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At 50 Years, Wilderness Act Working Well for California

PHOTO: As the Wilderness Act of 1964 marks its 50th anniversary this week, efforts remain underway in California to introduce new wilderness legislation, despite an unwilling Congress. Photo credit: Tommy Hough.
PHOTO: As the Wilderness Act of 1964 marks its 50th anniversary this week, efforts remain underway in California to introduce new wilderness legislation, despite an unwilling Congress. Photo credit: Tommy Hough.
September 3, 2014

LOS ANGELES – With the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, wilderness advocates are reflecting on the legislation that created the National Wilderness Preservation System – along with the challenges of maintaining it amid renewed calls for resource extraction and passing new wilderness bills in a gridlocked Congress.

Ryan Henson, senior policy director at the California Wilderness Coalition, says the system of protection and management established by the Wilderness Act continues to function well in California.

"When it passed in 1964, it protected several wilderness areas outright, and then it also established a system that was used in the years since to protect many other places," he says. "Today we have about 14 million acres of wilderness in California."

Almost all of California's 149 wilderness areas are on federal public land managed either by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.

Henson warns that weakening or undoing the Wilderness Act would throw millions of acres of pristine public land into jeopardy by making them vulnerable to resource extraction or destructive recreation.

"It wasn't too many months ago that a congressman in California proposed Yosemite National Park and several wilderness areas be opened to logging," Henson says. "That was just earlier this year."

He adds that it's easy to forget some high-value recreation areas protected by the Wilderness Act once were slated for development.

"There were ski resorts, there were highways, big dams, huge logging projects, mining projects," he says. "All sorts of things that could've spoiled that wild country that today, is available in its wild condition for everyone to go out and enjoy."

Wilderness can only be designated by Congress – and despite resistance to creating new wilderness among some lawmakers, Daniel Rossman, regional associate at the Los Angeles office of The Wilderness Society, says there is legislation ready to go should the political climate change.

"We should take the long view," says Rossman. "Every president since the act of '64 has passed wilderness-protection bills. This current Congress has been a very tough one, but there are places waiting to be protected – the rugged San Gabriel Mountains just outside of Los Angeles to the majestic California desert, to the California coast."

Additional proposals include a bill to expand protection to California condor habitat along the Central Coast and wilderness protection for the Carizzo Plain.

Tommy Hough/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - CA