50 Wilderness Sites Across America

The Wilderness Act at 50: Celebrating Wild Places Across America

The United States is home to more than 300 million people, with over 80 percent of the population living in urban areas. From the Pacific to the Atlantic, 2.65 million miles of paved roads crisscross through deserts, mountains, grasslands and forests, connecting concrete metropolises and centers of industry across the continent. As the photographer Ansel Adams said 44 years ago, "In truth, 'Wilderness' is a state of mind and heart. Very little exists now in actuality." Yet, 50 years ago efforts were made to preserve these last remaining wild places.

The Wilderness Act, signed September 3, 1964, set aside nine million acres of American land. Today, there are 110 million acres across 44 states. These areas encompass crystal-clear alpine lakes, deep sweltering valleys, vast grasslands and ancient forests and are home to a vast cast of endangered and threatened species, including manatees, polar bears, woodland caribou and gray wolves.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we have selected 50 wilderness areas from across the United States, from the western coast of Alaska to the southern tip of Florida. In selecting these areas to highlight, we chose to represent each of the 44 states which have designated wilderness areas within their boundaries. With the remaining six spots, we sought to find wilderness areas with an especially compelling story (though all wilderness, in its own way, is extremely compelling), whether that be the largest, the oldest, the newest or the cleanest. The end result is a list of 50 wilderness areas across the United States that, we hope, represent the vast and beautiful diversity of this country's natural world.

These are areas carved by massive glaciers and unyielding elements, examples of what Earth can achieve when left to its own devices. But for all their acres of unpaved wilderness, these areas have hardly escaped humanity's tightening grasp: before the 1960s, many wilderness areas were inhabited, farmed, logged, mined or transformed in various ways. Today, as America's urban landscape has expanded, the buffer-zones clearly delineating wilderness have shrunk, and more than half of the designated wilderness areas in the country are located less than a day's drive from the 30 largest cities. This proximity provides wonderful opportunities for more than 12 million people to enjoy some of our country's best nature each year, but makes it all the more imperative that visitors adhere to the areas' strict Leave No Trace policies to mitigate stress on natural resources.

Elsewhere, pollution and global warming—foes that don't need roads to travel—threaten delicate ecosystems. Warming temperatures and changing human migration patterns are also introducing invasive species to wilderness areas. In a piece for National Geographic, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert argues that in the face of climate change, designating areas as wilderness has become increasingly important. "Designating land as wilderness represents an act of humility," she writes. "It acknowledges that the world still transcends our comprehension, and its value, the use we can make of it." Yet, fifty years later, the bipartisan spirit that helped shepherd the Wilderness Act of 1964 from preservationist ideal to law of the land has all but vanished. In the last eight years, Congress has sent only two wilderness areas to President Obama for approval—30 more languish in Congress, waiting for protection that might never come.

But as much as wilderness represents a future—one where natural areas are allowed to escape the direct grip of human interference—it also represents a past, a national tradition of environmental stewardship forged by visionary and practical preservationists like John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahniser. In exploring the amazing diversity of wilderness that America has to offer, perhaps you will also come away with a great appreciation for our country's wild places—and a renewed desire to assure their protection for perpetuity.

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