By Mark Peterson and David Zentner
Lake Superior Wilderness Conference | September 5-6 | Duluth, MN

Rarely is federal legislation passed today with such unanimity as happened with the Wilderness Act 50 years ago this week. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Act 373-1. The Senate approved it 73-12. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act on Sept. 3, 1964, proclaiming that the passage of the bill was “in the highest tradition of our heritage as conservators as well as users of America’s bountiful natural resources.”

The lopsided margin of victory belied the act’s long struggle, which was spearheaded by visionary Minnesotans. In an era when extraction of forest resources was the dominant paradigm, Arthur Carhart, a U.S. Forest Service employee working in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, challenged this view. His 1921 recreation plan recognized an area called the Boundary Waters could become, in time, “as priceless as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon — if it remained a water-trail wilderness.”

Carhart’s recommendation was almost heresy; there were already plans afoot to build roads and homes throughout the area. In 1926, Sigurd Olson of Ely and Ernest Oberholtzer of Rainy Lake worked successfully to rally public support for a “primitive area” designation that banned roads and recreational developments on the public lands. This, along with subsequent battles to prohibit proposed hydro dams, logging, and floatplane use, helped to define the concept of wilderness.

The Wilderness Society was founded by eight men in 1935, including Oberholtzer and Wisconsin ecologist Aldo Leopold, and soon Sig Olson joined their leadership circle. With help from Sig and others, their director Edward Zahniser took the lead in crafting wilderness legislation. Together, they worked tirelessly for its passage.

Another Minnesotan, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, then introduced the first wilderness bill in 1956. For the next eight years, 66 different wilderness bills were introduced, and 18 hearings were held across the nation. Few opponents denied the validity of the wilderness concept. In principle, they were for it, but wary. Even the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service testified against it, preferring a free hand in applying their judgment of what is best for wild places. In the end, organizations like The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Izaak Walton League successfully rallied public support as Americans’ concern for the environment escalated in the 1960s.

The 1964 Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System and set aside an initial 9.1 million acres of wildlands to benefit the American people. Another 100 million acres later were added to a system that now totals 757 areas on federal lands.

In our region we have 18 wilderness areas amounting to about 1.2 million acres, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Isle Royale.

The preservation of our wilderness areas did not end with a designation on a map. In the five decades since the act, threats to wilderness challenge modern conservationists: Airborne contaminants like mercury coming from distant sources, exotic invasive species, visual intrusions such as nearby cell towers, mining, and overuse by the very people who love these special places are among the threats.

Sigurd Olson prophetically warned and challenged us before his death in 1982: “You’ve got to carry on the battle to preserve such beautiful places as this. The battle goes on endlessly. It’s your task — you’ve got to see that you keep the flame alive. … The whole world depends upon you.”

The heroes of the past are with us in the shadows. Their hopes are penned in the words of the Wilderness Act itself. They understood that wilderness enriches our civilization. They might be impressed with how much we’ve saved, but they would agonize over how much we’ve lost. As this generation now lights the candles on this anniversary cake at 50, we must keep the wilderness flame alive and burning bright, knowing that we need wilderness now more than ever.

Keeping the flame burning bright on our generation’s wilderness legacy means several things. First, we need to add to the wilderness system those special places that remain without this protection. Astonishingly, many of our iconic national parks, like Yellowstone, are without wilderness protection. Second, Congress must provide reasonable funding to care for our wilderness assets. Third, wilderness protection means defending these national assets from external forces that would compromise wilderness integrity. Finally, in an age of video games and gadgetry, we need to introduce more young people to the inspiring and restorative powers wilderness possesses.

So, happy birthday, Wilderness Act, and thank you to all who made it happen and to those who work protecting these special places. Let our generation’s birthday present be in saving the living wilderness, a gift that keeps on giving, growing in value to the benefit of generations to come.

Mark R. Peterson is executive director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College, and David Zentner of Duluth is the past national president of the Izaak Walton League of America.

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