Noteworthy anniversaries demonstrate worth of wilderness
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” These were the words of Edward Abbey, author of the classic environmental memoir “Desert Solitaire.”
While everyone’s interpretation of wilderness may be a bit different, an overwhelming portion of people value and enjoy wild places. To some, wilderness is truly wild, untouched and devoid of people. To others, it may be the quiet country path.
Those that experience wild places first-hand are often passionate about preserving them. Yet many believe it is also important to protect wilderness they have never seen and are unlikely to ever visit.
Such was the case 150 years ago this summer when Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant. The legislation set aside what would become Yosemite National Park a quarter century later. Despite being in the throes of the greatest internal conflict in the nation’s history, Congress and Lincoln were convinced that it was important to preserve America’s greatest natural treasures.
The over-commercialization of natural treasures like Niagara Falls provided a cautionary tale, prompting lawmakers to provide for more comprehensive protection for special places. Still considered a tourist trap (rather than a natural area) in 2014, the commercialization may have been worse around the time of the Civil War. A broad spectrum of Americans and the politicians that represented them thought we could do better than what we had in Niagara Falls.
The official beginning of the National Park system came less than a decade after Congress and Lincoln set aside the Yosemite land, as Yellowstone National Park was established in 1870. Naturalist John Muir, founder of the nation’s largest environmental organization, the Sierra Club, ultimately pushed to have the Yosemite christened a National Park. The land was transferred from the state of California to what would become the Park Service in 1890.
A hundred years after the passage of the Yosemite Grant, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act. Like Lincoln, he found himself in the midst of an unpopular war and great civil unrest. The Vietnam War and nationwide struggles over civil rights could have bogged down any political initiative. But once again, Congress and the president saw a need to take a leap of faith to protect the extraordinary places that had been left mostly unaltered by man.
The Wilderness Act was different from most other legislation that established specific national parks, seashores or historic sites. It put a mechanism in place to establish wilderness areas that were particularly unique and had undergone very little modification or exploitation by man.
The Wilderness Areas were not necessarily restricted just to National Parks. While there are 44 million acres of national parklands in the National Wilderness Preservation System, there are an additional 55 million acres overseen by the US Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted feared that our most extraordinary places would become “a mono-poly, in a very peculiar manner, of a very few, very rich people.” Olmsted concluded that a great democracy had a greater obligation: “to provide means of protection for all its citizens in the pursuit of happiness.”
John Frederick (jfrederick@ ircenvironment.org) writes on environmental issues every other Saturday. He encourages readers to learn more about these topics as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act this summer.