The Wilderness Act turns 50
By Mark Udall
United States Senator
Throughout our history, Colorado’s wilderness has strengthened local economies and defined our special way of life. And with the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act upon us, it is worth reflecting on the role these special outdoor places have played in Colorado and redoubling our commitment to safeguarding these treasures.
From the snow-capped peaks of the Eagles Nest Wilderness to the desert arches of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, the Wilderness Act has protected more than 3.6 million acres in Colorado alone. These places have inspired generations of Coloradans and remind us that we don’t inherit the earth from our parents — we borrow it from our children.
One of the greatest legacies of the Wilderness Act is the idea that future generations will someday be able to experience the same outdoor spaces and solitude as we do today. Even the Wilderness Act itself — in a poetic testament to the power of America’s truly wild lands — acknowledges that these special places will endure with a permanence beyond that of individual men and women.
“A wilderness … is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” the law reads.
We can see that vision today, as wilderness areas have protected national treasures like the Maroon Bells, Mount Evans, the Great Sand Dunes and large swaths of Rocky Mountain National Park. These wilderness areas and others like them throughout Colorado also protect wildlife and the watersheds that sustain Colorado, its rivers and its residents.
I saw this firsthand one month ago during a float on the Arkansas River with Veterans Expeditions through the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area — an area I have proposed to preserve permanently as the Browns Canyon National Monument and Wilderness. From a raft, the veterans and I experienced how wilderness is not only at the core of who we are as a nation, but also how these special places reconnect us with those roots.
The Wilderness Act, however, is about more than the lands Congress has already protected and those we still need to safeguard. This anniversary also offers an opportunity for us to reflect on our role in ensuring these lands endure for decades to come. I was honored earlier this summer to join a youth corps working to conserve one of our most-loved wilderness areas, the Mount Evans Wilderness near Georgetown, and 14er Mount Bierstadt. Their work — and the efforts of young people and volunteers across Colorado — show how the Wilderness Act is alive today.
Despite this work, I am frustrated that congressional gridlock has held up more than 20 bills to preserve additional wilderness areas, including several in Colorado, such as Hermosa Creek and Browns Canyon. But I am far from done fighting to protect the public lands that define Colorado’s special way of life.
I am continuing to fight to pass my grassroots-based Browns Canyon legislation, which would preserve 10,500 acres through the Wilderness Act. I will also keep fighting to pass my San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which will protect 61,000 acres of critical public lands in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties. And next year, I plan to introduce my locally driven Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act to preserve nearly a quarter-million acres of wildlands important for recreation, hunting, fishing, and water supplies in Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties.
These areas, like so many other iconic Colorado landscapes, are worth protecting. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, let’s all redouble our efforts to safeguard Colorado’s special places and ensure this monumental idea remains as alive today as it was the day it became law.
Mark Udall, Colorado’s senior U.S. senator, serves on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chairs the National Parks Subcommittee.