Gila Wilderness Area Is Designated Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Aldo Leopold’s success in having approximately 755,000 acres of the Gila National Forest preserved as wilderness marked the beginning of formal wilderness preservation in the United States.

Locale Gila National Forest, New Mexico

Summary of Event

On June 3, 1924, District Forester Frank C. W. Pooler approved a recreation plan for the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The plan incorporated Aldo Leopold’s proposal for a Gila Wilderness Area of approximately 755,000 acres. This decision is widely regarded as the first formal designation of an area to be managed as wilderness in the national forests of the United States. [kw]Gila Wilderness Area Is Designated (June 3, 1924) [kw]Wilderness Area Is Designated, Gila (June 3, 1924) Wilderness preservation Gila Wilderness Area Conservation;wilderness [g]United States;June 3, 1924: Gila Wilderness Area Is Designated[06090] [c]Environmental issues;June 3, 1924: Gila Wilderness Area Is Designated[06090] [c]Government and politics;June 3, 1924: Gila Wilderness Area Is Designated[06090] [c]Natural resources;June 3, 1924: Gila Wilderness Area Is Designated[06090] Leopold, Aldo Carhart, Arthur H. Pooler, Frank C. W. Greeley, William B. Mather, Stephen T. Wallace, Henry C.

In the first decades after its establishment in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. was militantly utilitarian, committed to using the resources of the national forests to foster the economic development of the nation. Timber harvesting, mining, grazing, and the development of roads, resorts, and communities were encouraged. Recreation was tolerated as a secondary use, but wilderness preservation was resisted. Despite calls for wilderness preservation from organizations such as the Ecological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the idea of prohibiting economic development in any part of the national forests was alien to most in the Forest Service.

Not every forester shared this view. Two who did not were Arthur H. Carhart and Aldo Leopold. Carhart was a landscape architect working for the Forest Service in Colorado as a recreation engineer. Carhart accepted appointment to the Forest Service in April, 1919, and before the year was out, he had made three major contributions to national forest wilderness preservation.

First, he was asked to survey the Trappers Lake area of Colorado’s White River National Forest for home sites and a road. He completed the survey but argued that neither the road nor the homes should be built. He contended that the area was best left undeveloped. Carhart’s superiors agreed, and his proposal to preserve the Trappers Lake area was incorporated in a district recreation plan. The 118,000-acre Flat Tops Primitive Area, protecting a part of the Trappers Lake region, was eventually set aside by the Forest Service. In 1975, the U.S. Congress designated the 235,000-acre Flat Tops Wilderness.

Second, Carhart traveled the Superior National Forest of Minnesota by canoe and prepared a preliminary report recommending protection of natural features and exclusion of roads. A revised report and proposal for a Superior Roadless Area was approved by Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace in April, 1923, a year before the Gila reservation. For forty years, the Superior Roadless Area enjoyed varying levels of protection from Congress and the Forest Service. Congress gave the area statutory protection in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and enlarged the area in 1978. As of 2006, nearly 800,000 acres were being managed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Third, Carhart attracted the attention of Leopold, who traveled to Denver to meet Carhart in December, 1919. After a day of conversation, Leopold asked Carhart to put his thoughts in writing. The resulting memorandum to Leopold described the kinds of areas Carhart believed should be protected from development and predicted that, in time, the protected areas would be among the most cherished in the national forests.

Environmental historian Donald N. Baldwin argues persuasively that Carhart is the true father of the wilderness concept, but the Forest Service and most conservationists have bestowed that title on Aldo Leopold, who, above all others, gave voice to the growing movement for wilderness preservation. Leopold was a gifted and frequently published writer. Where others spoke of limiting development of or providing opportunities for primitive recreation, Leopold used the term “wilderness” and argued that its preservation was consistent with the utilitarian mission of the Forest Service.

Indeed, Leopold’s initial interest in wilderness preservation was itself utilitarian. His advocacy predated by decades the ecological consciousness for which he would eventually be well known. Whereas Carhart was a landscape architect concerned with aesthetics, Leopold was an avid hunter and was preoccupied with wildlife of every description. To Leopold, wilderness meant game and public recreational space. Wilderness preservation meant preservation of the hunt. Writing in the Journal of Forestry in 1921, Leopold defined wilderness as “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.” He asked whether the Forest Service’s “principle of highest use does not itself demand that representative portions of some forests be preserved as wilderness,” and he proposed protection of nearly half a million acres encompassing the headwaters of the Gila River in the Gila National Forest.

