The effect was no less than when Michelangelo put his chisel to stone, Mozart laid his fingers to ivory. In 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, the artistry of the natural world was memorialized. The Act initially designated 9.1 million acres in 13 states – places usually 5,000 acres or more in size, uninterrupted by roads or structures or machinery of any kind. Places where "the earth and its community of life" would be "untrammeled by man," where the "primeval character and influence" would be forever safeguarded.
The document, like the land it protected, was a masterpiece. The only thing suspect about the signing of the Wilderness Act was that it took place in the Rose Garden of the White House, amid a small monocrop of cultivated and manicured blooms. Those in attendance wore suits and dress shoes. It was a formal and highly civilized affair.
But in 1996, President Bill Clinton stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon, that ancient belly of the earth, and signed into existence the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, an area that includes 1.7 million acres of lands with true wilderness character. That day, jackets and ties whipped riotously in the desert wind. Fine grains of sandstone crept into socks and pantyhose.
We are gaining ground. Together, the various public lands – national forests, parks, wildlife refuges and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management – total 623 million acres, about 26 percent of our national land base, their natural resources held in trust for the American people and future generations. From these lands the Wilderness Act continues to gather acreage through congressional designations. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System harbors 644 areas – totaling over 105 million acres. Each place is the highest expression of the region's life forms and topography: Prairie. Desert. Forest. Tundra. Mountain.
Citizens everywhere have worn through the soles of their boots to prove the wild character of their public lands. Using Global Positioning Systems and photo documentation, they have verified 200 million acres of wilderness-quality lands – the last remaining. The fate of many of these lands now lies with Congress: Over 160 members of Congress and 16 members of the Senate have co-sponsored America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, which would protect more than 9 million acres of Utah¹s canyon country and basin and range. Record numbers of decision-makers now support wilderness designation for the threatened 1.5-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's coastal plain; the U.S. Senate recently voted down efforts to drill there for oil. Across the nation, other wild places anxiously await their congressional debut: in California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Idaho.
We have heard the muse. Now we understand wilderness areas not as islands of protection, but as central to a massive mosaic of lands – wild, connected, protected. Our minds see the genius in whole ecosystems, which allow for the uninhibited flow of water, the safe passage of geese and grizzlies.
We respond. We craft migration corridors for wildlife. We sculpt land trusts, which act as connective tissue between protected parcels of public lands. We propose larger national parks – like the one in Maine that would restore the Northern Woods – and map biological schemes that span from Yukon to Yellowstone. And we have begun our opus: The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act would yoke together and preserve nearly all the remaining roadless lands in adjoining portions of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. If passed, this bill – with a blueprint as painstaking and elaborate as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – will be our nation's greatest, most enduring work.
More than ever, wilderness asks that we surrender our civil selves to its grand design. That we submit to the thunderous symphony of place, to the fine art of dirt. The beauty is in the simplicity: Unlike the costly efforts of private land acquisition, the designation of wilderness is simply democracy at its finest. The people's voices and letters give Congress no choice but to finally relent. Across the nation, the feral refrains are heard; the relief of mud, sand and stone rises beneath our feet.
From garden to grit. We dig our toes into the earth and capitulate – to the lynx, the ancient redwood, the caribou, the sandhill crane.