Kevin Proescholdt

It’s unfortunate that the two UCLA biologists who blasted the 1964 Wilderness Act in an opinion essay titled, Is the Wilderness Act Still Protecting Nature?, didn’t also research the background and meaning of this vital law before attacking it. Their opinion piece—ironically published on Earth Day—contained profound errors as well as a self-serving myopia with regard to their own desired research activities in designated Wilderness.

Congress passed the 1964 Wilderness Act sixty years ago to “preserv[e] the wilderness character” of an initial National Wilderness Preservation System of 54 areas totaling 9.1 million acres. Today, in a tremendous conservation success story, the Wilderness System has grown to protect over 800 areas totaling over 111 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico, making it America’s most essential law to preserve biodiversity and protect the genetic diversity of thousands plant and animal species, including those that are threatened and endangered.

In fact, America’s National Wilderness Preservation System protects over 150 distinct ecosystem types across the country. In this regard, posing the question, “Is the Wilderness Act Still Protecting Nature?” is absurd and dangerous, even more so considering the world is in the midst of an extinction crisis.

The protections of the Wilderness Act include a ban on logging, mining, roads, buildings, structures and installations, motorized and mechanized equipment and more. The authors of the Wilderness Act sought to save these areas as places “untrammeled” or unmanipulated by modern society, as a refuge for wildlife, and where the ecological and evolutionary forces of Nature can continue to play.

The two UCLA biologists who blasted the Wilderness Act first attacked conservation organizations that have sued the National Park Service (NPS) for its plans to violate the Wilderness Act with logging, burning, and planting of Giant Sequoias within designated Wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California, then assailed the NPS for daring to limit permanent fixed climbing anchors in Yosemite National Park.

They claimed that these national parks are “neither remote nor roadless,” apparently oblivious of the fact that Congress has designated 768,222 acres of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks as Wilderness (over 93 percent of the park), and 704,624 acres of Yosemite National Park as Wilderness (over 94 percent of the park). Yes, the Wilderness Act applies to these national parks, and the conservation groups that the two UCLA biologists attack are merely trying to force the NPS to abide by federal law.

The real crux of the UCLA biologists’ complaints is that they aren’t allowed to violate the Wilderness Act to conduct whatever research they want in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado, and other designated Wildernesses. Wildernesses are not closed to scientific research, of course, but only to those kinds of research projects that damage wilderness character and violate the Wilderness Act.

In this regard, these two UCLA biologists are little different from other interest groups that want to violate or weaken the Wilderness Act for their own personal activities. A handful of mountain bikers have tried to weaken the Wilderness Act in Congress for years to allow their mechanized machines in Wilderness.

Some rock climbers are now pushing Congress via the Protecting America’s Rock Climbing (PARC) Act to allow them to deface wilderness rock faces by pounding in permanent bolts and pitons rather than using only removable climbing protection. Trail runners want exemptions from the ban on commercial trail racing. Drone pilots and hang-gliders want their aircraft exempted from Wilderness Act protections. Recreational pilots want to “bag” challenging landing sites in Wilderness.

The list of those seeking to exempt their activities from the Wilderness Act is long. And now these two UCLA biologists want to damage the wilderness character in designated Wildernesses for their pet research projects.

Rather than weaken the protections that the Wilderness Act provides, what we now need on this 60th anniversary of the Wilderness Act is a reinvigoration of humility and restraint toward Wilderness. Rather than divvying up our priceless wilderness heritage, with a slice of the wilderness pie going to any interest group that believes its own activities should be allowed regardless of the damage to Wilderness or the Wilderness Act, we need to remember that designated Wildernesses have deep values far beyond our human uses of them.

Our species can still visit Wildernesses, of course, but our uses of Wilderness must not degrade the wildness of the area, with all of its intangible values. Scientists can continue to conduct research in Wilderness, but only if they design their research so as to not harm Wilderness.

We must re-learn to practice the humility and restraint toward Wilderness that the architects of the Wilderness Act believed in 60 years ago. Only then can the Wilderness Act—and the Wilderness areas it preserves—survive for another 60 years into the future. That goal will not be accomplished by chopping it up like pieces of a pie.

 Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness preservation organization ( He has studied and worked with the 1964 Wilderness Act since 1974. Among his wilderness publications is Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness which, among other things, tells the story of the only time the 1964 Wilderness Act has been substantively amended.