Wilderness Act Is Passed

The U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act, the first legislation to protect the ecology and the social values of wild, undeveloped land. The act also set in motion a citizen-based, grassroots environmental movement that would press for laws to protect the wildlife, landscapes, clean water, and clean air of the United States.

Summary of Event

The passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 marked the first time in history that wilderness was preserved with the force of law. Under this legislation, 9.1 million acres of wildlands were protected as the National Wilderness Preservation System National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), and the mechanism was established for nominating, studying, and adding other areas to the system. By 1989, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the act, the NWPS had grown to protect 91 million acres of wilderness. Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land
Wilderness Act (1964)
Conservation;public land
[kw]Wilderness Act Is Passed (Sept. 3, 1964)
[kw]Act Is Passed, Wilderness (Sept. 3, 1964)
Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land
Wilderness Act (1964)
Conservation;public land
[g]North America;Sept. 3, 1964: Wilderness Act Is Passed[08180]
[g]United States;Sept. 3, 1964: Wilderness Act Is Passed[08180]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 3, 1964: Wilderness Act Is Passed[08180]
[c]Environmental issues;Sept. 3, 1964: Wilderness Act Is Passed[08180]
[c]Natural resources;Sept. 3, 1964: Wilderness Act Is Passed[08180]
Zahniser, Howard Clinton
Aspinall, Wayne
Marshall, Robert
Humphrey, Hubert H.
[p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;environmental policy
Saylor, John P.

In the act itself, wilderness is defined in unusually poetic language: “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.” The unusual but carefully chosen word “untrammeled” means unrestricted or unhindered, though of course it also suggests “untrampled.” The act goes on to define wilderness as land that is primarily affected by the forces of nature, with the impact of human activity substantially unnoticeable; provides outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation; consists of at least five thousand acres or that is of manageable size; and possibly contains other features of ecological, geological, scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

This recognition of the significance of wild, undeveloped land was the culmination of a long development in American attitudes toward nature. At the closing of the frontier, which was declared in the U.S. Census Report of 1890, the apparently limitless lands and boundless resources of the nation were found to be finite after all. When all the acres could be counted and all the rivers and mountains named, it became obvious that the struggle against the wilderness was over and that civilization had “won.” From 1890 on, there would always be fewer and fewer unaltered landscapes and ecosystems in the United States.

The establishment of Yellowstone National Park National parks, U.S.;early parks in 1872 was the U.S. government’s first response to the disappearance of wild country. Yellowstone, along with Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and other early parks, was created for the “enjoyment of the people,” and the highest priority was put on the comfort and pleasure of visitors. This led to the construction of railroads, luxury hotels, and other amenities at the expense of the wilderness.

It would be years before the idea of preserving an area in its pristine or near-pristine state, prohibiting vehicles, structures, and other developments, would seem reasonable. In 1924, U.S. Forest Service employees Arthur Carhart Carhart, Arthur and Aldo Leopold Leopold, Aldo convinced the agency to set aside 574,000 acres of the Gila National Forest Gila National Forest in New Mexico as the world’s first wilderness reserve Wilderness reserves . In 1929, the Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. established a policy known as the L-20 Regulations that was designed to organize the growing list of what were then called primitive areas. Restrictions were few, however, and often such activities as logging, mining, and grazing were allowed to continue.

Another preservation-minded government forester, Robert Marshall, persuaded the Forest Service to tighten restrictions on wilderness activities, and the result was the U-Regulation of 1939. This regulation, which was again only Forest Service policy and not law, prohibited roads, logging, hotels, and permanent camps in what by then totaled fourteen million acres of land classified as primitive, wild, or wilderness.

Conservation groups Environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society Wilderness Society (founded by Leopold, among others, and counting Marshall among its leaders) became concerned that under the Forest Service’s administrative system, wilderness areas could be changed and declassified as easily as protected. They felt that wilderness needed the more permanent protection of federal law. To this end, Howard Clinton Zahniser, then president of the Wilderness Society, drafted a wilderness bill that was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 1956 by Hubert H. Humphrey. Representative John P. Saylor introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives a few days later. This was the beginning of a legislative battle that was to last for eight years.

Opposition to the bill surfaced early and remained strong throughout the struggle for passage. Opponents were primarily commodity interests, people in the timber, mining, or grazing businesses who feared the loss of resources, or potential resources, vital to their industries. The opponents’ main argument was one that continues to be used in preservation controversies: Large areas of land, often with significant economic potential, were being “locked up” for the enjoyment of a few individuals.

The response to this was twofold. Wilderness areas had values other than recreation, such as clean water production, scientific study, and education. All other potential resources, such as timber and minerals, could be considered to be held in trust, and in the case of national emergency could be released by further congressional action. A more philosophical argument was that wilderness is part of the American identity and that it could be “used” and appreciated by people who took satisfaction in simply knowing that places still existed that were wild and free—even if these individuals never had the opportunity to visit the area.

Local governments and utilities interested in water supply and hydroelectric power were also opposed to the bill. They were concerned that wilderness designation would preclude dams and other developments on rivers and streams, especially in the arid West. Environmentalists countered with the argument that because most wilderness areas were high in the mountains, the water could easily be stored and manipulated at lower elevations, outside the boundaries of the protected area.

Finally, the Forest Service itself, along with other government agencies, lined up with the opposition, worried about losing management options on land they had controlled for decades under their mandate for multiple use—that is, to get the greatest good from each piece of land. Proponents of the bill pointed out that the interpretation of the multiple-use mandate depended on the number of acres considered. On a large scale, wilderness preservation was only one of the multiple uses, taking its place alongside reservoirs, mines, and timber sales in the overall management scheme of the national forests.

