The Wilderness Act turns 50: Your guide to covering the anniversary

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964, the federal law is a milestone in conservation that has been used to preserve more than 100 million acres and helped ensure that all Americans, now and in the future, will have access to our nation’s diverse wild lands where outdoor traditions can be experienced, shared and passed on.
The anniversary offers a great opportunity to celebrate the leadership role that sportsmen have played as advocates for wild lands and wildlife habitat. The places that gained immediate protection through the act’s National Wilderness Preservation System read like a sportsman’s bucket list: The Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness in California and New Hampshire’s Great Gulf.
Each of us has our own idea about what makes a place truly wild. But only Congress can designate wilderness, which under the law is “primitive” federal public land owned by all Americans that is set aside for protection. Almost any activity you can think of that does not involve mechanized equipment can be enjoyed in a wilderness area, including hiking, camping, hunting and fishing. The rule against mechanical devices is not absolute; there are exceptions for fighting fires, facilitating traditional uses of the land by Native Americans, or securing the continuation of permissible cattle grazing.
The authority granted to Congress means that local advocates for an area often must work for several years to engage the community and gather enough support to convince a member of Congress to join the effort and introduce legislation.
Hunters and anglers were the among the first to see the value in protecting wild lands and in following the code of ethics described by ecologist and author Aldo Leopold, which highlights the connection between people, wildlife, and the land.
As we approach this important anniversary, here are some story ideas that illustrate the link between sportsmen and public lands conservation:

  • Profile one of the first areas in your readership area that earned wilderness designation. How has it changed or stayed the same through the years?
  • Look at the next areas that could get wilderness designation near you. What makes a piece of land a good candidate? What would be the impact on wildlife?
  • Interview some of your area’s earliest wilderness advocates about what made it an important issue to them then and how the designation has affected the community?
  • Explore a nearby wilderness area and reflect on your experience. These areas are in 44 states and Puerto Rico, so there are plenty to choose from.
  • Profile a sportsman or woman who utilizes an area because it is wilderness.
  • Explain the impact of wilderness on wildlife. For example, wilderness not only offers the best public elk hunting, but because of its pristine nature, it also provides vital seasonal habitat such as summer range and birthing and breeding grounds for other species hunted on nearby federal, state, and private lands.
  • Show how wilderness areas often contain the last, best refuges for native species of plants, fish, and wildlife such as cutthroat trout, wolverines and bighorn sheep.
  • Describe a first hunting or fishing trip with a parent or child. Wilderness is where important outdoor traditions are passed from one generation to the next.
  • Recount a memorable hunting or fishing trip in one of your favorite wilderness areas.

Sportsmen and women are respected as wilderness advocates because they understand wild lands. By taking advantage of the 50th anniversary to write about the importance of these lands in safeguarding healthy wildlife habitat, you may inspire outdoor pursuits by generations who have yet to experience hunting and fishing in a true wilderness. ♦

  • Fifty Years of the Wilderness Act: Protecting Our Common Ground
  • — Excellent source for data and mapping of every wilderness area from a collaborative partnership sponsored by the University of Montana, the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center, and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute.
  • The 50th Anniversary National Wilderness Planning Team (Wilderness50)
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • Department of the Interior
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • National Park Service

— For the past eight years, Brian Geiger has worked with public land conservation campaigns across the country for The Pew Charitable Trusts. He is a hiker, runner, and cyclist, and, thanks to the encouragement of some OWAA members, a new fly fisher. His favorite wilderness, so far, is the Trinity Alps in Northern California.

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