struggle to conquer the wilderness was the crucial element in the formation of the independent character of American democracy — our famous self-reliance and egalitarianism. When Turner published his argument at the end of the 19th century, scholars like him were declaring the frontier "closed" — leading some to worry that America was losing the very thing that made it so unique.

Such sentiments were the genesis of the early conservation movement which led to the setting aside of the first National Park, Yellowstone, in 1872 and the foundation of a government oversight body in the Antiquities Act of 1906. (Learn more about the National Park Service from NOW — Preserving Our Parks.)

In 1964 the government went a step further with the Wilderness Act, creating a mechanism to forever protect from any sort of development some remote lands. The act's preamble reads:

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.
The act went on to define how these areas were to be treated in a distinct fashion from the lands already preserved as parks or monuments. This was a qualitatively different experience to be preserved: "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."


"An area of wilderness is further defined to mean an area of underdeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions." The Wilderness System now includes 106 million acres.

Those 106 million acres are administerd by four federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Environmentalists and preservationists are worried that some Bush Administration policies may slow the inclusion of new wilderness areas into the system. The heated battle over proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge occurred precisely because a section of the Refuge was intentionally not designated as "wilderness" under the terms of the act along with the rest of the refuge when it was redesignated in 1980 precisely to leave the drilling option open.

The administration has also aroused the ire of some by altering the management of other federal lands not protected by the wilderness designation. There has been a public battle over the "Roadless Rule," a policy implement by President Bill Clinton right before he left office, ending virtually all logging; roadbuilding; and coal, gas, oil, and other mineral leasing in 58 million acres of the wildest remaining national forests lands. The USDA has recently issued a draft policy, which is open to public comment until September 14, 2004. Another very public battle has been fought over the administration's decision to allow snowmobiles into areas of Yellowstone National Park.

Although fewer areas have been added to the wilderness category under this administration there are several bills now pending in Congress. You can follow the fate of the California Wild Heritage Act, the Wild Sky Wilderness Act (Washington State), Ojito Wilderness Act (New Mexico) are now before Congress.

The following Web sites offer more information on America's federal stewardship of natural resources:

National Forest Foundation
The National Forest Foundation is the official nonprofit partner of the Forest Service. The group creates community-based and national programs that promote the health and public enjoyment of the National Forest System. The NFF also administer private gifts of funds and land for the benefit of the National Forests.

National Park Service: Wilderness Area Management
This segment of the National Park Service's Web site details the history of the wilderness designation, and provides management plans and scientific studies on all wilderness areas under NPS control. The site offers a Wilderness Law Library, and provides information on all NPS areas currently under review for wilderness designation.

National Parks and Conservation Association
Established in 1919, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is the only private, nonprofit, advocacy organization dedicated to educating the public about our national parks and protecting, preserving, and enhancing the U.S. National Park System.

Sierra Club
The Sierra Club works to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management
An agency of the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management Web site provides general information, facts and news related to the management of our public lands. Features include access to bureau publications, brochures, and current initiatives undertaken by the Bureau of Land Management.

U.S.D.A. Forest Service
The official site for the Forest Service contains area profiles and resource management procedures and pertinent news stories. Potential visitors can find information on permit and use guidelines for Forest Service areas.

Wilderness Society
Founded in 1935, the Wilderness Society is one of the most vocal advocates for wilderness advocacy. It's former president, Howard Zahniser, was one of the authors of the original Wilderness Act. Today the non-profit group is lobbying against changes to the roadless rule and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Related Stories:

about feedback pledge © Public Affairs Television. All rights reserved.