The Wilderness Act at 50

Wilderness is a place where man does not remain.

This is how the Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness 50 years ago. But while the act calls for man to leave America’s still wild places, wilderness areas haven’t left the sphere of public debate in Montana, where there are 16 designated wilderness areas, including the Absaroka-Beartooth, one of the country’s largest. Montana’s wilderness areas cover 3.5 million acres.

 “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” the Wilderness Act reads.

The Wilderness Act, authored by Howard Zahniser, turned 50 this week. And while activists say it remains one of the greatest pieces of legislation ever enacted, there are many questions about what the next 50 years will hold for wild places. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, like other areas in the country, is seeing the increased effects of human activity. The philosophical and ideological challenges to managing wilderness are felt keenly here and present particular challenges in the heavily-used areas of the AB.  

Despite the challenges, activists see the AB as hallowed ground, as a landscape that is essential for our survival in Montana.

“The wilderness areas of Montana are the most valuable resource we have,” said Paradise Valley writer and activist Doug Peacock. “I’m beginning to see wilderness not as a luxury or a privilege but as an absolute necessity. Wilderness has always been the ultimate habitat for humans. We are going to need that at the end of the century, at the end of the decade.”


AB Wilderness history

Congress designated the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in 1978. It comprises 943,648 acres in Montana and 23,283 acres in Wyoming, according to The Beartooth Range, which contains many peaks that rise to 12,000, is so named because at least one of the peaks resembles a bear’s tooth. Absaroka is the name Crow Indians called themselves.

 The AB was designated wilderness in 1978 thanks to the efforts of one Livingston man, Bob Anderson, who worked tirelessly to survey the land. Anderson authored the report that convinced Congress to designate the AB with one boundary instead of as three units, as was originally proposed. Anderson died last October in a car crash in Tanzania.

“Thirty years later, my lust for exploring the Beartooth has yet to subside,” Anderson wrote in a book he authored about the AB. “Oh, sometimes I worry that I might someday go everywhere and lose the intrigue of the unknown. But, after each trip, I return with a wish list of secret places to visit next year. The ultimate solitude. The unscaled exposures. The undiscovered lake with lunkers with my name on them. The endless summer.”


Physical challenges 

The management of the Absaroka-Beartooth falls on the shoulders of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency that has faced steadily declining budgets for the past 10 years. Locally, staff has been cut and the agency has continued to consolidate operations, so that the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, which stretches to North Dakota, is now managed as one unit. 


Pine Creek in Paradise Valley is pictured Sunday. U.S. Forest Service Rangers say high day-use areas like the Pine Creek Falls trail are experiencing the most physical effects of human activity. 


Local forest managers say they must now cope with increased human impacts on the landscape with fewer resources. Since an ever-greater portion of the Forest Service’s budget is allocated for firefighting each year, dealing with physical challenges on the landscape has become more difficult, said Alex Sienkiewicz, Yellowstone Ranger District ranger. 

Sienkiewicz said challenges in the AB include trail erosion, especially in high-use areas like Pine Creek, where people cut switchbacks and bushwhack. Additionally, a host of invasive weeds have sprung up in the wilderness, including knapweed, Scotch thistle, leafy spurge, hound’s tongue and others. 

Trash, campsites and human defecation near water bodies is affecting water quality and aquatic species in some parts of the AB. But the single most pressing physical challenge to wilderness in our area is climate change and its associated effects, like bark beetle infestations and white bark pine die off, Sienkiewicz said.

“There’s no such thing as a truly pristine wilderness because human impacts are universal,” he said. “Our carbon emissions are mobile.”

Peacock said he also believes climate change is the biggest physical challenge facing wilderness in Montana.

“Global warming is not a slowly evolving phenomenon,” he said. “It’s a slam-banging phenomenon. Things are evolving fast. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the land was rugged and remote enough to take care of itself. That’s not true today. Human effects are everywhere.” 

The Forest Service is increasingly turning to volunteer organizations to help manage issues on the landscape. Locally, the Absaroka-Beartooth Foundation has been conducting weed control, trail maintenance and wildlife surveys with volunteers since 2011, said Steve Caldwell, a former Livingston city commissioner who is a member of the foundation’s board. 


U.S. Forest Service Rangers say coping with invasive species like knapweed in the Abasorka-Beartooth Wilderness has become increasingly difficult with contracting budgets. 


