Today, September 3rd, is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Preservation System Act into law. I was four years old in 1964, and had no idea that I would spend a good portion of my adult working life in wilderness areas. The longer I live, the more grateful–and amazed–I am that people in our country were able to come together to make such a thing happen. It means that there are millions of acres in the United States that have no roads, no clearcuts, no permanent structures (except some bridges). It’s a place where natural processes are supposed to dominate and “man is but a visitor.” Given the current political climate, I’m glad Congress got it done fifty years ago, because it probably couldn’t happen now.
There are lots of celebrations going on around the country, local observances of the anniversary. While I respect those who have the energy and gumption to applaud the accomplishments of the past, I just haven’t been able to muster the enthusiasm to participate. My employer gave me a commemorative pin for the anniversary, and a sticker. Posters have been printed and distributed. What I and my colleagues really wanted to celebrate fifty years of wilderness was a renewed commitment to wilderness stewardship, including adequate funding for wilderness rangers, restoration work, and public education. Also a willingness to tackle really difficult issues such as unrestricted recreation and loss of opportunities for solitude. Alas, we are disappointed and have to be satisfied with the lapel pin.
So I console myself with thoughts of what 25 years of wilderness work have given to me: an appreciation of big landscapes, and small reminders of the transient beauty of life. Life in the wilderness (and I consider that I have lived out there, not just traveled through) has both toughened me and softened me, stripped away a number of illusions and helped me understand what really matters in a life. There have been moments of sheer terror, moments of absolute delight, and many many miles both solo and shared. I always learn when I go out there, in the way that John Muir said that in going out we are really going in.
So Happy Anniversary, and may we have the courage to step up and face the daunting task of keeping wilderness wild into perpetuity.