Leopold toured the Gila area during the summer of 1920. His inspection report, completed in July, contained a wilderness area recommendation. Leopold’s supervisor, Pooler, approved the report in August and invited Leopold to prepare a more formal wilderness area proposal for discussion at the winter meeting of district foresters. The proposal was completed in October, discussed in nearby communities, mislaid for some time in the district office, and eventually approved by Pooler on June 3, 1924, five days after Leopold had left the Southwest for a new assignment as assistant director of a forest-products laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. Historians are not unanimous on this point, but the U.S. Forest Service recognizes June 3, 1924, as the birth date of the national forest wilderness system.


The Gila Wilderness was the first large tract officially designated as a wilderness area by a federal land-management agency. Its initial size was approximately 755,000 acres. Under changing Forest Service regulations, the Gila reservation was designated a Primitive Area in 1933, and about 438,000 acres of it were designated a Wilderness Area in 1953. The Gila Wilderness Area received statutory protection with the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and in 1980, Congress created the Aldo Leopold Wilderness to the east of the Gila Wilderness. The Gila Wilderness is composed of 558,000 acres, and the Aldo Leopold is made up of an additional 202,000 acres. The total acreage protected as wilderness is approximately the size that Leopold proposed, but the acreage is in two units divided by a road, the construction of which Leopold had tried to prevent.

Despite Leopold’s initial success with the Gila reservation, the nation was far from having a wilderness system in the 1920’s. During the next several years, Leopold wrote extensively. He targeted different audiences in different journals, but always he sought to build a political constituency for wilderness preservation. Nevertheless, most of the Forest Service leadership remained committed to a narrower view of utility.

A catalyst was required to awaken the Forest Service to the value of wilderness preservation that catalyst was provided by the National Park Service. National Park Service, U.S. The National Park Service had been established in 1916, and it was aggressively led by Stephen T. Mather. Mather saw his own agency as the only legitimate keeper of the nation’s scenic and recreational space and the only legitimate recipient of federal recreational dollars. He envisioned a multitude of new national parks protecting scenic areas in the American West. Most of the areas Mather envisioned as future national parks were already national forests. Growth of the national park system would come at the expense of the national forests. This was an unhappy prospect for policy makers in the national headquarters of the Forest Service.

Both agencies recognized a growing public interest in outdoor recreation, and both agencies attempted to exploit it. Under Mather’s leadership, the National Park Service emphasized development, spectacle, and public enjoyment over nature preservation. The service built miles of roads, developed numerous campgrounds, and encouraged the construction of railroads and hotels. It organized ranger walks, held public bear feedings, tunneled a road through a standing sequoia tree, and perpetuated the “firefall,” a bonfire built each evening on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park Yosemite National Park to be pushed over the cliff into the valley below. These activities were popular with the traveling public but left the Park Service vulnerable to the charge that it was insufficiently sensitive to its preservation mission.

For Chief Forester William B. Greeley and his Washington staff, the wilderness proposals of Carhart and Leopold provided a possible means of defense against bureaucratic aggression from the National Park Service. If the national parks were to be turned into playgrounds, perhaps the Forest Service could champion real wilderness preservation. This was not an easy choice for an agency that contemplated trees primarily in terms of board feet of lumber. Greeley moved slowly, but gradually he embraced wilderness preservation. He canceled highly publicized plans for scenic highways in California and a cable car to the summit of Mount Hood, and he ordered foresters in the West to safeguard areas appropriate for preservation as wilderness. At the same time, Greeley publicly criticized the National Park Service for its policy of encouraging the construction of roads and hotels and the use of buses. The national forests, he wrote, would “provide some sizeable areas of real wilderness.”

Greeley’s use of wilderness preservation as a shield against national park expansion was remarkably successful. Between 1920 and 1928, the National Park Service proposed removing 2.3 million acres from the national forests for new or expanded national parks. It received fewer than 600,000 acres. In the course of saving the remaining 1.7 million acres, the Forest Service created 5 million acres of designated primitive areas. These areas were not as well protected as modern wilderness areas, and the designations might have been withdrawn at any time by the Forest Service. Still, the primitive areas set aside by the Forest Service in the 1920’s constituted the nation’s first wilderness preservation system.

