There was cake, a slideshow on continuous loop of Sequoia-Kings Canyon’s wildest places, and a small contingent of wilderness lovers who gathered Friday, June 13, at the Three Rivers Arts Center to commemorate the ongoing celebration this year of the 50th  anniversary of the Wilderness Act.  

On September 3, 1964, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act. This created the National Wilderness Preservation System and immediately placed 54 areas into the system. 

A “wilderness area” is the nation’s highest form of land protection. No roads, vehicles, machinery, or permanent structures are allowed in designated wilderness. A wilderness designation also prohibits activities like logging or mining. 

The original lands included 9.1 million acres in 13 states, including some of the most iconic wilderness areas. Among some of the first wilderness areas created by the act were Ansel Adams Wilderness, California; Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota; Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming; and Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana.

Today’s wilderness system includes 757 wilderness areas from coast to coast; 109,511,966 acres of protected wilderness; and wilderness areas in all but six U.S. states (and Puerto Rico). Designated wilderness  areas preserve and protect five percent of all the land in the United States.

As incredible as the legislation itself, even more unbelievable is the fact that it was passed in Congress by a vote of 374-1. Imagine trying to pass similar legislation today. The only dissenter was a Texas representative who later rationalized that his “no” vote was because the acreage included for protection was not enough.  

According to the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks website, nearly 97 percent, or 838,000 acres, within the parks is either designated or managed as wilderness. This includes the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness and, in Mineral King, the John Krebs Wilderness, which added an additional 39,740 acres to the jointly managed parks’ wilderness in 2009.


Wilderness Speaks

The highlight of the Three Rivers Wilderness Act party was a visit by Ed Zahniser. Ed, a poet, editor, and writer, is the son of Howard Zahniser (1906-1964), the chief architect of the original Wilderness Act legislation. From 1956 until its passage in 1964, Howard was responsible for producing 66 revisions of the landmark bill.

The language of the Wilderness Act, Ed said, has been described by a major news weekly as “… tiptoes as close to poetry as legalese ever comes.”

Would one who has experienced wilderness expect anything less than artistically crafted language to define and explain wilderness? The challenge of the bill was to basically describe the essence of the planet to a skeptical public, many whose only contact with wilderness might have been a Disney nature episode on TV each Sunday night.

Ed, the youngest of four children of Howard and Alice Zahniser, grew up in a western Pennsylvania wilderness household, so he learned to love wild places at a tender age. He said “Zahnie,” a name Howard was affectionately called by those who knew him best, gravitated toward becoming a wilderness advocate after being “freaked out” by the detonation of the atomic bombs in 1945, Ed explained.

For the next two decades, Zahnie guided the Wilderness Society, producing and editing its newsletter and eventually becoming the executive director. 

“I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment,” Howard once said.

Those words to live by inspired a 17-year journey that Howard traveled to ensure that the Wilderness Act became law. To do that, every word was chosen with the utmost care and precision. 

Ironically, once Howard began to fight for wilderness he actually visited there less often, Ed recalled. 

“You need not be angry to be an advocate of wilderness Zahnie taught us,” Ed said. “What worked for the leaders of the wilderness coalition was mutual respect.”

According to Ed, the term “untrammeled” became central to the wilderness idea and critical to understanding the intent of the legislation.

“Lands that were of wilderness quality must be untrammeled and not subjected to human control or manipulation,” he said. “We are guardians, not gardeners.”

The legislation was not initially intended to set these lands aside for recreation but rather for preservation, Ed explained.

“Wilderness benefits all of us whether we go there or not,” he said. “Ecosystem management, watershed maintenance, wildlife corridors, pristine places for endangered species, and areas without roads all contribute to a healthier environment.”


Wilderness proponents of the ‘60s

Along with Howard Zahniser, advocates of wilderness 50 years ago included such luminaries as David Brower of the Sierra Club; Harvey Broome, longtime president of the Wilderness Society; Sigurd Olson, wilderness guide, author, and instrumental in the protection of Boundary Waters; and Wallace Stegner, Stanford professor and author.

Stegner in his renowned “Letter to the Wilderness,” written in 1960 to influence a Berkeley think tank to work for preservation of wild places, stated why the nation could ill afford to lose the battle to preserve wilderness.  

Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was a challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, in our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there — important, that is, simply as an idea.

Though the Wilderness Act passed overwhelmingly, the policies to permit certain types of recreation evolved later in the 1970s and 1980s when throngs of outdoor enthusiasts sought momentary solitude non-existent in burgeoning urban centers. Naysayers of the creation of wilderness were many who feared, as they still do today, that lands set aside might someday not be mined, logged, or exploited for profit in one business or another.

Preserving those special places, according to the prose of wilderness advocates, is planetary genius. Answering the call of the wilderness is to experience the essence of the earth, Ed said.

There are numerous celebrations planned throughout 2014 to commemorate the Wilderness Act of 1964. No need to wait, however, because anyone who lives in or is visiting Kaweah Country can plant their feet in wilderness in about an hour’s driving time and by walking just a few miles up a trail. 

Howard Zahniser

In a sad twist of fate, Howard Zahniser passed away just four months before the Wilderness Act was signed into law.

To read more on the life, career, and writings of Howard Zahniser, his biography is entitled Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act, by Mark Harvey (2009). 

On July 1, 2014, an anthology of The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zahniser, also by Mark Harvey, is due to be released.

Ed Zahniser

Ed retired in 2013 as a senior writer-editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harper’s Ferry, W.V. In May 2014, he received the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award and a New York State Wilderness 50th steering committee Wilderness Stewardship Award.

He has published numerous works of poetry in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and is currently the editor of Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser.

Ed’s program in Three Rivers was made possible by a sponsorship of the Sequoia Natural History Association. 


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