Public Lands & Waters photo

I can’t remember the name of the creek, if I ever knew it. I had crossed Elk Pass the afternoon before, walking west through the monster wall of the Bitterroot Mountains, headed for Hunter Peak and the Selway River far below, in no particular hurry. The creek fell away in a series of cascades, with a pool beneath each drop, and each touch of the elkhair caddis fly brought up a piranha-like swarm of six-inch cutthroats, some of them leaping clear of the water to attack the fly in the air. The trick was to keep it away from them, to dap the fly and let the frenzy build, until from deeper in the pool the bigger trout began to stir and rise. Sometimes, if you timed it just right, the big fish–ten inches, 12 at the most–would slam the fly just as it touched the water, and go rocketing away, thrashing, their brilliant yellows and blacks and reds catching the muted late summer light that fell through the big firs. I brought them to hand, unhooked them and slid them back into the water.

The creek went on and on, pool after pool, fish after fish, as the afternoon waned to evening, and the dusk settled into the deep forest. I’d find some place to sleep, and tomorrow I’d follow the creek to the river, and walk downstream to Moose Creek, or the Salmon Hole. Or I might turn upriver and try to make it all the way to Magruder Crossing. Youth is reckless (I was in my late 20s), and we are all supposed to have a strict plan to follow in the backcountry, but I didn’t have a plan then; didn’t want one. This was the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness, an undiluted dose of pure freedom that could be had for nothing more than self-reliance and the price of a good pair of boots.

For the next 15 years or so, I spent some part of each year in the Bitterroot-Selway, camping and climbing, fishing, hunting elk, blue grouse, mule deer, snowshoe hares, skiing or snowshoeing in the winters and late into the spring. Alone or with a varying band of good friends and acquaintances I did the same in wilderness areas across Montana and Idaho, in Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia.

I’ve written a lot about how we Americans have so many of the treasures that have long been lost in the rest of the settled world: clean water, clean air, hunting and fishing and shooting, freedom to wander on public lands, and how we take these things for granted, not even knowing how we got them or what battles were fought to keep them.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and this is my year to try to understand how it came about, giving us the world’s greatest system of wild places. Here’s what I’ve learned.

The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, at a time when Americans were enjoying a prolonged economic boom that both gave them mobility (a new automobile could be had for around $3,500) and the time to take to the woods and fields, lakes and rivers. Thanks to the labors and dollars of sportsmen-conservationists, wildlife populations and fisheries were recovering from the near extinctions of the early 1900s. A nation of outdoorsmen and women, with long traditions of fishing and hunting, and what Theodore Roosevelt had called “the strenuous life,” was home from wars, unlimbering from bad economic times, and buying guns and fishing tackle (and outdoor magazines).

In the best tradition of an engaged citizenry, Americans afield were also witnesses to a host of problems that indoor people, or people in less democratic nations, may never have noticed, or hoped to solve. The same economic boom that gave us the freedom to hunt and fish and travel was causing escalating pollution of land and water, devouring beloved rural landscapes, and destroying the natural beauty that was a source of deep patriotic pride. It has been said that it requires a relatively high degree of civilization to define, and create a desire to protect, wilderness and the natural world. If that is true, then the U.S. in the early 1960s had more than enough civilization to see that, left unchecked, development would overwhelm every last vestige of the wild places that had defined our history.

There had been movements to protect the last wilderness areas for decades, for reasons that are familiar to us today. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, writing in the 1890s, claimed that, with the loss of the wilderness that had forged and challenged the American spirit, democracy itself might not be able to survive. Or, as Roderick Nash, in his classic study Wilderness and the American Mind, wrote of the same time period, “With a considerable sense of shock, Americans realized that many of the forces which had shaped their national character were disappearing.” Theodore Roosevelt and many others worried, as well, that a nation deprived of its wild places and its hardy outdoor people would soon wither into mediocrity.

But early 1960s America was a nation that had been triumphant in war, had solved the disaster of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Justified confidence, at least in our ability to solve problems, was high. Not for us, a nation of poisoned air and ruined rivers. We did not fight and die and crush the armies of tyrants only to accept a milquetoast nation of cowed working men and women who had no wilderness in which to test themselves, rest from their labors, or show their children the splendor of untrammeled nature. Let the Europeans have their carefully cultivated forests and privatized hunting, let the Chinese plow every last acre, level every last thicket. We would forge another path, as we always had, and create something entirely new: designated wilderness areas, on a scale large enough to matter. As New Mexico Senator Clinton P. Anderson said in 1963, “Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending our resources as we should — not a people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water.”

The Wilderness Act of 1964 began with 9.1 million acres protected. Among the first were some of our most valuable traditional hunting and fishing grounds today–the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming. In the 50 years since the Act was passed, we’ve added a little over 100 million acres to that 9.1 million acres, from the tiniest–a 5.5-acre dot of critical bird habitat on an island in north Florida–to the vast Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, itself almost 9 million acres. Alaska contains 53% of all designated wilderness, but there is at least some wilderness in all but six states. What has been created is a fantastically diverse network of wildlands that honors our history, protects the headwaters of great rivers, and provides access for millions of Americans every year to unparalleled solitude, wildlife, natural beauty, and hunting and fishing. It’s horsepacking and backpacking and long day trips, and runs with our dogs. Elk and deer and mountain goats and wolves, grizzly bears and rattlesnakes, roaring creeks to drown you and cliffs to fall from if you are not careful. It’s learning how to read a map and tote a rifle from dawn to dark and sleep outside in the heat and the cold. No other country on earth has anything like it.

This year my wife and children and I will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act in the Scapegoat, which is closest to where we live, heading in over another Elk Pass to the headwaters of the Dearborn River and out by way of a place called the Devil’s Glen. If we have time we’ll try to climb Scapegoat Peak, which I’ve never done, but which centers some of the best elk country in North America. I’m almost exactly as old as the Wilderness Act–I was born in 1964, too, and someday in the next couple of decades, if I live that long, I’ll pass my box of wilderness maps onto my children, for them to study on long winter nights as I have done, planning trips to places I’ll never see, places they can take their children, to fish for cutthroats and cook a blue grouse over an alder wood fire on a cold October morning. That’s the finest way to honor the American outdoorsmen and women who gave all of us the gift of the Wilderness Act of 1964.