Happy birthday to the Wilderness Act

Federal legislation can be heavy on bureaucratic jargon or dense policy language, but there’s a certain poetry to the Wilderness Act of 1964.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Those words capped a vision that started nearly 100 years ago, right here on the Western Slope of Colorado. As the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb chronicled in his overview of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a young Forest Service surveyor named Arthur Carhart altered the trajectory of public lands management by suggesting that some places are just too special to be developed.

In 1919, a 27-year-old Carhart was dispatched to Trappers Lake in what is now the Flat Tops Wilderness east of Meeker to survey 100 planned summer home sites and a road around the lake. When he returned to Denver, he recommended that the area remain roadless and undeveloped. Or as Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based nonprofit Wilderness Workshop, puts it: “He came back with this idea of wilderness for wilderness’ sake.”

Carhart became acquainted with another pioneering Forest Service employee, Aldo Leopold. “The two put into a memorandum their shared vision for what at the time was still a nascent wilderness concept that they and others turned into a movement,” Webb wrote in Sunday’s edition.

And what a movement it became. There are 43 designated wilderness areas covering 3.7 million acres in Colorado alone. The act immediately put 9.1 million acres of wild American lands into the National Wilderness Preservation System. But it estalished the framework for other areas to be added. Today more than 110 million acres enjoy the nation’s highest form of land protection. No roads, vehicles or permanent structures are allowed in designated wilderness. Logging and mining are also prohibited.

These lands provide solitude and a primitive experience. For many they serve as an antidote to our high-tech lives, which are becoming increasingly detached from the natural world. Surveys show the majority of people support wilderness areas even if they never set foot in one. Their mere existence provides a sense of comfort.

Near the end of his long life, Carhart reflected on his contribution to the wilderness movement: “I sometimes wonder how I had the nerve as a young punk to get my superiors turned around on some of these things. I feel real good about how it all turned out.”

Coloradans should feel real good about how it all started — right here in the Cradle of Wilderness.


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