The Wilderness Act celebrates a half century: Prof. Blumm’s guest editorial in Oregonian
Fifty years ago, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson culminated eight years of determined environmentalist effort — led by The Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser — by signing into law the Wilderness Act, the world’s first formal recognition of wilderness. Johnson stated at the time that the statute was a vehicle for future generations to “remember us with gratitude rather than contempt.”
President Johnson’s concern for our posterity has not meant that wilderness designations have proved uncontroversial. Wilderness areas generally prohibit timber harvesting, commercial activities unrelated to wilderness-type recreation, motorized access and construction of permanent roads and structures. Those prohibitions have generated substantial and persistent opposition to wilderness additions over the years. Wilderness additions require congressional approval; agencies lack authority to designate wilderness.
The 1964 law designated 9 million acres of “instant wilderness,” defined as “untrammeled” areas, where “man is a visitor who does not remain.” This poetic definition — not often seen in federal legislation — proved inspirational over the last half-century, as Congress expanded the scope of wilderness protection from nine to over 109 million acres, in what are now over 750 wilderness areas established by some 130 different federal statutes. The most recent significant additions occurred five years ago in 2009, when Congress added nearly 2 million acres, many of which were in Oregon.
Although wilderness historically enjoyed substantial bipartisan political support — every president since Johnson has signed into law substantial wilderness additions into law — that support seems to have dissipated since the 2010 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. Since then, the congressional gridlock has blocked any wilderness legislation.
Still, Oregonians now have access to 47 different wilderness areas in the state, embracing nearly 2.5 million acres — from the Mark Hatfield Wilderness in the Columbia Gorge, to the Kalmiopisis Wilderness in southern Oregon, to the Eagle Cap Wilderness in northeastern Oregon, to the Steens Mountain Wilderness in the southeast. The Hatfield Wilderness is aptly named, since Sen. Mark Hatfield ushered the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984 through Congress, adding some 800,000 acres of wilderness, the largest addition ever of Oregon wilderness acres.
Nonetheless, today Oregon has fewer than half than the average percentage of wilderness acres of any its four neighbors: California, Idaho, Nevada, and Washington, perhaps because of the historic dominant influence of the state’s timber industry and also no doubt due to traditional view that wilderness areas are mountainous, not wild desert areas that characterize southeastern Oregon.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the statute, the wilderness movement faces substantial challenges. There are currently over 20 wilderness bills affecting 12 states pending in Congress, including four involving some 225,000 acres of Oregon lands. One, which would create the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness in the Coast Range and protect some 30,000 acres of old growth forest, has passed the Senate.
There are also expansive amounts wilderness-like roadless areas without Wilderness Act protection on national forest lands (1.9 million acres in Oregon) and Bureau of Land Management lands (4.45 million acres in southeastern Oregon, according to the Oregon Natural Desert Association). Many of these roadless areas warrant wilderness protection.
A large threat to wilderness management recently appeared in the form of the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, which passed the House of Representatives with unanimous Republican approval in February. This bill appears to reverse the half-century old rule that where Wilderness Act restrictions and original public land management goals conflict, the former prevail. The bill would seem to allow widespread motorized vehicle use in connection with hunting, fishing and recreational shooting in wilderness areas and would also exempt from environmental review and public disclosure a large number of management actions in wilderness areas and national wildlife refuges.
So while we celebrate the 50th anniversary of legal protection to preserve areas that are “affected primarily by the forces of nature, where man’s work is substantially unnoticeable,” there are numerous unresolved issues involving wilderness designation and management that warrant the public’s attention. The Oregon congressional delegation in particular needs to hear from the public on the four bills Congress is considering that would add to Oregon wilderness, including not only the Devil’s Staircase but also areas in the Rogue and John Day River watersheds.
Michael C. Blumm is Jeffrey Bain faculty scholar and professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School.