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Originally published September 6, 2014 at 5:32 PM | Page modified September 9, 2014 at 2:21 PM

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Guest: Protect more land with the 50th anniversary of Wilderness Act

The Wilderness Act is testament to our shared capacity to govern, writes guest columnist James Morton Turner.

Special to The Times


FOR people who care about wilderness, this has been a trying year. Right now, there are dozens of wilderness bills awaiting action in Congress, including legislation to protect places like the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River and Pratt River valleys and a necklace of wild lands around Olympic National Park.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Sept. 3 marked the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a landmark law that created the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Since 1964, the wilderness system has grown from 54 to 758 areas, the protected acreage has expanded from nine acres to 110 million, and there is now designated wilderness in 44 states. In Washington state, there are 31 protected wilderness areas encompassing 4.5 million acres. It is a record of success worth celebrating.

But the Wilderness Act represents more than just the solitude of the mountains, expanses of untouched desert or deep forest sanctuaries. The Wilderness Act is testament to something else that, in its own way, is as precious and threatened as wild nature: It is our shared capacity to govern.

That tradition of nonpartisan political action is also at risk this anniversary year.

The last major wilderness bill became law in 2009. Since then, congressional action has lagged, no matter how you measure it — by the number of areas established, acres of land protected or the number of laws passed. Last session, the only wilderness bill Congress passed reduced the size of the wilderness system, instead of expanding it.

Today, when people read the Wilderness Act, many stop with its lyrical definition of wilderness: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, 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 Wilderness Act did more than define wilderness. It also set in motion a process for protecting it that harks back to an earlier era in American politics.

When our politics often trades in tweets and rarely rises beyond partisan gridlock, it is worth remembering the political moment from which the Wilderness Act emerged.

The Wilderness Act became law during an era when Congress often succeeded in putting the common interest above partisan interests, expanded opportunities for citizen engagement and passed legislation of enduring importance. It is not coincidental that the Wilderness Act, the Food Stamp Act, and, most importantly, the Civil Rights Act passed within months in 1964.

Thanks to the dogged work of citizen activists and environmental organizations who invested their time working through the legislative process, Congress expanded the wilderness system with surprising regularity after 1964. Indeed, Congress has passed more than 200 laws, during periods of both Democratic and Republican leadership, to protect places like the Great Swamp in New Jersey, Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, Deep Creek in Utah, and, in March of this year, Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan.

It is this tradition of citizen activism that continues today in Washington state. Since 2007, a coalition from the state has pushed for legislation, S. 112, that would add 22,000 acres of popular and ecologically important lowland forests in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River and Pratt River valleys to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The coalition is led by conservation and outdoor recreation groups Washington Wild, the Washington Trails Association and the Alpine Lakes Protection Society.

Despite passing the Senate in 2013 and the House Natural Resources Committee in July, the legislation remains stalled in Congress.

It is tempting to chalk up the inaction on wilderness, like so many other political issues, to partisan politics. But wilderness does not split neatly along party lines.

From the start, the Alpine Lakes proposal has been championed in the House by U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. The proposal, which would also designate stretches of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River and the Pratt River as wild and scenic, has been crafted to respect the rights of private landowners, the recreational interests of mountain bikers and to strengthen the region’s outdoor recreation economy.

The ongoing engagement of citizens has been key to moving this wilderness proposal forward, like similar bills before it. These citizens acted on a faith that negotiation, give and take, and, ultimately, compromise would slowly, but surely, oil the gears of legislative action.

Moving these proposals this year would be a fitting way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. In doing so, Congress would take a small step toward rekindling a tradition of legislative action — rooted in negotiation and compromise — the importance of which extends well beyond wilderness.

James Morton Turner is the author of “The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964” and associate professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

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