“The Eternal Battle” The Success of the Wilderness Act at 50


“The Eternal Battle”

The Success of the Wilderness Act at 50

Ronald Eber – Oregon Chapter Historian



The 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of September 3, 1964, provides an opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved and its importance to Oregon and for future wilderness campaigns; because wilderness protection is the foundation of the conservation movement especially in Oregon. The story is exemplified by what John Muir said in 1895 during an earlier campaign to protect Oregon’s Cascade forests: “the battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is part of the eternal battle between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it.”

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the law, it established a national policy “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”  It instantly designated 9,140,000 acres as wilderness in 54 areas. Now our National Wilderness Preservation System comprises 757 areas and protects more than 109,511,000 acres. There are now 47 wilderness areas in Oregon, covering about 2,474,000 acres.  But it wasn’t always so.  This article  will review the early development of the forest reserves, national forests and Wilderness Areas as well as learn about the pioneer leaders who promoted the protection of these areas.  Then it will explain about the adoption of the Wilderness Act and how conservationists campaigned for the protection of the areas designated in Oregon.


Long before there were established wilderness areas, national monuments, national forests or more than just one national park—Yellowstone—there was interest in the wilderness and forest resources in the Pacific Northwest. Sierra Club founder John Muir hiked and camped throughout the region in 1888, visiting the Columbia Gorge, Multnomah Falls, the Cascades and Crater Lake. His essays about this trip can be found in his book Steep Trails. He described Mount Hood as the “ruling spirit of the landscape,” noted with concern the “fierce storm of steel that is devouring the forests” and recommended that “a park of moderate extent might be set apart and protected for public use forever” in the Cascades.

The real work of protection began in the mid-1880s, when concerned citizens wanted to place off limits—reserve—certain public lands from acquisition under the nation’s first land use laws. Crater Lake was the first area in the Cascades to be protected. In 1886, William Steel, later to found the Mazamas mountaineering club, led an effort that convinced President Cleveland to protect the lake and its surroundings. In 1889, John Waldo, a former Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, started a campaign to protect the entire Cascade Range. The Reserve was to extend 12 miles on either side of the Cascades from the Columbia River to just north of the California border in order to protect Oregon’s forests and the headwaters of its principal rivers from the increasing claims of land speculators, grazing and timber interests.

Waldo, then an Oregon legislator from Marion County and avid explorer of the Cascades, introduced Joint Memorial No. 8 that called on Congress to create a Cascade Forest Reserve. It declared the forests of “little commercial value ….” but their “preservation” of “paramount value and importance.” The Cascade Range was to be “set apart and kept free and open forever as a public reserve park and resort for the people of the State of Oregon and the United States.” The Memorial passed the House but was stopped in the Senate by sheep grazing interests.

By 1891, national concern about the loss of forestlands forced Congress to act. The Land Revision Act authorized the president to reserve commercial and noncommercial forest lands as public reservations, but it did not specify any policy on the use of the reserves. It was under this act that Oregon’s first wild forests were protected. President Harrison set aside the Bull Run Watershed in 1892 to protect Portland’s water supply. This was followed by President Cleveland’s designation in 1893 of 4,400,000 acres as the Cascade Forest Reserve, which closely followed the lands proposed by Representative Waldo that also included the large pristine lake now named for him. At the same time, the Ashland Reserve was established to protect the city’s Bear Creek watershed. Most of Oregon’s other forest reserves (later to be national forests) were designated by President Theodore Roosevelt between 1901 and 1907.

The Defensive Campaigns Begin

But before the ink was dry on the proclamations, the battle began to protect them. In 1896, the Oregon congressional delegation tried to reduce the size of the Cascade Forest Reserve and split it into three smaller areas.  In defense of the Cascade Reserve, the Sierra Club issued a resolution “unalterably” opposing the reduction of the Cascade or “any forest reservation.” This successful campaign protected what today remains the core of the national forest and wilderness areas in the Cascades.

