U.S. Congress Expands Eastern Wilderness Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Eastern Wilderness Act significantly increased the area preserved as wilderness in eastern national forests and confirmed that areas no longer pristine might be added to the wilderness system and allowed to recover their wilderness character.

Summary of Event

On January 3, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed Public Law 93-622, which is known as the Eastern Wilderness Act. The law established sixteen new wilderness areas in the eastern United States and designated seventeen others for further study and possible later inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. National Wilderness Preservation System It represented a victory for conservation organizations interested in enlarging the wilderness system and a defeat for the U.S. Forest Service, which had championed strict standards of naturalness for admission to the wilderness system. Eastern Wilderness Act (1975) Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness [kw]U.S. Congress Expands Eastern Wilderness (Jan. 3, 1975) [kw]Congress Expands Eastern Wilderness, U.S. (Jan. 3, 1975) [kw]Eastern Wilderness, U.S. Congress Expands (Jan. 3, 1975) [kw]Wilderness, U.S. Congress Expands Eastern (Jan. 3, 1975) Eastern Wilderness Act (1975) Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness [g]North America;Jan. 3, 1975: U.S. Congress Expands Eastern Wilderness[01850] [g]United States;Jan. 3, 1975: U.S. Congress Expands Eastern Wilderness[01850] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 3, 1975: U.S. Congress Expands Eastern Wilderness[01850] [c]Environmental issues;Jan. 3, 1975: U.S. Congress Expands Eastern Wilderness[01850] Jackson, Scoop Aiken, George D. Talmadge, Herman E. Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;environmental policy McGuire, John

Although the term “wilderness” logically applies to any area that is wild and undeveloped, in the United States the term is generally applied to an area of reasonably undisturbed natural land owned by the government and specifically set aside and protected against development. Before 1964, some wilderness areas in the national forests were protected by administrative rules of the U.S. Forest Service. Many other areas of wild land were within the boundaries of national parks, national monuments, and national wildlife refuges and enjoyed the degree of protection available to the park, monument, or refuge of which they were a part. These areas all had some level of legal protection against development, but none was protected by law as wilderness until Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act Wilderness Act (1964) of 1964.

The Wilderness Act defined wilderness in law and designated national forest wilderness areas comprising 9.1 million acres, including four east of the one hundredth meridian. It established a process under which the Forest Service, the National Park Service, National Park Service, U.S. and the Fish and Wildlife Service Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. would review undeveloped lands within their respective jurisdictions and recommend those that might in the future be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

In the process of studying undeveloped areas and making recommendations, the Forest Service Forest Service, U.S.;purity policy evolved what came to be called its “purity policy.” Under this policy, the Forest Service declined to recommend areas for wilderness status unless they were very nearly pristine. The purity policy was based on a controversial interpretation of the Wilderness Act. Congress had written relatively flexible admissions standards into the Wilderness Act but required relatively strict management of areas once admitted. In an apparent effort to limit the impact of the wilderness review process on the Forest Service’s commodity programs, John McGuire, associate chief of the Forest Service, articulated the service’s conclusion that the Wilderness Act’s strict management standards applied to admission as well. Insistence that wilderness areas must be pure to be considered for inclusion in the system reduced the potential for growth in the wilderness system nationwide.

In the East, the impact of the purity policy was most dramatic. McGuire asserted that there were no areas east of the Rockies that could qualify for inclusion in the wilderness system, but the Forest Service was not unmindful of the growing demand for primitive recreation in national forests near centers of population.

To meet the demand without compromising its view that no areas in the East met the standards of the Wilderness Act, the Forest Service developed a proposal for a new system of wild areas. The proposal originated with the regional foresters in Atlanta and Milwaukee. These wild areas were to be primarily recreational. Mining and grazing would be prohibited, but otherwise the Forest Service would have broad latitude in administration. The proposal became public in the fall of 1971, when McGuire addressed the Sierra Club’s Biennial Wilderness Conference. McGuire noted that he recognized the need for primitive recreational opportunities in the East but asserted that this need would have to be met through some alternative to the Wilderness Act. Virtually all candidate areas in the East had at some time been logged, roaded, or farmed. They did not qualify under the Wilderness Act as areas of “undeveloped Federal land retaining [their] primeval character.”

