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Paving the Way for a Wilderness Act - B&C Impact Series

By PJ DelHomme 

Just decades after founders of the Boone and Crockett Club worked to save the last remnants of North American big game, other members worked to save the last vestiges of “untrammeled” wilderness. This is how a handful of members worked to create our nation’s wilderness system. 


For wilderness, a little punctuation goes a long way. Wilderness with a lowercase ‘w’ can be tossed around in casual conversation, and few seem to pay attention. “We had ourselves a great hunt in the wilderness.” In that case, wilderness describes a wild place in general terms. When the ‘w’ gets capitalized, things get more defined. The big ‘W’ refers to federally designated wilderness areas, such as the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the southwest corner of New Mexico. All told, more than 800 wilderness areas and 111 million acres comprise the National Wilderness Preservation System. 

A tribute to Aldo Leopold in the Gila Wilderness Area.

Because it is a “preservation” system, official wilderness areas have several restrictions on activities allowed on these chunks of land. For the most part, you can hunt and fish there, but you can’t drive your truck or side-by-side within its boundaries. No mechanized or motorized machines are allowed, including bicycles and chainsaws. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines it like this: “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.” No one is supposed to live in a wilderness area, nor is road building or logging permitted. It leans toward preservation in contrast to conservation. For more background on the Club’s position regarding preservation and conservation, you find that here

During the time of Aldo Leopold, who was a member of the Boone and Crockett Club from 1923 until his death in 1948, there were a handful of proponents preaching the need for preserved landscapes—these federally designated wilderness areas—in the 1930s. They saw a need for places “untrammeled by man.” Theodore Roosevelt thought of wilderness as integral to America’s identity, writing, “The differences in plant life and animal life, no less than in the physical features of the land, are sufficiently marked to give the American wilderness a character distinctly its own.” Roosevelt is a case study on the subjects of conservation and preservation because he was a colleague of both John Muir, an adamant preservationist, and Gifford Pinchot, a pragmatic utilitarian and the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Then there was Aldo Leopold, an early graduate of the Yale Forest School, which Pinchot and Henry S. Graves founded in 1900. As a Forest Service employee, Leopold eventually developed a vision for wilderness as “...a continuous stretch of county preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.”  This vision culminated in the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Here’s how Leopold and other Boone and Crockett Club members worked to make wilderness (with a big W) a reality. 

The Idea Guys 

In 1912 when he was 24 years old, Aldo Leopold was perched atop a rimrock canyon in New Mexico when he shot a female wolf and watched “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” At the time, he was a forest supervisor on the Carson National Forest and doing the job he was paid to do. He was also rethinking the intent and policies of a very utilitarian-minded U.S. Forest Service. 

By 1919 Leopold’s official title was Assistant Forester in Charge of Operations in the Southwest. His job, in part, was to inspect various forests, report on what he found, and suggest improvements. On one assignment at the headwaters of the Gila River, he fished for trout surrounded by nothing but wildness. “Was there, he wondered, a legal way to preserve the canyonlands of the Gila just as they were?” writes Marybeth Lorbiecki in her Leopold biography, A Fierce Green Fire

Arthur Carhart with pack and canoe in 1920. Courtesy Forest History Society.

Shortly after submitting his report, Leopold met another forester with similar ideas on preserving certain landscapes. Arthur Carhart was a landscape architect, Army veteran, writer, and hunter based in Colorado. One of his many assignments was to visit Trappers Lake on the White River National Forest in northwestern Colorado, survey a through-road around the lake, and locate suitable sites for 100 summer homes, two commercial sites, and a marina. He was to deliver his report to the Denver office, complete with a way to build that infrastructure. While surveying the area, a local outfitter asked Carhart, “Aren’t you a bit ashamed of what you’re doing? There are a hundred or more lakes in this region anyone can reach by auto. Only a few left not overrun with cars, cottages, and tin-can tourists. Can’t you fellows leave one lake unmolested?” Carhart took the question seriously and would not let the dream of “unmolested” areas die. 

Leopold heard of Carhart’s “hands-off” idea and tracked him down. They discussed his idea of setting aside Trappers Lake. Later, in a memo, Carhart spelled out his thoughts on wilderness, namely the notion that some places are endowed with “...portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made, and the beauties of which of a right should be the property of all people.”

Carhart was all for saving wilderness for its scenic and aesthetic value, and Leopold leaned more toward keeping it for its recreation value. “Wilderness areas are first of all a series of sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing,” Leopold wrote in his essay, Wilderness. In it, he lined out other reasons for setting aside wilderness, namely for science, wildlife, and what he called the “remnants” of pristine coastlines, short-grass prairie, and even coastal prairie. 



