As a species we humans are infamous for behavior not conducive to our own long-term well-being. Consider the frequency of wars, the unbridled depletion of earth’s finite resources, and the “me now” attitude of our consumptive society. There are, however, shining examples of far-sightedness in America, even in the halls of Congress. A prime example is the Wilderness Act of 1964.
This law created a way to designate and protect a system of undeveloped lands called “wilderness areas” across the country. It states the places should be “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” It is America’s highest form of land protection as roads, vehicles, and permanent structures are prohibited, as are commercial activities such as mining and logging. Such restrictions should not convey the idea that the areas are unused. Millions of annual visitors hike, camp, hunt and fish on the lands and waters. Today, more than 750 official wilderness areas are found in 44 states and encompass almost 110 million acres.
Detractors claim that too much of the country is tied up in wilderness areas that shackle their ability to exploit natural resources. In fact, just over four percent of the United States is designated wilderness. Cynics ignore very real ecosystem services afforded by wilderness areas such as the protection of watersheds that provide clean drinking water, the filtration of air we breathe, and the protection of wildlife habitat. From an economic perspective, wilderness areas boost local economies with tourism and recreation dollars. For many of us the aesthetic worth of visiting a wilderness area, or just knowing they exist in an otherwise chaotic world, is incalculable.
In Louisiana, most people are unaware of our three official wilderness areas. Congress designated the Breton Wilderness in 1975 comprising 5,000 acres of the Breton and Chandeleur Islands and surrounding waters just east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Critical habitat for thousands of seabirds, they are also frequented by birdwatchers and surf fishermen. Kisatchie Hills Wilderness (1980) encompasses 8,701 acres managed by the Forest Service in the central part of the state. Historic longleaf pine forests with their associated flora and fauna are protected and threaded with popular hiking trails. My favorite is the Lacassine Wilderness (1976), 3,346 acres of pristine freshwater marsh in the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge of southwest Louisiana. I had the privilege of overseeing the area many years ago and to witness the lushness and diversity of nature when untrammeled. It is a relic and example of what was once common. Waterfowl hunters and fishermen still relish their visits.
The Wilderness Act is not invincible. It was created by Congress and can thus be abolished or rendered impotent by that same body. Indeed, like a host of species that depend on it for survival, it has never been more endangered than now. The vision of our current policymakers seems to be dimming. ©KO (photo of Lacassine NWR by USFWS)