By Shauna Potocky.
Across the dark of the night sky, a splattering of glistening stars—their bright light piercing the void. Even here, in the high reaches of the mountains and in the late hours of the night, the cold is no deterrent for those who cannot be held back from the pull of its beauty. In this perfect wilderness, with nothing to distract or diminish its awe, the stars can be seen reflecting in the high alpine lakes that sit perfectly positioned beneath the unobstructed night sky.
The hours pass until a blue dawn begins to break and the high mountain ridges, with their dark silhouettes, soften in the coming light. With the new day comes a cold wind. On the wind, a harmony of waking birds fills the basin with song and as the stiff breeze of daybreak sweeps along the surface of the alpine lakes—they ripple and shiver.
Wilderness is a unique gift, bequeathed to each of us through legislation society can be proud of. It was through remarkable foresight that the idea of wilderness protection came to fruition. That through the protection of large tracts of land and wildlife refuges, collectively we are protecting habitats, water sources, and areas for recreation. In addition, we preserve a critical piece of our heritage, stunning landscapes for people to connect with along with the promise that these areas will be retained in their natural state for generations to come.
Even with the establishment of national parks and national forests, there was a recognition that protecting public lands and cultural sites might not be enough to secure protection for some of the nation’s most remarkable landscapes, specifically in their natural state and without development. Thus, a new designation of land preservation was sought, which could protect specific tracts of land as wilderness and establish a set rules for its management as well as ethics or behaviors, which would ensure along with its access, its protection.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System. Through the establishment of this new system, protection was created for an array of federally managed lands including Bureau of Land Management holdings, national forests, national parks, and national wildlife refuges. Today, this system protects approximately 110 million acres across the United States.
Once an area achieves the status of federally designated wilderness, it is then afforded the highest level of protection. When we protect wilderness, we protect ecosystems and habitats that serve critical functions—from protecting biodiversity and water sources, to providing for wildlife and preserving spaces that serve as areas for recreation. Wilderness areas are critical for large landscape habitat protection and provide people with remarkable settings to find solitude in.
Often, wilderness areas will have special management plans and may require visitors to engage in proactive behaviors that minimize impacts to the landscape and its associated ecosystems and wildlife.
One of the most highly regarded sets of outdoor or wilderness travel ethics is known as Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. These guidelines are an excellent resource and focus on ways each of us can minimize our impact while recreating in a wilderness area or in our community open spaces. Empowered with the knowledge of LNT practices, we can feel confident while exploring remarkable landscapes and care for the area at the same time—a win-win for habitats and humans alike!
Perhaps one of the seemingly small-scale, yet greatest gifts of wilderness is the inspiration and restoration of spirit that it provides. Often people hike, camp or backpack in wilderness as a means of escaping the busy city and finding some quiet away from the demands of daily life. For others it may be the unique elements of the landscape that inspire. In the union of artist and wilderness as a muse, collectively, we have all benefited from its subsequent art, consider the poems of Gary Snyder, the stories of Jack Kerouac, the photography of Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell and Kirk Keeler, along with paintings from artists such as Chiura Obata or Penny Otwell to name only a few. There are countless others who continue to bring the wilderness to us in remarkable and inspiring ways.
Of course wilderness areas also face challenges. As resources succumb to increased pressure, more and more people will look at the resources within wilderness areas as potential solutions to supply issues. Consider fresh water or oil deposits for example; as the availability of fresh water or oil resources becomes increasingly in demand, resources such as these that are located within some protected areas may come under pressure. This is just one more reason that working together, resource issues need to be addressed at their source and managed in ways that can balance environmental and economic needs, while keeping these needs from reaching into our most cherished and protected landscapes.
Although it took the government to approve the Wilderness Act and establish the National Wilderness Preservation System, a small few worked tirelessly to move this legislation forward. Namely, Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, who is credited with this work and legacy. Today, honoring that legacy requires us to continue stewarding wilderness areas into the future.
However wilderness touches our lives, we are fortunate enough to have a country that recognizes the value of such landscapes and provides it with the greatest possible protection. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this ideal and what it means for us today, we should also consider what is required of us to secure its future and how we will keep wilderness areas relevant to an increasingly urban population.
Wilderness is for everyone, not just a small few. At the core of its protection, is a philosophy that all people deserve landscapes preserved in their natural state with resources that are unfettered by human development. That vision, which was established on September 3, 1964 carries on today and leads to this important question, how will you celebrate the wilderness that was protected for you?
Photographs by Kirk Keeler Photography