As we honor the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, it is easy to celebrate the habitats, wild places, and recreational opportunities that it has protected. But it is also important to consider all sides of wilderness and wilderness conservation. In his well-known 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon tackles the idea of wilderness and discusses a range of topics including American urbanites’ construction of wilderness as a place to escape to and the designation of “wilderness” on landscapes deemed virgin or empty, despite having been home to native cultures for millennia. Cronon argues that this history points to a problematic separation between culture and nature, one that is reified when the “Big Outside” counts as nature while our backyards, community parks, and neighborhood streams do not.[i]
Twenty years later, there are still troubles with wilderness, though there have also been positive changes. Two movements seem especially promising when it comes to extending wildness from out there to in here: the growing number of parks in low-income, underserved neighborhoods of color; and the growing number of urban gardens. This is far from enough, though, argues Jourdan Imani Keith in an article in Orion Magazine’s recent issue on the future of wilderness. Keith poses a challenge when it comes to wilderness: for every generation to “’renew and enlarge its meaning,’” just as President Johnson challenged the country to do for the definition of freedom.[ii] Such renewal is crucial for the portion of the population that still has a hard time accessing wild places. A National Park Service study revealed that in 2009, 78% of visitors to the National Park system were White, while only 9% were Hispanic, 7% were African American, and 3% were Asian.[iii]
Today, there are also troubles with wilderness management, as Christopher Ketcham reveals in another Orion article. Ketcham looks beyond the “oil, gas, mining, dams, utility corridors, roads” that most obviously threaten wilderness to discuss “the quieter, more insidious dangers” of stock grazing, motor vehicle use, lethal predator management, and recreation.[v] As Jordan Fisher Smith points out in a third Orion article focused on common human interventions such as invasive species control, predator reintroduction, and fire suppression, today we don’t just construct the idea of wilderness, but we construct the wilderness areas themselves.[vi]
The trouble doesn’t stop there. The phrasing of the Wilderness Act itself poses problems for the preservation of additional areas today. The Wilderness Act explicitly states that “no Federal lands shall be designated as ‘wilderness areas’ except as provided for in this Act or a subsequent Act,”[vii] meaning that each new wilderness area has to have its own act. This has made it challenging for Congress to add new acreage to the system. Places like the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains of Idaho have been proposed as new wilderness areas for years but get caught in this bind.
The Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary deserves both celebration and contemplation to acknowledge successes and recognize new and ongoing troubles.
Editor’s Note: From time to time, SHRA comes across fun, interesting and notable items in the archives that we think would be of interest to our readers but that don’t warrant a longer blog post. This piece is one of a series of vignettes that we hope will bring some of these discoveries to life. If you’re looking for one of our longer pieces, click on “Features” under “Categories” in the left navigation column.
[i] Cronon, William. “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,”
[ii] Keith, Jourdan Imani, “Desegretating Wilderness,” Orion Magazine, Sept/Oct 2014
[iv] “Urban Farming is Growing a Green Future,” National Geographic
[v] Ketcham, Christopher, “Taming the Wilderness,” Orion Magazine, Sept/Oct 2014
[vi] Smith, Jordan Fisher, “The Wilderness Paradox,” Orion Magazine, Sept/Oct 2014
[viii] “Aid IMBA’s Work to Keep Trails Open in Idaho,” International Mountain Biking Association