Adopted fifty years ago, the Wilderness Act reflects the nation’s growing appreciation of unspoiled lands.
By Philip Terrie
On a warm September day in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed what is now recognized as one of the most significant legislative acts in American environmental history. This was the national Wilderness Act. Before then, federal lands, even those protected as national parks or national forests were expected to serve a variety of functions. The national forests, for example, permitted logging, mining, and grazing. The national parks were often centered on opulent hotels and other all-too-civilized amenities. The idea of setting aside part of the public domain as wilderness, even though this word was and is difficult to define, was radical then, and it remains controversial today. It was a monumental step, and its roots lie in the Adirondacks.
How European-Americans have thought about this amorphous thing we call wilderness has been a complicated, often torturous story. (How Native Americans navigated these shoals is another story altogether, but their views have seldom if ever been consulted as this country has gone about the process of setting land-use policy.) If we go back far enough, we find a pervasive hostility to what many of us now treasure. In 1620, for example, the Pilgrim William Bradford contemplated the forests of eastern Massachusetts, which seemed to stand between his band of cold and hungry settlers and any sort of security, and declared despairingly that nothing lay before them other than “a hideous and desolate wilderness.” Wilderness, in other words, was the enemy. If these people expected to survive, let alone prosper, the wilderness had to be eliminated as soon as possible.
As the country slowly developed, establishing agriculture and building towns, Bradford’s original antipathy largely persisted. It’s no wonder that it did. The wilderness represented everything antithetical to a comfortable, prosperous life. It was only in the nineteenth century that some Americans began to contemplate the possibility that the elimination of all the remaining wilderness was not necessarily a good thing. The currents of European Romanticism suggested that nature could be a source of wisdom and meaning. At the same time, all this civilization, with its frenetic commerce and often stinking cities, appeared to be producing a sick culture with sick people. What, a few people asked, if we took some of our land and protected it as unspoiled nature?
One place where this question was asked was the Adirondacks, a pocket of wild country close to the new nation’s bustling urban centers yet largely untouched by the ravages of a rapidly industrializing and resource-hungry society. Before the Civil War, a few adventurous souls took the arduous journey to the Adirondacks and found meaning and value that their urban lives did not offer. In 1858, Albany journalist Samuel Hammond, pondering a deliriously happy camping and hunting trip in the central Adirondacks and worrying about what modern commerce would do to the wild places that so inspired him, wrote these—for the time—radical and startling words: “Had I my way, I would mark out a circle of a hundred miles in diameter, and throw around it the protecting aegis of the constitution. I would make it a forest forever. It should be a misdemeanor to chop down a tree, and a felony to clear an acre within its boundaries. The old woods should stand here always as God made them, growing until the earthworm ate away their roots, and the strong winds hurled them to the ground, and new woods should be permitted to supply the place of the old so long as the earth remained.”
These are sentiments that William Bradford could never have comprehended. The fact that Hammond could write them, over two centuries after Bradford’s first encounter with the New World, shows how attitudes could and did change. In the Adirondacks, the chief threat to all the benefits that Hammond and others perceived in the wilderness was ruthless and irresponsible logging. In those days, loggers took the big trees, lopped off their crowns, and left piles of highly inflammable debris on the forest floor. The consequence was often catastrophic fires. These fires threatened the very existence of the forests that Hammond and others treasured. At the same time, New York commercial interests were concerned that these same forests, if loggers and fires eliminated them all, would no longer be able to protect the flow of water so vital to the Erie Canal, the Hudson River, and other key transportation arteries.
These two interest groups—recreationists like Hammond and those dependent on a viable transportation system—came together and argued that New York should protect what remained of its natural heritage in the Adirondacks (as well as in the Catskills). The result was the establishment of the Forest Preserve in 1885, creation of the Adirondack Park in 1892, and, most important, the inclusion of Article 7, Section 7, in the New York State constitution written in 1894. We are all familiar (or should be) with the words of that provision (since renumbered as Article 14, Section 1). But because they are so important (and also because they are so rhetorically stirring), they bear repeating: “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed, or destroyed.”
