An Enduring Legacy of Wilderness
“[I]t is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”
Today, as in the past, wilderness is an important part of every American’s story. People seek out wilderness for a variety of reasons: physical or mental challenge; solitude, renewal, or a respite from modern life; or as a place to find inspiration and to explore our heritage. What draws you to visit wilderness?
The Stephen Mather Wilderness is at the heart of over two million acres of some of the wildest lands remaining, a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man….” Untrammeled (meaning “free of restraint,” “unconfined”) captures the essence of wilderness: a place where the natural processes of the land prevail, and the developments of modern technological society are substantially unnoticeable. Here, we are visitors, but we also come home—to our natural heritage. It is a place to experience our past, and a place to find future respite. This is the enduring legacy of wilderness.
What Is Wilderness?
. . . an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . .
Wilderness is a word of many meanings. From a place to be feared to a place to be revered, wilderness can evoke images of wild animals, cascading streams, jagged mountains, vast prairies, or deserts. For individuals wilderness can mean physical challenge, grand vistas, solitude, community, renewal, or respite from a complex technological society.
On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act. This law states: “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 . . . .”
The word untrammeled captures the essence of wilderness. Simply put, untrammeled means “free of constraint” or “unhindered.” Wilderness areas are places where a conscious decision has been made by the American people to let nature prevail. In wilderness, natural processes are the primary force acting upon the land, and the developments of modern technological society are substantially unnoticeable.
"We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."
The Wilderness Act reached beyond defining wilderness. The goal of the Act was to preserve wilderness and the wilderness experience for future generations. But, why did Americans feel the need to preserve wilderness for future generations?
Citizens realized that even though wild lands were protected as a national park or national forest, humans could still affect the landscape in ways that diminished its natural qualities. The Wilderness Act was a response to public concern that wild areas be protected permanently by law, not subject to the discretion of agencies or administrations. This desire for permanent protection is heard in the opening words of the Wilderness Act. Congress declared: “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States . . . leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” The Wilderness Act protects not only the tangible resources of wilderness—habitat for wildlife, freeflowing streams, watersheds, biological diversity, cultural artifacts and historic structures—but also the intangible “benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”
The diverse benefits of wilderness vary according to the individual who contemplates wilderness or seeks a wilderness experience. Wilderness areas provide opportunities for physical and mental challenge, self-reliance, and solitude. As a haven from the pressures of modern society, wilderness can inspire personal renewal, artistic expression, and the opportunity to explore American heritage. Some people appreciate wilderness from afar, overlooking expansive vistas of wild lands from a roadside or simply by imagining wilderness areas in their minds.
Wilderness areas offer glimpses into the past and provide places to envision the future.
For more information on wilderness, the Wilderness Preservation System, to read the full text of the 1964 Wilderness Act and more, visit the following links:
Last updated: August 13, 2021