Virgin Land: A History

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, September 1999

Virgin Land: A History


Two millennia before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, the Roman poet Lucretius pondered the balance between nature and the human race and concluded: Wilderness sucks. "What a defect that so much of the earth is greedily possessed by mountains and the forests of wild beasts!" he complained. Since then, supply has diminished (forests and beasts lost possession) and demand has increased (gear got way cooler). Which sums up the time line that follows.

CIRCA 600 B.C.—Old Testament prophet Jeremiah yearns for a vacation in the wilderness "such that I might leave my people, and go away from them!"

1831—"In Europe people talk a great deal of the wilds of America, but the Americans themselves never think about them," writes French observer Alexis de Tocqueville.

1854—Transcendentalist point man Henry David Thoreau publishes his natural manifesto, Walden.

1869—John Muir begins a four-year camping trip in California's wild Yosemite Valley and forms a plan to preserve it as a national park.

1872—Congress establishes Yellowstone National Park, the world's first large-scale wild area devoted to recreation.

1890—Yosemite becomes the nation's second national park.

1891—A little-noticed congressional rider empowers the White House to create forest reserves. President Benjamin Harrison designates 13 million acres.

1893—After studying the U.S. Census of 1890, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declares that the frontier has closed.

1911—The Weeks Act allows the Forest Service to purchase abusively logged private lands in eastern states.

1913—Wilderness becomes a cause célèbre as survivalist Joseph Knowles strolls naked into the Maine woods and allegedly stays two months. Knowles files updates for the papers (inscribed with charcoal on birchbark) until he is greeted, clad in bearskin, by cheering crowds back in Boston.

1926—The Forest Service establishes the first official wilderness: The Gila Wilderness Preserve in New Mexico. The designation is shepherded by an obscure Forest Service forest products lab functionary named Aldo Leopold.

1935—Leopold and a Bureau of Indian Affairs forester named Bob Marshall help found the Wilderness Society.

1956—Wilderness advocates successfully lobby Congress to prevent a Green River dam from flooding part of Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border. Emboldened, Wilderness Society president Howard Zahniser drafts the first version of the Wilderness Act.

1964—After eight years, 18 hearings, and 66 drafts, Congress passes the Wilderness Act, creating a 9.1-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System. Permanent structures, timber cutting, and "mechanical transport" are forbidden. But mining is allowed on lands where private interests hold mineral rights.

1975—The Eastern Wilderness Act allows wilderness designation on lands that were once clearcut.

1976—Congress directs the Bureau of Land Management to inventory roadless areas within its jurisdiction among the Lower 48 states. The agency finds 24.5 million acres of potential wilderness.

1978—The Endangered American Wilderness Act passes, creating wilderness areas adjacent to major cities.

1980—President Jimmy Carter signs the Alaska Lands Act, more than doubling the area covered by the wilderness system.

1984—A Congressional ban on new mining claims in wilderness areas takes effect. Additional designations bring total protected wilderness to 89.7 million acres.

1987—Seeking to soften his rape-and-pillage environmental reputation, President Ronald Reagan enlists Clint Eastwood and Lou Gossett Jr. in a public campaign to help keep litter out of wilderness areas.

1991—The Bureau of Land Management submits 24.5 million acres to President George Bush as Wilderness Study Areas, which are managed "so as not to impair the suitability of such areas for preservation as wilderness."

1993—National Park Service director Roger Kennedy admits his agency has flouted the spirit of the Wilderness Act by failing to treat wilderness distinctly. He establishes a wilderness task force to recommend ways to improve stewardship.

1994—A red Cadillac, dropped from a plane for Charlie Sheen's movie Terminal Velocity, accidentally crashes into a proposed wilderness area in California's Inyo Mountains, home to bighorn sheep and ancient bristlecone pines. Penalty: a citation.

1999—Total wilderness to date: 104.7 million acres, 57.4 million of which are in Alaska. Young Turk environmentalists push an agenda that proposes creating 50 million acres of additional wilderness over the next ten years.

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