It's been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Wilderness Act into law in 1964, but the question remains: Why has so much land within the National Park System not been designated as wilderness?
Since 1974, U.S. presidents have asked Congress to designate at least 5.7 million acres within the system as official wilderness. While Congress earlier this year did designate more than 32,500 acres in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan as wilderness, millions more acres in such notable parks as Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, Big Bend, Great Smoky Mountains, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore have not received this designation, even though the National Park Service has deemed the acres worthy.
While Congress ultimately is the only political body capable of designating wilderness, the National Park Service has a reputation for not promoting critical lands for protection under the Act. Part of this criticism stems from the agency's Mission 66, an initiative envisioned by then-Park Service Director Conrad Wirth that aimed to make the parks more user friendly between 1956 and 1966 with new facilities and improved access.
Olaus Murie, a founder of The Wilderness Society, voiced strong opposition to Mission 66, which aimed to foster "accessible wilderness." One aspect of Mission 66 that Murie criticized was the road-building program that accompanied it.
Historian Richard West Sellars, in Preserving Nature in the National Parks, a History, noted the National Park Service's opposition to The Wilderness Act. "In the quest to leave certain public lands essentially unimpaired, the wilderness bill represented the antithesis of developmental programs such as Mission 66 -- and it got a cool reception from Park Service leadership."
The agency, wrote Sellars, saw the Act as "redundant" since the park lands were considered to be protected from development under the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916.
Sierra Club founder David Brower believed that the Park Service's 1957 wilderness brochure, created in connection with Mission 66, was the agency's effort to "confuse real wilderness with roadside wilderness" and "helped create a lack of clarity which suggested that additional legislative protection of truly wild areas was unnecessary."
While Sellars was recounting sentiments from more than half-a-century ago, the concern remains that the Park Service is not doing enough to promote wilderness designation.
'Historically, the National Park Service had been reluctant to accept Wilderness Act mandates. The result has been an institutional indifference to expanding wilderness status to roadless lands,' says Frank Buono, a former Park Service manager who now chairs the board of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 'It should be noted that in recent years there has been significant progress on wilderness programs in individual parks, but it is not matched by any system-wide leadership, emphasis or agenda.'
Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, issued a release last week to belittle the Park Service's approach to marking The Wilderness Act's 50th birthday, saying the agency spent $120,000 to produce 15 videos promoting wilderness in the park system.
'These videos are awfully pretty but amount to little more than institutional selfies with little substantive value,' said Ruch.
For its part, PEER has created an 'Orphaned Park Wilderness' web center that "details every stalled wilderness recommendation and assessment while prescribing specific steps to advance the wilderness footprint of each eligible park."
'We are celebrating the Wilderness Act's half-century by highlighting its still significantly unmet potential," said Ruch.
Part of PEER's Orphaned Park Wilderness site notes that down through the years Park Service managers have developed proposals that recognized more than 19 million acres as worthy of wilderness designation, but never forwarded those proposals to either the Interior secretary, the president, or Congress. Those proposals include consideration of 1.1 million acres in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, 125,000 acres at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, and nearly 3,000 acres at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina.
PEER also created a park-by-park listing of "all legislative and administrative actions regarding wilderness," a voluminous document that notes, for instance, that while a key vision for Cape Hatteras National Seashore was creation of a "primitive wilderness" setting, the Park Service has never formally studied wilderness quality lands in the seashore, which was authorized in 1937.
Part of the problem at Cape Hatteras, the Park Service acknowledged in 2008 in a history of the seashore, was nature. Another was human access and recreation.
Well before the end of Mission 66, NPS officials understood that the beach management situation they faced was dire. As park naturalist Verde Watson titled the beach erosion control photo section of the 1957-58 annual reports, it was "Man against the Sea." The Park Service was waging a fight against a fundamental force of nature, but what was not quite as crisply understand was the futile nature of that struggle and how a commitment to preserve a "primitive wilderness" had been transformed into a commitment to protect human-made structures using techniques that actually undermined the preservation of natural beaches.
To mark the Act's anniversary, the National Park Service is:
* Participating in a panel discussion during D.C. Wilderness Week (September 13-18) about the future of wilderness for the National Wilderness Preservation System during a day with stakeholders and partner organizations at the Pew Charitable Trusts Office.
* Attending a reception at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum today where attendees will celebrate the winners of the public wilderness photography contest on the opening day of the exhibit.
* The agency's Denver regional office is hosting an interagency panel today about the importance of wilderness and the role of partnership in fostering wilderness stewardship. Interactive activities, exhibit displays, and presentations from partner organizations will also be offered for attendees.
* Next month, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis will participate in the National Wilderness Conference in Albuquerque, the culminating and single largest national event for the 50th anniversary.
Around the park system, the following activities are planned:
* Canyonlands National Park, Utah: 'Walking with Thoreau' Project. A kick-off event in Moab will feature a public lecture about Thoreau and his writings. Over the course of four weekends, the park is offering free transportation from town to the park for guided walks, inspired by Thoreau, into the park's recommended wilderness areas. Participants will write, as Thoreau did, about their wilderness experience. Reflections will be published electronically and shared through social media.
* Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: Wilderness 50th Speaking Event. The park is hosting two speakers to discuss the importance of wilderness to audiences at the Grand Canyon School (where park-based students attend) and during an evening program for the public.
* Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida/Mississippi: 'Wilderness and You' Project. The park is providing transportation from town to park and supplying participants with camping gear to partake in a facilitated 3-day wilderness experience on Horn Island. This will likely be a first-time wilderness experience for most participants.
* Isle Royale National Park, Michigan" 'Wild Stewards ' Connecting Youth to a Wilderness Archipelago Project.' The park is implementing a program, modeled after the Junior Ranger Program, to equip wilderness youth visitors (ages 13-17) with activity booklets that engender thought and discussion about wilderness throughout the visit. Historically, wilderness users receive little to no formal contact with the park about wilderness due to the remote nature of the wilderness area relative to visitor infrastructure locations.
* Joshua Tree National Park, California: Interactive Interpretive Exhibit on Display. The park has developed an interactive exhibit that asks the question, 'What does wilderness mean to you?' The exhibit invites visitors to share their personal connections to wilderness via mounted notebook or iPad and can be shared, reviewed, and commented on by other visitors. Responses will be used as content for an upcoming video podcast, which will be available on the park website.
For a full list of additional celebration activities, see this site.