In 1896, Waldo once again led an effort to keep the Oregon congressional delegation from deleting a large area in the central Cascades from the Cascade Forest Reserve. This area would have included the forested lands from Mount Hood to Crater Lake, including the lands around Lake Waldo. Waldo urged President Cleveland to retain the area in the reserve and to recognize the important values and resources of the mountains and wilderness “where communion with untrammeled nature and the free air, the narrowing tendencies of an artificial and petty existence might be perceived and corrected, and the spirit enlarged and strengthened.” We are lucky that there are men with vision like Judge Waldo, William Steel and John Muir.

Primitive, Wilderness and Wild Areas

Surprising as it may seem, in the 1920s and ’30s, the United States Forest Service began to develop a wilderness policy and administratively designate wilderness areas.  No specific uses were prohibited, but the designations were made, nonetheless. The first designation was the 900,000-acre Gila Wilderness Area in southern New Mexico, made in 1924. This led the Forest Service to begin a national inventory for such wild areas, and by 1929, they had developed regulations for the designation of what were called “primitive areas.”

The chief proponent for this new policy was a district ranger and wildlife specialist with the Forest Service, Aldo Leopold.  Later, Bob Marshall, a trained forester and avid backpacker, became the government’s chief advocate for wilderness within the Department of the Interior and then as the Director of Recreation and Lands for the Forest Service, in charge of their wilderness program.  Marshall was instrumental in getting additional primitive areas designated, especially in Alaska.  In 1935, both were founding members of The Wilderness Society.

The Forest Service finally began to strengthen its wilderness regulations when the National Park Service acquired many of their backcountry areas for new or additions to the National Parks, as they did for the establishment of Olympic and Kings Canyon National Parks.   Thus the Forest Service began to re-evaluate the areas it had set aside in the 1920s and 30s, redesignating them as either “wilderness” (if 100,000 acres or larger) or “wild” areas (if smaller). Oregon had four primitive areas designated: the Eagle Cap and Mountain Lakes areas were designated in 1930 and re-designated as wilderness in 1940. The Three Sisters was designated in 1937 and re-designated wilderness in 1957. Mount Jefferson was designated in 1940, Mt. Hood in 1940, Strawberry Mountain in 1942, Gearhart Mountain in 1943, Kalmiopsis in 1946 and Diamond Peak and Mount Washington in 1957.

Three Sisters Primitive Area and French Pete

Marshall made one significant contribution to the Three Sisters Primitive area.  He recommended the addition of about 53,000 acres of low-elevation old growth forest west of Horse Creek, which also included the valley along “French Pete Creek.”  In the early 1950’s, logging companies sought to get such timbered areas removed from various primitive areas. This happened across the West, but the most significant example was when the Forest Service, in 1957, removed the 53,000 acres recommended by Bob Marshall on the west side of the Three Sisters Primitive Area.  The removal was made despite strong citizen objections and that of the entire Oregon congressional delegation, led by Senators Wayne Morse and Richard Neuberger.  In return, the Forest Service designated the Mount Washington Wilderness and the Diamond Peak Wild Area.

However, these two high-elevation non-timbered designations did not placate the conservation community and led to an unrelenting 20-year lobbying campaign to “Save French Pete.” At a time when there was no formal appeals process to protest road projects and timber sales or requirement for an Environmental Impact Statement, the Friends of the Three Sisters and the few local members of the Sierra Club nonetheless were able to block efforts by the Forest Service to develop the area.  After the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, Senator Bob Packwood and Eugene Congressman Jim Weaver introduced bills to add the French Pete area to the wilderness system. This further impeded Forest Service attempts to develop the French Pete area.  Finally, after increased citizen support including protest marches outside the forest supervisor’s office in Eugene to stop the proposed logging of the area, and the critical support from Senator Packwood and Congressman Weaver, 45,400 acres of these west-side old-growth forests including French Pete Creek were restored to the Three Sisters Wilderness as part of the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978.

The deletion of the French Pete area from the Three Sisters Primitive Area as well as a proposed dam in the Dinosaur National Monument area made clear to the conservation community the need for a national wilderness system established by Congress and not subject to removal or development by the Forest Service or National Park Service.  What the agencies could designate, they could also remove, as the deletion of the forested lands from the Three Sisters Primitive Area demonstrated.  Thus the stage was set for the campaign to pass a wilderness act to establish a national wilderness system that could provide more permanent protection.

