Sunday, August 24, 2014

The background to the Wilderness Act

The 50th anniversary of the US Wilderness Act of 1964 continues to spark interest. H-Environment recently posted a review by Sarah Mittlefehldt of The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zahniser, edited by Mark Harvey (Univeristy of Washington Press, 2014). Mittlefehldt writes:
These carefully selected writings demonstrate the power of the written word to turn ideals into policy, and ultimately, to turn policy into protected landscapes. Zahniser’s prophetic devotion to wilderness and his strong, skillful prose helped to codify a lofty vision and to successfully navigate a complicated political arena. These linguistic and political acrobatics ultimately yielded the 1964 Wilderness Act, the country’s strongest legal mechanism for protecting wild places.
Several environmental historians have recently explored the impact that public designation has had on people who worked or lived in protected areas like national parks and federal wilderness areas, and although Harvey includes passages in which Zahniser spoke about the need for federal control, one wonders if he had  more to say about the local politics of wilderness designation. From the selections, it is clear that Zahniser believed that local and state officials were more vulnerable to the forces that threatened wilderness, and he frequently invoked the utilitarian language of wilderness being for all to enjoy—including both present and future generations. But what about those who lived in or near protected areas? Although the style and spirit of Zahniser’s writing often echoed that of civil rights advocates in the 1950s and ‘60s (perhaps a reflection of his upbringing as the son and nephew of Free Methodist ministers), his attitudes and thoughts about social justice issues, specifically in regard to federally designated wilderness areas, are left unexplored. Perhaps that is terrain for some future historian. 

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