Fifty Years Ago, the First Move to Save U.S. Wilderness

In 2014, many outdoors groups will celebrate passage of one of the most important pieces of legislation ever for America's sportsmen--but I'm guessing most sportsmen won't be able to name it.

It's The Wilderness Act, signed Sept. 3, 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson. The law included a legal definition of what the act set out to preserve:

"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."

Johnson was joined at the signing ceremony by a large group of congressmen from both parties, all of whom were proud of their accomplishment.

But in the culture wars that would rack the country in the following years, the term wilderness--and that definition--was used as a divisive rather than unifying political purpose.

Sportsmen were told that the wilderness designation was only for granola-crunching backpackers, a group that had to be anti-hunting and fishing because that wasn't their first priority--and, besides, they had long hair. (which was considered radical in those days).

Wilderness, sportsmen were told, meant shutting off beautiful country from hunters and anglers. It was a way to take public land out of public use. It was elitist.

Attacks on the law soon followed. Bills were introduced to repeal the law, to withdraw designations. Efforts were launched to convince residents near wilderness areas they had been robbed of economic opportunity and local choice. Those efforts continue today.

Then, as now, those attacks have always been launched by groups that want access to wilderness not for recreation, but to extract wealth. And when the economy goes downhill, the attacks increase.

Fortunately, enough Americans were smart enough to see though those arguments. That's why the original 9.1 million acres of designated wilderness has grown to 109 million in 44 states and Puerto Rico. And despite claims to the contrary, that represents only 5 percent of our total landscape.

As sportsmen became better educated in fish and wildlife biology, as their advocacy groups realized they had much more to worry about than gun laws and anti-hunting groups, the value of wilderness began to become clearer and clearer.

The original advocates for wilderness- sportsmen/biologists such as Aldo Leopold--knew that preserving wild country meant protecting our future. They understood the rapid development of a booming country would quickly consume public lands once left relatively intact. They knew hunters and anglers would need a place to find quality fish and game.

They did all of us a favor. The reason can be found in statements at two sportsmen's sites.

The first is Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a group devoted to fighting the war against developing wild country for reasons stated in its title. On its home page you'll find a sentence that would have made Leopold smile: "Now, more than ever before, we need wild lands: places to rekindle the depths of the human soul."

And then there is Assault on our Sporting Heritage, a site and effort by Trout Unlimited spelling out the value of wild lands to sportsmen with this slogan: "Bigger bucks, bigger bulls and better fishing."

We can reaffirm our support for wild lands against the continuing attacks against their protections by joining in the celebrations (The National Forest Service has a Web site devoted to the celebration) or by creating our own.