“Free hunting and fishing is a most worthy objective, but it deals with only one of the two distinctive characteristics of American sport. The other characteristic is that our test of skill is primarily the act of living in the open, and only secondarily the act of killing game. It is to preserve this primary characteristic that public wilderness playgrounds are necessary.”
—Aldo Leopold, 1925



“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value. Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”
—Theodore Roosevelt, 1910 

Leopold thought of no better place to start than his Gila National Forest. In 1923, he proposed setting aside more than half-a-million acres in those high box canyons on the Gila, where he spent more than a few days fishing undisturbed. At first, his proposal was voted down. Some said it would “lock up” resources. Others claimed it would only be a place for the rich and entitled. And yet others cheered the proposal. Then, five days after the Leopold family moved to Wisconsin, Leopold's proposal for a wilderness area was approved. 

The Road to a Wilderness Act 

Just over a decade after Leopold convinced the Forest Service to set aside the Gila, a handful of people hoping to protect more areas created the Wilderness Society in 1935. Among its early members was Leopold, but he was busy teaching at the University of Wisconsin. Other members, like Robert Marshall, took up the cause with gusto. 

Bob Marshall on a Quetico-Superior trip in 1937. Courtesy Forest History Society.

Like Leopold and Carhart, Bob Marshall was a forester. He became chief of the Division of Recreation and Lands in the Forest Service in 1927, and he was an energetic force—when hiking across entire mountain ranges and working to protect wild places. Marshall and the Wilderness Society focused on some of the last remaining “untrammeled” places on the map, including the Quetico-Superior country in Minnesota, which had been recommended as a wilderness preserve by Arthur Carhart as early as 1919. This area was the backyard of other Society founders, Ernest C. Oberholtzer and Sigurd Olson. Today, we know the area as the one million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which became official (big W) wilderness in 1978. 

For decades after its founding, the Wilderness Society played defense. After World War II, the national forests and parks experienced an influx of campers, hikers, hunters, and anglers. There was also increased interest in developing the nation’s resources on public land. For instance, in 1950, the Echo Park Dam was given the green light by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The proposed dam would be built inside Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado. The Wilderness Society and a young Sierra Club successfully fought to scrap the project. In 1956 Congress passed a law declaring that no dam or reservoir under the Colorado River Storage Project Act could be built in a national park or monument. The move ushered in an era of change in America. 

Passing the Wilderness Act 

By the late 1950s, Americans loved their public lands. Interest in these places had grown so much that by 1958, members of Congress called for a nationwide study on outdoor recreation. They established the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC), which Laurance Rockefeller, a Boone and Crockett Club member, chaired. In 1962, the ORRRC reported that based on their findings, “Congress should enact legislation to provide for the establishment and preservation of certain primitive areas as wilderness areas.”

While the ORRRC was compiling their report, Howard Zahnihiser, the head of the Wilderness Society, was ahead of the game. He was busy lobbying lawmakers, testifying in support of, and rewriting a draft of the Wildnerness Act, which he began writing in 1956. Like Leopold’s first run at a wilderness in the Gila, it was a hard sell. According to the historian James Trefethen, author of An American Crusade for Wildlife, Zahniser consistently found opposition in the House by the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. “The wilderness proposal was bitterly opposed by a coalition of western commercial interests, including the mining companies, timber corporations, and livestock associations.” However, the bill had strong support in the Senate, and not everyone in the House was against federally designated wilderness areas. 

Member and Congressman John P. Saylor enjoying a horseback ride.

John P. Saylor, a House Republican from Pennsylvania, was a fan of conservation and environmental causes. He was a Boone and Crockett Club member and a Congressman for over 20 years. Saylor introduced a new and improved Wilderness Act in August 1963 that checked all the boxes for proponents and opponents. On September 3, 1964, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. The act immediately placed 54 areas and nine million acres within the National Wilderness Preservation System, including the Bob Marshall in Montana and the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. 

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Wilderness Bill and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Bill as members of Congress and the Cabinet watch from a White House porch, September 3, 1964. B&C Member and Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall accepts the pen he used to sign the bill.

Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System includes hundreds of millions of acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico. When Leopold and Carhart imagined the wilderness idea (big W) a century ago, the U.S. and the world’s climate looked vastly different. Time will reveal how resilient these landscapes are. But for now, we have these places. And if you’ve never spent a few nights under the stars in the big W, then pick one area, and go get lost. You’ll always remember it. 

Club Commemorates Wilderness Act's 50th Anniversary – August 2014

About the Impact Series

The Impact Series is dedicated to showing how sportsmen, members of the Boone and Crockett Club in particular, saved the wildlife and wild places of the United States. Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club comprised the movers, shakers, and initiators of the American conservation movement. They were hunters, anglers, explorers, lawmakers, soldiers, and above all conservationists. These members established laws that allowed our wildlife resources to flourish. They also protected landscape-scale geologic marvels and American icons like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali, and many, many more. These members may no longer be with us, but their legacy remains. This series aims to honor their accomplishments and remind us of the good work still yet to do.

PJ DelHomme writes and edits content from his home in western Montana. He runs Crazy Canyon Media and Crazy Canyon Journal.  

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt