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Go canoeing and celebrate: The Wilderness Act turns 50

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On May 26, 2014, several news sources including the Citizens Times of Asheville, North Carolina, The Durango Herald of Durango, Colorado and SFGate.com of San Francisco, California posted press releases announcing the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act, according to the definition posted on the National Park Service, website is “An Act: To establish a National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people, and for other purposes. This may be cited as the ‘Wilderness Act.’

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After being enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act designated all previously existing Wild Areas, Canoe Areas, and Wilderness Areas as Wilderness. At the time, these areas on national forests totaled 9.1 million acres and represented the entire National Wilderness Preservation System.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “This historic bill established the National Wilderness Preservation System and set aside an initial 9.1 million acres of wildlands, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, for the use and benefit of the American people”

In addition, “The National Wilderness Preservation System provides many direct and in-direct benefits, including ecological, geological, scientific, educational, scenic, spiritual, economic, recreational, historical, and cultural uses and activities.”

The (USDA) prepared a pamphlet for the occasion, “Wilderness 50 Years YOURS: To Enjoy To Protect.”

Aspen, Colorado journalist Scott Condon writes that “Aspen will mark a 50th anniversary this summer that will give everyone cause to celebrate.” When “The Wilderness Act was passed in September 1964, the stunning Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was among the first wave to receive special protection in the country,” according to Condon. Speaking of the wilderness designation, Mr. Condon claims “It is designed to preserve landscapes as much as possible, free from the hands of mankind.”

Journalist Karen Chavez of the Citizens Times in Asheville points out that “The federal legislation, which turns 50 this year, and established the National Wilderness Preservation System was responsible for the designation of six wilderness areas in Western North Carolina.”

Will Harlan, a North Carolina resident, compare the Wilderness Act with the Civil Rights Act which, coincidentally, also turns 50 this year and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Jonson in 1964. Mr. Harlan expressed to Chavez “The Wilderness Act is our most astounding piece of legislation, right up there with the Civil Rights Act.”

Furthermore, according to Mr. Harlan “It’s the first law that ever that gave priority to nature over people. That’s such an incredibly radical, forward thinking act, and what’s even more phenomenal is it passed almost unanimously. It shows that people want to protect the last scraps of wild places on this planet.”

To celebrate this “landmark legislation,” several North Carolina conservation groups will sponsor special events throughout the year, according to Chavez. “The Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, a program of the Wilderness Society Southern Appalachian Office, will start things off Friday by co-hosting with the U.S. Forest Service “An Evening of Wilderness Champions — Celebrating 50 Years of Wilderness” at Pack’s Tavern.”

This event will also “Honor the work of champions, including Aldo Leopold, who founded the Wilderness Society in 1935, and Howard Zahniser, a Wilderness Society president who authored the original Wilderness Act (and died only a few months before its passage), as well as many living, local legends.”

Finally, according to SFGate “The Maine chapter of the Sierra Club environmental group will host a series of outdoor events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the federal Wilderness Act.”

Of course these events will include camping and canoeing trips in Maine’s wild areas. “Other events include a yoga retreat at Camp Mechuwana in Winthrop from Aug. 22-24 and a celebration of the 100 Mile Wilderness at West Branch Pond Camps in Greenville Aug. 8-10.”

The events begin May 31 with a trip to Sears Island and end with a writing workshop at Lunksoos Camp in Stacyville from Oct. 3-5.

This report is intended to present a brief overview of the responses, from a cross section of the country, about the Wilderness Act 50 years after its inauguration. For more information consult the National Park Service (NPS), the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

It is also recommended that you read the actual text of The Wilderness Act: Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S. C. 1131-1136).

Finally, Karen Chavez of the Citizen Times in Asheville, North Carolina wrote an excellent, well-research and detailed account of the Wilderness Act “Celebrating 50 years of wilderness.” It is worth reading several times. She even included a list of the six wild areas in Western North Carolina impacted by the Wilderness Act.

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