The Wilderness Act of 1964

Buffalo Trail gap

Ordinarily, the worst way to figure out what Congress intended in legislation is to read the law itself. But the Wilderness Act of 1964 is a sparkling exception. As it has rarely been before or since, the Congress was not only clear but eloquent in this landmark law:

“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.”

That was the why of it — here’s the what:

“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, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The Act goes on to speak of wilderness as “an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation…and has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation….” (A “trammel” is a trap, a hobble, a restraint; wilderness is subject to none of those.)

In that Act, a planetary first, the Congress established a National Wilderness Preservation System and included within it an initial 9.1 million acres. The Wilderness Act applies only to federal public lands and reserves to the Congress the right to designate wilderness on those lands. Today, permanent wilderness protection exists in every federal public management system: forests, parks, wildlife refuges, the public domain lands of the American west. And the wilderness system has grown to over 105 million acres. Some advocates say there is a like amount, or even more, that fully deserves protection as wilderness.

Wild places in the Eastern U.S. weren’t forgotten, though they would later pose certain challenges. The 1964 Act designated two wilderness areas on the Pisgah National Forest: 7,655 acres in a place called the Linville Gorge and another 13,400 acres at Shining Rock. But in 1964, wilderness in many minds seemed mainly to mean the expansive public lands, mostly mountains, of the American West; Eastern wilderness was more the exception than the rule.

Because of settlement patterns, there were few places in the East that hadn’t seen human use and settlement of some sort over the years since Europeans arrived. Populations were larger there and had been in place longer. Much of the land had been logged or farmed. The public estate was smaller, much of it reacquired over the years from one failed private enterprise or another.

Eastern populations continued to grow in the years following the Wilderness Act, to become more mobile and to demand more wild places in which to escape urbanization. At the same time, critics charged that the U.S. Forest Service was taking an excessively narrow view of wilderness suitability, imposing a “purity standard” that disqualified lands ever logged or cleared and tilled from wilderness consideration. Thus growing demand confronted an artificially constrained potential supply.

If there was confusion–willful or otherwise–about what the 1964 Act meant and intended, the Congress eliminated it with the passage of the Eastern Wilderness Act in 1975. Though the 1975 Act doesn’t employ just these words, the Congress in effect stated its intention to consider lands that were wild again, not just those that had been wild forever.

With the 1975 Act, which the Congress carefully specified would apply only east of the 100th Meridian, the dam broke. The Act designated 16 new wilderness areas in the East, most in the Southeast. They included 15,000 acres of land in the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests as the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and 3,600 acres in North and South Carolina and Georgia as the Ellicott Rock Wilderness. The Congress also created 17 wilderness study areas (areas meant to be managed in such a way as to protect their wilderness values until the Congress decides their future).

In an enormous leap forward for Eastern wilderness, the North Carolina Wilderness Act of 1984 designated several more areas as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

On the Nantahala, the Congress designated:

• 3,680 acres as an addition to the Ellicott Rock Wilderness;
• 10,900 acres as the new Southern Nantahala Wilderness;
• 2,980 acres as an addition to the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.

New wilderness protection on the Pisgah included:

• 3,400 acres of additions to the Linville Gorge Wilderness;
• 7,900 acres as the new Middle Prong Wilderness Area;
• 5,100 acres of additions to the Shining Rock Wilderness.

The North Carolina Wilderness Act also established several wilderness study areas on the Pisgah, among them: Harper Creek (7,138 acres); Lost Cove (5,708 acres); and an extension to the Craggy Mountain wilderness study area totaling 1,280 acres. Two new wilderness study areas were also created on the Nantahala: Overflow (3,200 acres); and, Snowbird (8,490 acres). In all, the 1984 Act designated 68,700 acres as wilderness and established wilderness study areas totaling 25,816 acres.

Today, according to the U.S. Forest Service, there are 103,226 acres of wilderness in North Carolina, nearly two-thirds of it on the Nantahala and Pisgah, lesser amounts on the Croatan and Uwharrie National Forests. Acreages, of course, though handy measures of relative size and relative success, matter little in the scope of things. It is the places that matter. It is in these splendid wild places where we live our stories about wilderness. It is from them that we take away the images that energize the American wilderness movement and the people who comprise it.

How much wilderness ought we to protect? For some, the first acre was one too many. For others, such as noted writer Wallace Stegner, the answer is “as much of it as is still left and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.” We have the opportunity to add to our enduring resource of wilderness by doing what we can to help shape the upcoming Nantahalah-Pisgah Forest Plans. Central to that process is defending the forests’ remaining roadless areas.

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