The antiwilderness forces found their champion in Representative Wayne Aspinall. Aspinall, a Democrat from Colorado, was the chairman of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs , through which the bill had to pass.

Because of the complexity of these issues and a combination of bad timing, bad luck, and intentional delays, the wilderness negotiations continued year after year. Compromises were struck and changes were made to satisfy the Forest Service and other agencies. After Forest Service opposition was dropped, passage of the bill over the objections of the commodity interests was just a matter of time.

After eight years, nineteen hearings, and more than six thousand pages of testimony, the Wilderness Bill passed Congress with votes of 73 to 12 in the Senate and 373 to 1 in the House. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law on September 3, 1964. Zahniser, widely credited as the father of the Wilderness Bill, died only weeks before its passage. He had worked tirelessly to shepherd the bill through the legislative process, attending all the hearings, and he probably realized before he died that passage was virtually assured.


The passage of the Wilderness Act marked a turning point in the politics of wilderness protection. It was essentially the first in a series of laws that were designed to protect rivers, species of plants and animals, and hiking trails, as well as roadless lands.

One of the mechanisms that made this flood of environmental protection initiatives possible was an ironic result of a compromise in the Wilderness Act itself. In the original draft of the bill the executive branch, in the persons of the secretaries of agriculture and the interior, was given the authority to designate new wilderness areas, subject only to congressional veto within 120 days. Congress, and Representative Aspinall in particular, was concerned about this perceived erosion of congressional prerogative and demanded that the process be reversed so that Congress would designate the wildernesses, and that there be an individual bill for each area. Though perhaps intended to slow the pace of wilderness preservation, this procedure had the effect of forcing local environmentalists to come together to work for the protection of their favorite areas, and become politically savvy in the process. Thus grassroots environmental groups were provided with a valuable organizing tool that would continue to be useful in local, emotionally charged land-use issues.

As the momentum for environmental protection grew, other resources perceived as endangered received preservation systems of their own. In 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act established a way to protect free-flowing rivers.

A National Trails System was also established in 1968. National scenic trails, which were longer and wilder than recreation trails, could be designated only by an act of Congress. The first two national scenic trails were the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail and the 2,350-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Statewide wilderness bills were passed on a regular basis, along with the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978, which included areas in a variety of states.

In the Eastern United States there had been long and heated debate over whether any of the public lands there, almost all of which had been somehow disturbed since the years of European settlement, could qualify for wilderness protection. The Forest Service tried a strict approach, which came to be known as the Purity Doctrine, fearing that if disturbed, altered, or “impure” lands were added to the National Wilderness Preservation System, a precedent would be set by which industrial users would plead for permission to degrade other wildernesses to a similar standard. Preservationists viewed this as another attempt to limit the expansion of the wilderness system and noted that the 1964 Wilderness Act states that an area qualifies for wilderness if it “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” Legislators agreed and passed the Eastern Wilderness Act of 1974, adding sixteen areas and more than 200,000 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 was a watershed in American conservation history. It declared that the preservation of nature was of national significance, to the extent of protecting wild, roadless lands for their own sake. Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land
Wilderness Act (1964)
Conservation;public land

Further Reading

  • Allin, Craig W. The Politics of Wilderness Preservation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. A scholarly discussion of the topic. Goes into great detail, with extensive footnotes and references, about many different bills affecting environmental preservation, from early antidam river protection to the 1964 Wilderness Act and beyond. A valuable resource for the student of political science and environmental legislation.
  • Frome, Michael. Battle for the Wilderness. 1974. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1997. An introduction to wilderness issues and history. Briefly discusses the history of cultural attitudes toward wilderness and investigates its aesthetic, ethical, biological, and recreational values. Traces the development of the environmental movement that resulted in the Wilderness Act and other preservation legislation.
  • Harvey, Mark. Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005. A biography of the “father” of the Wilderness Bill and a history of wilderness preservation in the United States.
  • Hendee, John C., and Chad P. Dawson. Wilderness Management: Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values. 3d ed. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 2002. An invaluable 640-page text not only for students of conservation, wilderness protection, and natural resources management but also professionals in the field. Considered a reference classic. Includes maps, illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Irland, Lloyd C. Wilderness Economics and Policy. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1979. An in-depth treatment of the economic implications of wilderness preservation, based on wilderness proposals and the economic climate at the time of writing. Explores issues of timber, mining, water resources, and recreation, as well as the nonutilitarian values of ethics, aesthetics, and education. The overall approach supports and justifies wilderness preservation.
  • Kerasote, Ted, ed. Return of the Wild: The Future of Our Natural Lands. Washington, D.C.: Pew Wilderness Center and Island Press, 2001. Explores the cultural politics of wilderness preservation, with chapters looking at wild lands from the perspectives of American Indians, conservationists, and Christians, and in the context of town planning, economics, and more. An appendix includes the text of the 1964 act.
  • Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. 1982. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. An updated, classic study of the development of American attitudes toward wilderness. Chronological in scope, the book treats the events and the people, including Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Robert Marshall, who shaped this attitude. Well documented, with an annotated bibliography.
  • Sturgeon, Stephen C. The Politics of Western Water: The Congressional Career of Wayne Aspinall. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002. Presents a biographical history of Wayne Aspinall, a prodevelopment Democratic congressmember from Colorado, who was deeply involved in wilderness, environmental, and preservationist legislation.

Truman Creates the Bureau of Land Management

Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac

Nature Conservancy Is Founded

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Congress Passes the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act

Udall Publishes The Quiet Crisis

Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program

Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission

Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded

Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed

Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded

Environmental Protection Agency Is Created

Congress Approves the Mining and Minerals Act