Wilderness Act anniversary: Gila Wilderness

Photo: © Michael Melford/National Geographic

National Geographic Sept 2014 issueHappy 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act! This important piece of legislation was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964, and since that day, the number of protected wilderness areas has ballooned from 54 to more than 750 areas, covering 5 percent of the country.

To celebrate the act's golden anniversary, this month's issue of National Geographic features an article by Elizabeth Kolbert called "50 Years of Wilderness." Even as humans come to grips with the fact that there is virtually no place that can truly be called "wild," this insightful piece raises an interesting discussion about the practicality and ethics of continuing to protect these areas.

Here's an excerpt from the Kolbert's article, which can be read in its entirety online or in the September issue of National Geographic magazine:

"Since Johnson signed the act, the number of wilderness areas has increased to more than 750. They range from the tiny Pelican Island Wilderness in central Florida, which is just 5.5 acres, to the immense Wrangell–St. Elias Wilderness, which at nearly 9.1 million acres is bigger than Belgium. All told, officially designated wilderness covers 5 percent of the U.S., an area larger than California. The newest wilderness area, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, was added just this past March.

Few, if any, of these areas are wild in any rigorous sense. They’re certainly not “untrammeled by man.” A visitor to the Sandwich Range in the late 19th century would have encountered a landscape very obviously shaped by humans. Most of the slopes had been clear-cut for timber, and there were several working sawmills in the area; Lavigne pointed out where they’d once stood. To the extent that the place now appears wild, it’s because the forest has regrown.

And what goes for the Sandwich Range goes for pretty much every wilderness area east of the Mississippi; at various points they’ve all been logged or grazed or farmed or graded or some combination of these. (During World War II what’s now the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia was used for live artillery practice.) Most western landscapes have also been altered, if not by European settlers, then by the Native Americans they displaced."

The article is accompanied by a set of amazing images by photographer Michael Melford. In the image above, readers are treated to a stunning downward aerial view of the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico: "This was the precursor: Forty years before the Wilderness Act, 755,000 acres in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, including the Middle Fork of the Gila River, became the world’s first designated wilderness."

A selection of Melford's images, which can seen below, spotlight our current wilderness areas, as well as some of the 30 proposed wilderness areas that are awaiting congressional approval.

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Wilderness Act anniversary: Rocky Mountain Front Proposed Wilderness

Photo: © Michael Melford/National Geographic

Rocky Mountain Front Proposed Wilderness

"Day breaks on the Front Range in Montana. The mountains and plains in this region shelter a rich collection of plants and wildlife, including grizzly bears."

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Wilderness Act anniversary: Patos Island of the San Juan Islands

Photo: © Michael Melford/National Geographic

San Juan Islands

"Patos Island, Washington, is part of a thousand-acre national monument created last year by President Barack Obama. Wilderness, a higher form of land protection, covers 350 acres of the San Juans — but only Congress can designate a wilderness."

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Wilderness Act anniversary: Columbine-Hondo Proposed Wilderness

Photo: © Michael Melford/National Geographic

Columbine-Hondo Proposed Wilderness

"Snow clings to aspens near Taos, New Mexico, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A proposal to protect 45,000 acres here in the Carson National Forest is one of some 30 wilderness bills before Congress."

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Wilderness Act anniversary: Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

Photo: © Michael Melford/National Geographic

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

"Soaptree yuccas soak up morning light in southern New Mexico. 'I am not finished,' the president said in May, as he created this newest national monument. 'I’m searching for more opportunities.'"

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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.