by Amy Irvine
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.