The Wilderness Act that established the National Wilderness Preservation System owes much to Zahniser’s organizational and political skills and his remarkable persistence in drafting a series of bills and building sufficient public and political support to survive the legislative gauntlet. Efforts on behalf of the legislation began seriously in 1956, following a successful movement to halt the Echo Park Dam project. In that year, the Wilderness Society proposed the first bill introduced in Congress to create national wilderness areas. In all, members of Congress introduced some sixty-five bills on wilderness areas in the eight years from 1956 through 1964, and they held more than a dozen hearings on the proposals, both in Washington and around the nation. Those hearings generated some sixteen thousand pages of testimony.
The core idea behind this legislation was to develop a coherent national framework for identifying and preserving wilderness areas rather than to persist with a case-by-case reactive battle over particular tracts of land facing imminent threat of development. As admirable as that goal is, inevitably the legislation sparked intense opposition from economic sectors that sought to maintain full access to nearly all public lands.
|(from Denver Public Library)|
According to the Wilderness Society, even as his health was failing, Zahniser tirelessly rewrote many drafts of the Wilderness Act, and he was instrumental in moving the bill along throughout the hearings and legislative deliberations. His writing and his keen political skills helped to overcome efforts to defeat the bill or severely limit its reach that came from timber, mining, and ranching interests, and from a growing outdoor recreation industry that sought greater use of public lands for recreation.
Zahniser died just months before the wilderness bill was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in September 1964. With initial protection extended to 9 million acres of public lands, the act now protects over 109 million acres of wilderness. Moreover, its success in Congress set the stage for one of the most productive periods ever for environmental legislation. That ran from the late 1960s through the 1970s when Congress approved nearly all of the nation’s major laws on environmental protection and natural resource conservation.