McGuire’s speech precipitated extended discussions involving the Forest Service and the national conservation organizations. At first, influential members of the Izaak Walton League Izaak Walton League of America and the Sierra Club Sierra Club were disposed to favor the Forest Service proposal. It seemed a practical way to preserve the areas they favored. The Wilderness Society Wilderness Society and most of the other national conservation organizations were opposed to the proposal. To accept the plan would be to accept the Forest Service’s interpretation of the Wilderness Act: To be admitted to the wilderness system an area must be—and must always have been—pristine. Acceptance of this interpretation would sharply limit the possibility of future wilderness designations all over the country.

Pressure to act was building. In February, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon delivered an environmental message to Congress bemoaning the lack of wilderness areas in the East and ordering the secretary of agriculture to accelerate efforts to identify candidate areas. Senators George D. Aiken and Herman E. Talmadge, members of the Senate Agriculture Committee and political allies of the Forest Service, introduced legislation to implement a wild area system of the sort the agency was promoting. Several wild area bills were directed to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, which Talmadge chaired. One was reported from the committee and passed by the Senate, catching the national conservation organizations off guard. Doug Scott Scott, Doug of the Wilderness Society quickly drafted an alternative bill based on the Wilderness Act and convinced Senators James L. Buckley Buckley, James L. and Scoop Jackson to sponsor it.

The battle lines were clearly drawn. The Forest Service preferred the Aiken-Talmadge bill, which was based on its own proposal. The bill created only one instant wilderness. It was being handled by the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, on which the Forest Service had considerable influence, and it would write the purity policy into law. The national conservation organizations were by now reasonably united in their support for the Buckley-Jackson measure. As eventually approved by the Interior Committee, it would have created nineteen wilderness areas and an additional thirty-nine wilderness study areas under the authority of the Wilderness Act. It would reassert the Interior Committee’s dominant role in wilderness legislation and the environmental community’s more flexible interpretation of admissions standards under the Wilderness Act. Congress adjourned without passing any eastern wilderness bill.

In 1973, both the Aiken-Talmadge and Buckley-Jackson proposals were reintroduced with the understanding that the competing committees would share jurisdiction. After each committee had finished its work, negotiations began to produce a compromise bill. The differences were deep, and the negotiations might well have broken down. Those involved credited Senator Aiken for making sure they did not. The compromise bill created nineteen wilderness areas and forty wilderness study areas. It was approved by the Senate on May 31, 1974.

Consideration in the House was anticlimactic. National attention was focused on the Watergate investigations. The House Interior Committee deleted wilderness areas that appeared controversial and reported a bill that created sixteen wilderness areas and seventeen wilderness study areas. The House passed it on December 18, 1974, and the Senate agreed to the House version. President Ford signed the Eastern Wilderness Act on January 3, 1975.


The Eastern Wilderness Act designated sixteen new wilderness areas covering about 207,000 acres in thirteen eastern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The largest was the 34,500-acre Cohutta Wilderness, which spans the border between Georgia and Tennessee in the Appalachian Mountains and protects a land of rocky gorges, plunging waterfalls, and virgin forest. Other significant additions to the wilderness system ranged from the 20,380-acre, near-arctic Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness in New Hampshire to the 22,000-acre swamp-forest of Bradwell Bay Wilderness in the panhandle of Florida. The smallest of the sixteen new wilderness areas was the 2,570-acre Gee Creek Wilderness in Tennessee’s southern Appalachian Mountains.

The act designated seventeen additional areas for study and potential designation at a later date. By March, 1994, twelve of those seventeen areas had been approved by Congress, adding another 122,000 acres to the national forest wilderness system.

The importance of the designation of the additional wilderness areas may be overshadowed by the Eastern Wilderness Act’s implicit policy conclusion about wilderness admissions standards. The legislative battle over eastern wilderness ended the Forest Service’s purity policy. If the purity policy had been left unchecked, it might have curtailed the growth of national forest wilderness nationwide and could have ended it altogether east of the Rocky Mountains. Congress declared, in effect, that areas will be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System when the national interest is better served by the area’s protection as wilderness than by its development for other uses. Old roads, buildings, and other evidences of past development may be overlooked in areas being considered for designation as national forest wilderness areas.

