Celebrate 50 years of wilderness

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This week, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Preservation System. With the stroke of a pen, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3, 1964. As stated in the opening line of the act itself, the purpose is to “establish a National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people.”

The Wilderness Act immediately protected 9.1 million acres across 54 areas in 13 states as wilderness. But most importantly the act envisioned adding areas and laid out a process for the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to evaluate and recommend additional wilderness. In passing this law, Congress reserved to itself the role of deciding which areas would be designated as additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

This land-mark legislation was truly visionary. The process has worked and Congress has designated, so far, a total of 758 wilderness areas located in 44 states totaling more than 109 million acres! And the work is not yet done; many additional areas have been proposed and await congressional action.

The Wilderness Act itself was an amazing achievement. In April 1964, the Senate passed an almost final version by a vote of 73 to 12. In July the House passed their version by a margin of 374 to 1. When the two chambers met to iron out the different versions the final bill they came up with went back to both chambers and passed unanimously. Now there is a word seldom heard in politics today.

Frank Church, in 1961, remarked: “The vanishing wilderness is part of our western heritage. We westerners have known the wilds during our lifetimes, and we must see to it that our grandchildren are not denied the same rich experience during theirs. This is why the West needs a wilderness bill.”

Here in North Idaho we have opportunities to fulfill Frank Church’s vision. In the northern nine counties of the Idaho Panhandle (the land north of the Clearwater) we have many wild rugged lands, but none are protected, as yet, as wilderness. The new forest management plan for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests will likely recommend about 160,000 acres as wilderness. But remember it takes congressional action to designate which of these acres will be added to the Wilderness Preservation System. About 18,000 acres of this total is found on the Idaho portion of the Scotchman Peaks roadless area. There is a growing consensus that the Scotchman Peaks area is ready for, and deserves, congressional action.

For now, let’s celebrate the birthday and vision of the Wilderness Act! But let’s not forget that the promise of the Wilderness Act is not yet fulfilled and keep an eye on the opportunities which await us and await Congress!

Note: In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the Idaho Conservation League and Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness invite the public to a panel discussion on the whys, wherefores, problems and probabilities of Wilderness designation past and future. Join us at the Panhandle State Bank auditorium on the second floor, on Friday, Sept. 5, from 5:30-7 p.m. The panel includes Brad Smith, Conservation Associate with ICL; Phil Hough, executive director of FSPW; Erick Walker, district ranger for Sandpoint Ranger District; and professor Adam M. Sowards, environmental historian teaching at the University of Idaho. The moderator will be John Reuter; executive director of Idaho League of Conservation Voters. Light snacks, coffee, tea and lemonade provided.

Philip Hough is the executive director of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.

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