On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Wilderness Preservation System Act. With the stroke of a pen, 9 million acres of federal land in the United States was designated as wilderness — with a capital “W.”
It was the first such legislation in the world, and has been hailed as a landmark law.
The act defined wilderness 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.”
Though not without controversy, that definition now extends to 750 areas totaling nearly 110 million acres of public land.
This September, the Wilderness Act turns 50. In honor of the occasion, people throughout the country are celebrating. On the Colorado Plateau, all four states contain wilderness areas that take in slickrock desert, high mountains and deep canyons.
Each state is marking the anniversary in different ways. In Utah, volunteers will spend a week removing exotic Russian olive trees in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. In Arizona, Flagstaffians can join in festivities at the First Friday Art Walk. In Colorado, Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness is raffling a special quilt. And in Albuquerque the celebration culminates with the National Wilderness Conference in mid-October.
This birthday is more than just candles on a cake. What wilderness means now — and what it will mean in another 50 years — may define us as much as we define it.