If we study the record of the convention that approved these words, we can see that wilderness in our modern understanding was not the primary goal. The watershed argument carried the day, and many of the delegates assumed that the ban on logging would eventually be lifted. The evolution of that article into the powerful protection of wilderness that we know it to be today was a twentieth-century phenomenon. But evolve it did, and by midcentury, championed by New York conservationists like Robert Marshall and Paul Schaefer, it would be one of the seminal forces behind the Wilderness Act.
The connection between New York’s Article 7 and the events of 1964 can be found in a 1946 camping trip in the High Peaks involving Schaefer and Howard Zahniser, of the Wilderness Society, which had been established in 1935 by Robert Marshall, among others. Zahniser was new to the Adirondacks but had already spent many years advocating for protection of wilderness on America’s federally owned lands. He had been working tirelessly to save individual parcels of the West from dams and other depredations.
Zahniser and Schaefer were at the beginning of a long-term friendship and collaboration, and on this camping trip Zahniser learned about the protections enjoyed by the Adirondacks and saw that this was just what we needed for the whole country. It was the solid protection of the Forest Preserve that inspired him to seek something similar for federal lands. Camped on the edge of Flowed Lands, Zahniser and Schaefer discussed the conservation history of the Adirondacks, and Schaefer explained how the people of New York State had (mostly) resisted efforts to change the constitutional barrier to development of the Forest Preserve.
After digesting Schaefer’s Adirondack history lesson, Zahniser thought about the protection granted the Forest Preserve by the state constitution and lamented the lack of any such safeguards for the federal wilderness. Schaefer later recorded Zahniser’s epiphany: “We need some strong legislation which will be similar in effect on a national scale to what Article 14, Section 1, is to the New York State Forest Preserve. We need to reclaim for the people, perhaps through their representatives in the Congress, control over the wilderness regions of America.” Zahniser spent the rest of his life writing, refining, and indefatigably promoting just this sort of law. Schaefer doubtless polished Zahniser’s words a bit, but it’s safe to say that the birth of the national Wilderness Act occurred on this camping trip in the High Peaks.
Johnson’s signature on the new legislation did not end the story. As James Turner shows in a recent and excellent work of scholarship on the half-century since, the struggle to protect our wilderness has become ever more complex, always subject to the turbulence of American politics. Both in the Adirondacks and throughout the country, the designation of land as wilderness has generated conflict and resistance. Advocates for wilderness protection generally live in the cities and their suburbs, while those living and working nearer to land proposed as wilderness often oppose such a designation. They see classifying public lands as wilderness as yet another exercise of state power, centered in distant population centers, over local affairs. From the remotest corners of Alaska to our own Indian Lake, proposals for wilderness designation have led to the same political conflicts that characterize so much of recent history. Turner argues that the Wilderness Act is a paradigm of American environmental policy. Some of us love it, and some hate it.
Nonetheless, the amount of protected wilderness has grown, both nationally and here. In 1964, the newly established wilderness system contained fifty-four Wilderness Areas with 9.1 million acres. By 2009, it had grown to 109.5 million acres. And here in the Adirondacks, the Forest Preserve has grown: in the mid-1960s, it comprised about 2.2 million acres. Today, it’s about 2.6 million acres. (There is another three hundred thousand acres of Forest Preserve in the Catskill Park.) And within the Adirondack Forest Preserve there are more than 1.1 million acres explicitly designated as Wilderness. Wilderness is both a local and a national treasure; what started in the Adirondacks has become a nationwide passion.
Zahnie admired the Park
By Ed Zahniser
Wilderness became a personal and professional obsession for my father, Howard Zahniser, in the late 1930s. He sometimes summed up lexical discussions of wilderness by carefully mixing metaphors: “Wilderness is where the hand of man has never set foot.”
