Wilderness Act still works 50 years later


Joey Eschrich

This September, environmentalists will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the piece of federal legislation that created the U.S. system of wilderness areas, and established the principles for their management. In the face of a growing debate about the act's "hands-off" management philosophy that prescribes minimal human intervention in wilderness areas, Ben Minteer, a professor of conservation at ASU's School of Life Sciences and a senior sustainability scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, argues that the act works remarkably well after all these years, and should not be changed.

In a Future Tense article for Slate magazine, Minteer traces the history of U.S. wilderness thinking to the naturalist John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. Muir imagined North America before European colonization as pristine and "untrammeled," a belief that informs the Wilderness Act's non-interventionist philosophy. Muir's conception of an untouched wilderness has been debunked by historians studying Native American technological alteration and control of the environment, and context for his ideas about the wild has been irrevocably changed by human population growth, environmental degradation and technological change.

Does this mean that we should change the Wilderness Act, enabling federal agencies to take a more active approach to managing wilderness areas and safeguarding their ecosystems? No, argues Minteer. The act is actually more flexible than it seems, and federal agencies have established a practical tradition of active wilderness management, despite the act's seemingly rigid language.

Furthermore, revisiting the act "would inevitably weaken our protection of the nation's wilder places," writes Minteer. "The passage of the Wilderness Act was a hard-won victory – it's difficult to see how even a shadow of it could be passed again in today's political climate."

More importantly, writes Minteeer, even if wilderness areas like Yosemite National Park are not as pure and pristine as Muir imagined, they are still breathtaking places "capable of inspiring old-fashioned Romantic awe and wonder." The fact that our wilderness is no longer absolutely wild – and that it has not been for quite a long time – does not make it any less deserving of protection.

Future Tense is a collaboration among ASU, the New America Foundation and Slate magazine that explores how emerging technologies affect policy and society.