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How the Wilderness Act Was Passed

The landmark piece of legislation changed the way Americans looked at the great outdoors

By: Natasha Geiling

The Wilderness Act of 1964 marked a historic moment for the American environmental movement: for the first time, land was set-aside for the specific purpose of protecting it from the reach of mankind. But in his remarks afterward, President Lyndon Johnson began by turning to the past. “In this century,” the president said, “Americans have wisely and have courageously kept a faithful trust to the conservation of our natural resources and beauty. But the long strides forward have tended to come in periods of concerted effort.”

As the fervor of westward expansion gripped Americans in the 19th century, pioneers and explorers pushed further into America’s unknown lands, finding vast tracts timber, plants, animals and minerals in numbers greater than many had seen before. To these early settlers, the question wasn’t how to preserve this wilderness, but how to manage it for their gain. At the end of the 19th century, a small group of preservationists including John Muir began to worry about human impact on the country’s natural world, and in an effort to protect these areas from destruction, they successfully lobbied for certain areas to be set-aside as federally protected parks and forests. As the Great Depression ravaged the economy in the 1930s, millions of unemployed Americans went to work in the country’s national parks and forests, laying roads, clearing trails, building outposts and managing the natural areas. But with progress came another concern: was the country turning its natural resources into tourist traps?

Such concerns gave birth to the Wilderness Society, which took a strong stance against building roads within national parks and forests. In 1946, the Society gained a crucial member: Howard Zahniser, a former federal employee who discovered a deep love of nature and the environment while working for the U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1956, Zahniser wrote the first draft of what would become the Wilderness Act, seeking to set aside areas of wilderness that would be beyond the reach of man. Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) and Rep. John Saylor (R-Pennsylvania) introduced Zahniser’s bill (S. 4013) to Congress in June of 1956. Initially, the bill faced opposition from industries that would be shutout of wilderness areas, including the American Pulpwood Association and the American Mining Association. But the bill also faced opposition from the Forest Service and National Park Service, which felt the bill would limit their authority in lands within their control.

In 1961, the bill gained a crucial political ally, when President Kennedy spoke in favor of a wilderness bill, reigniting debates in the halls of Congress. But even with presidential support, a bill passed by the Senate ran into opposition from timber, mining and grazing interests, represented largely by the chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee Rep. Wayne Aspinall (D-Colorado); the bill would die in committee in 1962. In April of 1961, Zahniser gave a speech, titled “Wilderness Forever,” at the seventh-annual Wilderness Conference in San Francisco. In the speech, Zahniser called for a protection of wilderness “in perpetuity,” underlining the desire for a bill that would protect American wilderness forever. 

In 1963, the Senate passed yet another bill, but it was again met with staunch opposition from the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.  Realizing that the bill would almost certainly never pass as written, preservationists agreed to several key concessions in order to appease industry interests, including the allowance of grazing and prospecting in wilderness areas (these actions have since been prohibited). In exchange for these concessions, the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee allowed the bill to be brought to the floor of the House for an open debate. Support for the bill within the House was overwhelming, and the bill passed on July 30, 1964, with only a single dissenting vote. On September 3, 1964, after 66 rewrites and 18 hearings, President Johnson signed the bill into law, calling it “historic occasion for all who love the great American outdoors.” Unfortunately, Zahniser never saw the completion of his work—he died of heart failure four months before, at the age of 58. 

At the time it was signed into law, the Wildlife Act set aside 9 million acres of wilderness for federal protection—today, over 110 million acres, across 44 states, are designated wilderness areas.

Smithsonian Channel Presents

Premiering on September 7 at 9 pm, this special Wilderness-themed episode of "Aerial America" provides a bird's eye view of some of America's most spectacular wilderness areas while weaving an an inspiring tale about the people, events and places that made the Wilderness Act possible. Learn more.