The great Adirondack conservationist Paul Schaefer remembered that my father—friends and associates called him Zahnie—once defined wilderness in this way for a group of dam proponents, New York State legislators, fish and game officials, outdoor sports enthusiasts, and conservationists.
The occasion was a public meeting in the early 1950s called by the Black River Regulating District Board. It was the major meeting concerning the Panther Mountain Dam proposal’s threat to inundate and obliterate lowland wilderness in the western Adirondacks. These were constitutionally designated “forever wild” Forest Preserve lands—and important deer wintering grounds.
Just before Zahnie’s remarks, Adirondack guide Ed Richards presented two hundred thousand signatures on petitions against the dam. But back then the law did not require the board to consider public sentiment—and the board did not. That’s how it was for wilderness struggles in those days. Nevertheless, as Schaefer loved to recount, “Panther Mountain Dam was defeated by more than one million votes in a public referendum shortly thereafter.”
Zahnie is now most remembered in conservation circles as the author of and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964. But he was active in crucial wilderness battles fought over the integrity of Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve lands beginning in 1946, twenty years before the Wilderness Act became law.
In his book Cabin Country, Paul Schaefer wrote that Zahniser and the Wilderness Society “left no stone unturned that might aid New Yorkers in maintaining their Forest Preserve inviolate.” In the 1970s, when the Adirondack Park Agency created its wilderness system, it adopted the definition of wilderness Zahnie wrote for the federal Wilderness Act.
Several of the sixty-six drafts of the federal legislation were refined at Zahnie’s corner table at Mateskared, the family’s cabin next to Eleventh Mountain in the central Adirondacks. The first wilderness bill was introduced in Congress in 1956, and my father died in May 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law in September 1964.
Zahnie and Paul Schaefer first met in the wild canyons of New York City, at the Hotel Pennsylvania, in early 1946. Just months earlier my father had left a secure federal job to become executive secretary of the Wilderness Society. The society had been formed in 1935 under the aegis of Robert Marshall, whose wilderness eyeteeth were cut in the Adirondacks and later honed in Alaska’s Brooks Range and wild lands across North America.
In October 1957, a year after the first Wilderness Act was introduced in Congress, Schaefer invited Zahnie to give a speech before the annual convention of the New York State Conservation Council in Albany. In the speech, titled “Where Wilderness Preservation Began,” he praised the state for adopting, in 1894, the “forever wild” clause in its constitution, thus ensuring protection of the Forest Preserve.
“The recognition of the value of wilderness as wilderness,” Zahnie said, “is something with which you have long been familiar here in New York State. It was here that it first began to be applied to the preservation of areas as wilderness.”
My father was inspired not only by the Forest Preserve’s legal history but also by the natural processes he saw at Mateskared and the adjacent Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area. The forest relentlessly recovers former subsistence farmland, reminding us of Aldo Leopold’s observation that wilderness is the raw material out of which we have hammered this artifact called civilization. When civilization moves on, wilderness quickly reasserts itself. Did you know there was once a school district in today’s Siamese Ponds Wilderness?
Zahnie also learned grass-roots advocacy in the Adirondacks, under the tutelage of Schaefer. From 1946 into the 1950s, they fought together against dam-building schemes in the western part of the Park. When they took up the gauntlet, it looked like a lost cause. Paul and Zahnie went from town to town to speak against the proposals, testified at public hearings, met with journalists, and cultivated allies in the mission.
Stick-to-itiveness was critical for a wilderness advocate on the national scene in the 1950s. There was no environmental movement as such. As Zahnie’s Wilderness Society colleague Olaus Murie once remarked, “Zahnie has unusual tenacity in lost causes.” He would persist with the Wilderness Act, despite years of frustration.
Unfortunately, my father died of heart failure, at fifty-eight, four months before President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. By then Zahnie knew the bill—twice passed by the Senate—would succeed in the House, too. He would have been delighted to learn that it passed 373 to 1. But he always thought that more important than the legislation itself was the public’s recognition of the importance of wilderness.