July 7, 2014

The Road Not Taken: How the Wilderness Act Preserved the United States Landscape

by Marianne O’Loughlin, Program Intern

A half hour’s drive north of Squam Lakes Natural Science Center will take you to a public wilderness: the White Mountain National Forest. This great expanse of habitat is home to both New Hampshire wildlife and geologic wonders and it’s difficult to imagine that this land fell under the protection of a law enacted only a half century ago. 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a law that preserves land like this for future generations of wildlife and human visitors.

On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law and established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). It started with only 9.1 million acres. While that may sound like a vast expanse, it’s just over twice the total acreage of New Hampshire (5,954,560 acres). In the past fifty years, the United States has added additional protected sites that are equivalent to the size of the state of California. Many other countries have modeled protections on the Wilderness Act.

The Wilderness Act means that “wilderness”—once a vague, legally purposeless space—is both defined and protected by law. It keeps wilderness separate from other areas, preserving them as unaltered habitats. Industry and development is not permitted. If any logging occurs at all, it falls under strict regulation. Developed land has its place: it’s protected by zoning regulations and has at least some degree of environmental regulations. The Wilderness Act offers undeveloped lands protection from fragmentation and the damages of industry and human occupation.

As you visit the Science Center, keep in mind how animals in New Hampshire depend on unaltered, unfragmented habitat. Animals like skunks and coyotes can adapt to human environments. They can exist in areas where habitat remains only in pockets between developed areas. That same feat would be impossible for a mountain lion or a moose. If an animal requires a large territory to survive, it won’t be able to live anywhere but in isolated regions. This law ensures that such regions remain free of alteration so the natural world can flourish undisturbed. Any humans that pass through public wilderness are merely visitors, appreciating the landscape instead of its resources.

This public, undisturbed habitat has the power to bring generations nearer to nature. With great effort, we all can protect wilderness. We can share this love of the land with others so they’ll do the same. We naturally preserve and protect what we understand and love. But to fall in love with something first requires an introduction, an impossible task if unaltered habitat disappears.

For more information on the Wilderness Act and events during its 50th anniversary, please visit http://www.wilderness50th.org.

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