The Forest Service primitive areas, inspired by Carhart and Leopold and motivated by fear of national park expansion, have been critical to the subsequent development of the wilderness system in the United States. The Forest Service institutionalized its primitive area system through the promulgation of Regulation L-20 in 1929. The regulation stipulated maintenance of primitive conditions for public education and recreation, but it nevertheless allowed limited development of timber, forage, and water resources. By 1937, the primitive area system had grown to seventy-two units and more than 13 million acres. In 1939, a new set of regulations went into effect. The primitive areas were to be reclassified as “wilderness,” “wild,” or “roadless/canoe,” and boundary revisions were to be made. The reclassified areas were subject to more restrictive wilderness management, and their preserved status was understood to be permanent.

Even the Wilderness Act of 1964 Wilderness Act (1964) and its administrative aftermath have been significantly shaped by the decisions to create primitive areas in the 1920’s. When Congress established a statutory wilderness system in 1964, areas classified wilderness, wild, or roadless/canoe became charter members. Primitive areas that had not yet been reclassified by the Forest Service were protected by the law but not formally classified as wilderness. Instead, the secretary of agriculture was ordered to study the areas’ wilderness potential and make recommendations to Congress.

The 1964 Wilderness Act designated 9 million acres as wilderness exempt from most forms of development, all of it in the national forests. By the early 2000’s, the statutory wilderness system in the United States had grown to more than 106 million acres of public lands, in 663 wilderness areas, with units managed by the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Most Americans accept Aldo Leopold’s Gila recommendation as the first significant step on the path to wilderness preservation in the United States. Wilderness preservation Gila Wilderness Area Conservation;wilderness

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allin, Craig W. The Politics of Wilderness Preservation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. Political history of the movement to preserve wilderness areas in the United States includes discussion of the establishment of national parks and national forests in the nineteenth century, the creation of the Forest Service and the National Park Service, and the rivalry between them regarding wilderness preservation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baldwin, Donald N. The Quiet Revolution: Grass Roots of Today’s Wilderness Preservation Movement. Boulder, Colo.: Pruett, 1972. Examines the history of wilderness preservation and argues that Carhart deserves recognition at least equal to that of Leopold as an early and successful champion of wilderness preservation in the U.S. national forests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flader, Susan L. Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude Toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests. 1974. Reprint. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. Excellent biography emphasizes the development of Leopold’s conservation philosophy. Chapter 3 examines “the Gila experience.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knight, Richard L., and Susanne Riedel, eds. Aldo Leopold and the Ecological Conscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Collection of essays on Leopold’s contributions to the environmental movement by ecologists, wildlife biologists, and conservationists who knew Leopold personally. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leopold, Aldo. Aldo Leopold’s Wilderness. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1990. Collection of many of Leopold’s early wilderness advocacy articles is a much-needed addition to the Leopold literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meine, Curt. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. Definitive traditional biography places Leopold’s wilderness preservation work in the context of his overall life and times. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meine, Curt, and Richard L. Knight, eds. The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. Unique collection joins quotations from Leopold’s writings with commentaries on his work and ideas from historians, conservationists, philosophers, and biologists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, John A. The Gila Wilderness Area: A Hiking Guide. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. Volume aimed at hikers includes informative chapters on the natural and human history of the Gila area. Features an excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. One of the best single sources on the role of wilderness in American intellectual history. Chapter 11, titled “Aldo Leopold: Prophet,” presents an excellent synopsis of Leopold’s role in the wilderness movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tanner, Thomas, ed. Aldo Leopold: The Man and His Legacy. Ankeny, Iowa: Soil Conservation Society of America, 1987. Collection resulting from an Aldo Leopold centennial celebration at Iowa State University. Brings together work by most of the nation’s leading Leopold scholars and reminiscences by members of the Leopold family.

National Parks and Conservation Association Is Founded

Marshall Writes The People’s Forests

Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act

Marshall and Leopold Form the Wilderness Society

Darling Founds the National Wildlife Federation

Categories: History