The Wilderness Act Emerges – Accommodation and Compromise

The Wilderness Act took eight years, between 1956 and 1964, to move through the legislative process and become law. Because it faced the united opposition of the mining, grazing and timber interests as well as, initially, the Forest Service and National Park Service, it was a struggle to get the bill approved.

The mastermind and conductor for the campaign was Howard Zahniser, executive director of The Wilderness Society. He quietly and patiently brought skeptics and opponents together, listened to their concerns and then made the adjustments and accommodations needed to build the support and bipartisan coalition for the bill. His closest comrade was David Brower, who became executive director of the Sierra Club in 1954 when Zahniser held the same position with The Wilderness Society.

The passage of the Wilderness Act involved several accommodations and compromises between its proponents and opponents.  One of these was just how much “instant” wilderness would be designated by the bill.  Would it include all or some of the existing wilderness, wild, and primitive areas established by the Forest Service?  The final bill included just the wilderness and wild areas while the primitive areas would be subject to further review and require Congressional approval.  However, the two most significant compromises involved who would have the final authority to designate wilderness areas and just what uses could be permitted within designated areas.

  1. Who Designates:  Conservationists wanted the president to designate wilderness areas based on agency studies and subject to veto by either house of Congress. The opponents of this, primarily the very powerful chairman of the House Interior Committee, Representative Wayne Aspinall of Colorado, considered this an unacceptable abrogation of Congressional authority over the public domain and blocked any bill with this provision.

Compromise:  Conservationists finally yielded to Aspinall’s demand and Congress now has the sole authority to designate or change a wilderness boundary, based either on recommendations from the president on the basis of agency studies, or from local conservation organizations. More often than not, Congress has expanded on presidential and agency recommendations, thanks to broader coalitions of grassroots activists. The expansion of recommended areas by Congress was not possible under the terms of the earlier language, because it only provided for a strictly up-or-down “legislative veto.”

  1. Permitted Uses:  Conservationists wanted to prohibit all roads, mining, grazing, logging and motorized vehicles in wilderness areas. Opponents wanted to permit as many of these as possible.

Compromise:  Motorized vehicles and equipment and other nonconforming activities including grazing are permitted in certain circumstances. Mining claims could still be filed and patented in any wilderness area for 19 years after the passage of the Act – until December 31, 1983.  Further, the president could permit reservoirs, power projects, transmission lines and “other facilities needed in the national interest.”

Legislation involves compromise, and risk is an inherent part of this process. These compromises were not considered major “losses” in the passage of the bill, and as it turned out, none led to any serious problems or undermined the eventual implementation of the Wilderness Act.  All but part of one primitive area, which included the Mount Jefferson Primitive Area, was designated as wilderness in 1964.  Grandfathered uses have been limited, no president has permitted any prohibited uses “in the national interest,” and no mining claims have been perfected in a designated wilderness area.

Finally the biggest concern was that the requirement for Congressional approval of all wilderness areas would significantly limit future designations.  This “defeat” has in fact, turned into “great liberating force in the conservation movement,” because it brought the political decisions that federal agencies and departments make behind closed doors into the open and the more transparent legislative arena more open to citizen influence.  Zahniser and Brower were aware that this change would force the wilderness movement to decentralize and lead to a far more effective grassroots movement that has been the real secret to the success of the growing wilderness system.  As we all know, local wilderness groups have been essential to the major additions that have been made to the wilderness system since 1964.

Wilderness Since 1964

The passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 gave Oregon nine areas with about 663,000 acres, including all the previously administratively designated wilderness and wild areas mentioned earlier.

Since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, Oregon has gained 38 new wilderness areas and significant additions to the original ones.  Oregon now has a total of 47 areas with about 2.4 million acres.  The first addition was the only remaining Primitive Area around Mount Jefferson not designated in 1964.  It was designated by Congress (and expanded over the Forest Service proposal) in 1968 with about 100,000 acres.