As if to underscore its repudiation of the purity policy, in the final days of 1974 Congress passed Public Law 93-632, establishing eleven wilderness areas totaling nearly 85,000 acres of national wildlife refuge lands in eight eastern states. These lands were administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which did not share the Forest Service’s purity policy, but few of these areas could have been admitted to the wilderness system if Congress had adopted the strict admissions requirements advocated by the Forest Service. Public Law 93-632 became law contemporaneously with the Eastern Wilderness Act on January 3, 1975.

Congressional repudiation of the purity policy was a landmark in the history of wilderness law, but it was not a change in policy. An examination of the initial national forest areas approved in the Wilderness Act of 1964 reveals many deviations from pristine wilderness. In passing the Eastern Wilderness Act, the Congress simply declined to accept the view advocated by the Forest Service that an area must be pristine to be admitted to the wilderness system. Congress’s rejection of purity preserved its own freedom of action on wilderness admissions and preserved the possibility that many more areas in the eastern national forests might eventually be given wilderness status.

The precedent established by the Eastern Wilderness Act has dramatically altered federal land-management practices in the East. It has encouraged advocates to study relatively undeveloped tracts and to propose wilderness designations. Since passage of the Eastern Wilderness Act, the efforts of wilderness advocates have produced remarkable results.

At the close of 1984, a decade after the passage of the Wilderness Act, Congress had added thirteen wilderness areas in the East, all on national wildlife refuge lands and five encompassing less than thirty acres each. In the national forests of the East there remained only the four original wilderness areas: Linville Gorge and Shining Rock in North Carolina, Great Gulf in New Hampshire, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota.

In the decade after the Eastern Wilderness Act, the number of eastern wilderness areas grew rapidly, and national forest lands constituted most of the addition. The process continues, albeit at a diminishing pace. Many of these wilderness areas are less than pristine, but they provide an increasingly valuable resource for history, science, and recreation. Eastern Wilderness Act (1975) Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allin, Craig W. The Politics of Wilderness Preservation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. A political history of the movement to preserve wilderness areas in the United States. Covers establishment of national parks and national forests in the nineteenth century, creation of the Forest Service and the Park Service and the rivalry between them, interest group and agency efforts to preserve wilderness areas, passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and its progeny—including the Eastern Wilderness Act—through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, and implementation of wilderness legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Costley, Richard J. “Wilderness: An Enduring Resource.” American Forests 78 (June, 1972): 7-11, 54-56. Classic exposition of the Forest Service purity policy by one of its architects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frome, Michael. Battle for the Wilderness. 1974. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1997. Originally published prior to final passage of the Eastern Wilderness Act. A passionate, journalistic account of wilderness issues in the mid-1970’s by a leading wilderness advocate. A chapter on eastern wilderness describes interest-group and agency politics involving national park and national forest lands.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hendee, John C., and Chad P. Dawson. Wilderness Management: Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values. 3d ed. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 2002. Written with the active collaboration of a host of wilderness scholars, this massive volume is both a textbook and an excellent general reference on every aspect of wilderness history, politics, policy, and management. The portion devoted to eastern wilderness is based largely on the Roth and Allin volumes listed here.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kulhavy, David L., and Richard N. Conner, eds. Wilderness and Natural Areas in the Eastern United States: A Management Challenge. Nacogdoches, Tex.: Center for Applied Studies, School of Forestry, Stephen F. Austin University, 1986. Collected papers of a symposium on eastern wilderness management. Presentations vary from general to fairly technical. A good summary of the concerns of wilderness land managers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roth, Dennis M. The Wilderness Movement and the National Forests. 2d ed. College Station, Tex.: Intaglio Press, 1995. By the Chief Historian of the Forest Service. The most complete published source on the respective roles of the Forest Service and the environmental community in passing the Eastern Wilderness Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Doug. The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our National Heritage Through the Wilderness Act. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 2004. An excellent overview of the politics of wilderness conservation in the United States.

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