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The Wilderness Act at 50

May 9th, 2014
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    by Joshua McGuffie*

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    What images does wilderness evoke? For many, wilderness means pristine landscapes, scenic vistas, quietude, and wide open spaces. Many Americans may be surprised to know that, legally, wilderness has only been enshrined as a public reality for 50 years. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, surrounded by an unlikely coalition of elected officials and preservationists. To celebrate the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary, Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project hosted a panel discussion on 2 May to consider the Act’s genesis, life, and future.

    Dr. Jacob Hamblin discussed important environmental moments leading up to the act. He particularly singled out public outcry over the Bureau of Reclamation’s Echo Park Project. The Bureau planned to build a series of dams along the Colorado, including within Grand Canyon National Park. Hamblin argued that potential incursions into ‘protected’ federal lands raised popular environmental consciousness and incentivized politicians to support preservation measures. With this background in mind, he asked the question “Is it possible to have a community of sincerity without common purpose?” That the Wilderness Act passed, with a variety of definitions for ‘wilderness’ built into its text, seems to indicate that such a community did in fact coalesce in the early 1960’s.

    Next, Dr. Lisa Machnik, from the US Forest Service, discussed wilderness from a federal agency perspective. She began her remarks by quoting President Johnson, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology.” She zeroed in on federal agencies’ wilderness conundrum. If wilderness is meant to be “undeveloped” and to “retain its primeval character,” then how is it to be managed. Management, especially in the adept hands of federal specialists, implies the opposite of “primeval.” Administrative tension aside, Machnik closed her remarks with the affirmation the 110 million acres of wilderness in the US offers the the general public perspective in the midst of contemporary life.

    Finally, Craig Childs shared his wilderness wanderings with the group. An author and educator, Childs has dedicated much of his life to being outside. In search of wild spaces, he has gone on multi-day treks through corn monocultures and rambled, carefully, across federal bombing ranges. Offering some perspective from these trips, he remarked “my definition of wilderness doesn’t fall within the wilderness act, it’s all over the place…” Childs used the image of the Hawaiian kipuka, an island of forest surrounded by a lava flow, to challenge the audience’s notion of wilderness. Our humanness, he claimed, may indeed reside in the wilderness islands increasingly surrounded by the flow of human development.

    At 50, the Wilderness Act clearly inspires an array of images and stories. Listening to an academic, bureaucratic, and artistic treatment of the Act one after the other, I wonder if part of what makes it robust is its breadth. The Wilderness Act embraces the subject/object divide, seeking to preserve wilderness for its own sake and for the sake of “primitive and unconfined” human enjoyment. Nature and humanity stand side by side in this legislation, giving their own meanings to wild spaces. There’s much built into the Wilderness Act. 50 years has already raised up a great deal to be experienced and studied.

    *Joshua McGuffie is pursuing a Master of Arts in History of Science at Oregon State University.

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      3 Responses to “The Wilderness Act at 50”

      1. Linda Richards says:

        Thank you Josh! I was sad to miss this 50th anniversary while I was at a different conference, but thanks to your writing I felt like I got to go after all!

      Leave a Reply

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