During the 1970s, several additional areas were established.  These included the small but significant Oregon Islands and Three Arch Rocks areas and an area within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.  Finally, the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978 restored French Pete Creek to the Three Sisters Wilderness as well as designating the Wenaha-Tucannon and Wild Rogue areas.

As the 1970’s ended, there were continuing attempts by conservationists and Oregon’s Congressional delegation to develop and pass a comprehensive wilderness bill.  There was hope that the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE) process would provide the information needed to develop and finalize a bill.  But the RARE process proved to be deeply flawed and biased against wilderness designations, conservationists had disagreements about which areas should be designated, and Oregon’s senators and representatives also could not reach consensus.  The key negotiations were between Senator Mark Hatfield (representing timber interests) and Congressman Jim Weaver (Oregon’s wilderness champion).  When the dust settled, the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984 (PL 98-328) was approved and made many significant additions to the wilderness system in Oregon.  It added 24 new areas and additions to seven existing areas for about 716,000 acres of new wilderness.

There is not space to tell the entire story of the 1984 additions, but it was a very controversial bill both with the traditional opponents of new wilderness areas and within the conservation community over strategy.  Despite disagreements, unity was maintained to support a strong bill.  Senator Hatfield hoped that this bill would end the long debate over wilderness in Oregon, but as we know, this has not been the case nor should it be.  The 1984 bill did not include all the areas that wilderness advocates wanted but additions in future years have been made to address many of these deficiencies.  Later areas have been approved at Opal Creek (96), Steens Mountain (2000) and the latest additions were made in 2009 when seven new areas were added.  No doubt future additions will also be made as every Congress has the ability to add to the National Wilderness System.  As John Muir said in 1895, the campaign for wilderness is “eternal” and “we cannot expect to see the end of it.”

Wilderness Forever

Nationally, and especially in Oregon, we have been blessed with lovers and advocates for wilderness.  As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we should be thankful for all those leaders and the individual citizens who campaigned to protect the wilderness areas they loved.  Supporters like John Muir, Judge Waldo, William Steel, Bob Marshall and Jim Weaver (to name but a few) have led the eternal battle to protect and defend the wilderness.  Supported by thousands Oregon citizens, they all had the will to stand up for the protection of the forests and wilderness areas they loved, and for this we should all be very thankful.

They left to us a great natural legacy.  Our ability to carry on to protect the remaining wilderness is possible only because of their visionary and tireless efforts.  We can safely say that the Wilderness Act has been successful.  We started with a wide-open public domain and some forest reserves that evolved into our national forests and one national park.  Nine administratively designated primitive and wild areas led to the current wilderness system with 47 distinct areas throughout the state.  And we are not done yet.

The Oregon Chapter’s successful campaign for SB 602 to keep motorboats and seaplanes off Waldo Lake as well as its new campaign to “Keep Waldo Wild” is an additional opportunity to further protect additional areas.  The Sierra Club in Oregon as well as many other wilderness groups, such as Oregon Wild, have never wearied in this work, and it is great to see the enthusiasm and strength that continues to be brought to these conservation campaigns.

Howard Zahniser spoke to the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Conference in 1961 and set forth for all time the task before wilderness advocates:

“We should never lose heart.  We are engaged in an effort that may well be expected to continue until its right consummation by our successors if need be.  Working to preserve in perpetuity is a great inspiration.  We are not fighting a rear-guard action, we are facing a frontier.  We are not slowing down a force that inevitably will destroy all the wilderness there is.  We are generating another force, never to be wholly spent, that, renewed generation after generation will be always effective in preserving wilderness.  We are not fighting progress.  We are making it.  We are not dealing with a vanishing wilderness.  We are working for a wilderness forever.”

Throughout 2014, let’s celebrate this rich history and draw on its lessons as we work to see the proven effectiveness of the Wilderness Act extended to more of Oregon’s mountains, forests and desert areas.  The history and anniversary of the Wilderness Act is not to be found in books or articles like this but rather in the wilderness that has been protected and that we hope will remain forever.

*The author wishes to thank Doug Scott, Larry Williams, Brock Evans, Jim Blomquist and Mike McCloskey for their helpful comments and suggestions.

For more information on the content of this post view this: Wilderness Resources

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