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A half century of The Wilderness Act

Fifty years ago The Wilderness Act was signed into law, establishing wilderness areas in a number of states, particularly in the West, creating a uniquely American concept.

That is wild lands preserved in their original state, yet open to hiking, backpacking, horse-riding, hunting, fishing and camping. No motorized travel has been allowed in roadless wilderness areas, including mountain bikes.

The Forest Service, the agency that administers most wilderness areas, simply says, “That’s the rule.” That’s the same answer they give when asked why a person can shoot still photographs in a wilderness area, but is not allowed to do commercial filming. “That’s the rule.”

In any event, there are 16 wilderness areas in Montana, 15 in Wyoming, and three in North Dakota — the three states where I have spent most of my life.

In North Dakota the Chase Lake Wilderness Area in the central part of the state, and the Lostwood Wilderness Area in the northwest are administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The areas are about 4,500 and 5,500 acres, respectively. North Dakota’s third wilderness area is the Teddy Roosevelt Wilderness Area, created by an act of Congress in 1978 and comprising about one third of Teddy Roosevelt National Park. This wilderness area is almost 30,000 acres in size and is administered by the U.S. Park Service.

Some of my finest times have been spent in wilderness areas, particularly in Wyoming and Montana. When I was in my prime I often would load up a backpack and set off alone with map and compass to guide my way. It is a wonderful way to see the country as it looked prior to human settlement, and wilderness travel is indeed as close as I have gotten to moving back in time.

Creation of wilderness always has been a controversial issue, though, because some believe wilderness should not exist. A contingent of Republicans in this country not only abhors the notion of wilderness, it dislikes public land in general and wants to turn over federal lands to the states. That, in my opinion, would be a disaster, and a subject for another day.

A spokesman for Citizens for Balanced Use, an organization formed in 2004 to work for multiple use of public lands, declares that “We have enough wilderness.” Kerry White goes on to say, “When you create wilderness, you are creating vast amounts of area for a select few — the young and the healthy. You’re taking opportunity away from the handicapped, the physically challenged and the elderly…”

My reply to that sentiment is that we are all young once, and most of us at some time in our lives are healthy enough to hike up a trail into wilderness. I am 65 years old, disabled and hobble about with a cane or walking staff these days. Yet, I still support the concept of wilderness. I want that relatively tiny part of the U.S. to be preserved for future generations to enjoy. Just because I no longer can enjoy it doesn’t mean wilderness no longer should exist. Also, wilderness protects the quality of watersheds, a point many people choose to ignore.

I looked at the lists of Wyoming and Montana wilderness areas the other day and determined that I had set foot in more than half of Montana’s wilderness areas, and about one-third of those in Wyoming. Several I have been near but have never hiked, backpacked or hunted. I do remember sitting far above timberline at the edge of snowbanks left by last winter’s snow, and the only sounds were those of wind and rushing water.

I appreciate the Democrats and Republicans who came together in 1964 to get the Wilderness Act passed. It is a legacy that should make every American proud.

Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been                                           an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974