On Sept. 3 the nation will note the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Eight years, 66 revisions and 18 hearings in the making, this landmark conservation legislation now protects more than 109 million acres in 750 wilderness areas across 44 states.
Conservationist Howard Zahniser (1906-1964) conceived the original Wilderness Act. He had grown tired of "a wilderness preservation program made up of a sequence of overlapping emergencies, threats and defense campaigns." Unfortunately, Zahniser died four months before the bill was signed into law.
But passage of the Wilderness Act is a testament to this longtime leader of the Wilderness Society (www.wilderness.org) who treasured the value of wilderness.
"I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the Earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment," Zahniser wrote.
The most well-known wilderness areas include the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming, the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, and the Ansel Adams Wilderness in California.
With the exception of "wildlife sanctuaries" that bar human entry, "wilderness" areas provide the highest form of land protection. Roads, vehicles, permanent structures, logging and mining are prohibited. These are places that can be accessed by those wanting to experience a truly pristine environment. Wilderness areas provide wildlife with critical habitat, filter and cleanse the air, protect vast watersheds, boost local economies with tourist and recreation dollars and provide an escape from the hectic modern world.
These are places where at night 3,000 stars twinkle and the Milky Way illuminates the heavens. By day, they are totally quiet except for the sounds of nature -- leaves rustling in the wind, a deer bounding through the woods, birds singing.
Though my own time spent in true wilderness is limited, just knowing it is there is invaluable.
If I never spend another minute in wilderness, I smile knowing my daughters and my grandchildren will have the opportunity to enjoy it. And for that, I thank Howard Zahniser and other like-minded conservationists, who 50 years ago acted while there was still wilderness to be protected and saved.
Biologist, author, and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8-10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and online at www.wvly.net. He can be reached at www.drshalaway.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, W.Va., 26033.