Weekly Column: Our Nation’s Wilderness: Yours to Enjoy and Protect
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. When he signed the Act in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson said, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."
His foresight, along with the work of many of his contemporaries, has allowed generations of Americans to enjoy the natural beauty of our nation.
The Wilderness Act itself was landmark legislation that formally established protections for undeveloped tracts of land across the United States and created the country’s National Wilderness Preservation System.
Many wilderness areas are within a day’s drive of America’s largest cities, and showcase some of our most special places and landscapes. Across the country, 758 wilderness areas cover almost 110 million acres boast forested mountains, alpine meadows, rock peaks above timberline, tundra, lava beds, deserts, swamps, coastal lands, and islands.
While it is impossible to measure its intrinsic value, many people appreciate the wilderness and wild lands simply for the continued existence of areas where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humans. For others, wilderness areas have important cultural significance. They are home to the traditional ancestral lands of some American Indians and Alaska Natives, lands held sacred by Tribal citizens.
Wilderness areas also provide more quantifiable, far-reaching benefits that benefit each of us, whether or not you’ve ever set foot in a wilderness area. They provide abundant supplies of clean air and water and store and sequester carbon. They sustain biodiversity by providing a habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals and supporting healthy landscapes where rare and endangered species thrive. Areas that remain relatively untouched by modern society also provide important natural areas for scientific study of flora and fauna.
Finally, as March and National Nutrition Month come to a close and spring begins, now is a great time for kids and families to get outdoors as a way to be healthy and active, a key component of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Outside initiative. Wilderness areas—located in all but six of our 50 states and enjoyed by more than 12 million Americans every year—offer the opportunity to hike, backpack, rock climb, canoe and horseback ride, with some of our nation’s most beautiful vistas in the background.