“There’s been a long series of budget cuts,” Caldwell said. “A lot higher percentage of their budget has been directed to fire management. That leaves a lot fewer resources available for weed management, for trail management, for things that aren’t fire related. We saw the need to bring citizen efforts to the table and help with some of the things the Forest Service doesn’t really have the resources to handle.”

Although the most recent visitor use monitoring study hasn’t yet been completed for the Custer-Gallatin, Kimberly Schlenker, wilderness and recreation program manager, said preliminary results and anecdotal information show that use of wilderness areas has climbed in the last five to 10 years, especially on day-use trails that are an hour or less drive away from urban centers like Bozeman and Livingston. 

Increased use leads to a loss of solitude, Schlenker said.

“One of the tangible impacts of more use is the loss of opportunities for solitude, which is one of the things the Wilderness Act compels us to maintain,” she said. “But there are certainly also hundred of thousands of untrammeled areas where a person can still go to find solitude. It’s the heavy use, day-use corridors where we are seeing increased use.”

Increased use leads to a conundrum for forest managers, who are also compelled to minimize human impacts in wilderness areas.

“We want to encourage people to get out and enjoy wilderness,” Schlenker said. “We need to develop the love of wilderness in young people. But it’s a difficult challenge to determine when we have crossed the magic threshold of use.” 

Sienkiewicz qualifies the challenge this way: “There’s always the risk of loving a place to death.”

“Managing it is not as simple as one would imagine,” Sienkiewicz said. “A place as beautiful as the AB every year with growth in human populations and greater development becomes increasingly rare and grows in popularity.”

Peacock said he intentionally visits his favorite places in the AB only rarely. He believes an ethical and moral appreciation of wilderness involves exercising restraint.

“The point of wilderness is not to experience it or exploit it,” he said. “The point is to defend it.” 

The commercialization of recreational activities like hiking, mountain biking, backpacking and other sports for which one can buy thousands of dollars in gear at REI is a drastic change from the 1960s and ’70s, when he first starting hiking and camping here, Peacock said. 

The outdoor recreation industry and those, like “Outside Magazine,” who have become mouthpieces of its ethics also threaten wilderness, Peacock said.

“Recreation isn’t a good enough reason to go into the wilderness,” he said. “People’s engagement with the land is so limited by the toys they ride or pedal … The value of wilderness goes deeper and includes the rights of other things, like grizzly bears and buffalo and the other plants and animals that live there.”


Philosophical challenges

There’s long been a disconnect between people’s idea of wilderness and the on-the-ground realities. 

Park County Commissioner Jim Durgan, at a meeting with landowners in the Paradise Valley last week, summarized the disconnect this way: “A lot of times we are controlled by a small minority of people who don’t know anything about actually being on the land,” he said. “All they see in their narrow view is a landscape they think is pristine, but that’s bunk.” 

In “The Trouble with Wilderness or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” the ecocritic William Cronon called on environmentalists, forest managers and others to rethink the idea of wilderness. 

“The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems,” Cronon wrote. “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation … It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead it’s a product of that civilization.”

In the essay, Cronon explains that he, like other activists, celebrates the wildness, beauty and power of the things wilderness contains, but that a concept of wilderness that excludes humans is inherently problematic.

To many activists, this argument sounds troublingly similar to the arguments of those who would like to see no more wilderness designated or to those who would like to see the current wildernesses abolished.  Recent calls from Montana legislators for the state of Montana to take over the management of federal lands has worried wilderness activists. 

Montana Rep. Alan Redfield, who represents part of Park County, said that idea has nothing to do with wilderness and would leave wilderness areas intact. He also said he doesn’t support designating new wildernesses in Montana because, in those areas, tourism would become the primary economic activity, limiting other, better opportunities like oil and gas exploration.

“We don’t want to eliminate wilderness,” Redfield said. “We just don’t think we need to add any more.”

Oil and gas exploration is creeping ever closer to the AB, especially in the Red Lodge area. And while such activities aren’t permitted in wilderness areas, some activists and forest mangers question whether hydraulic fracking on the fringes of the AB will have adverse effects, such as impacts to water quality and increased road traffic.

“There are wells literally within a few miles of wilderness boundaries,” said David Kellenbach, president of the AB Foundation. “There are aesthetic impacts of being so close to the wilderness and having this potential industrial complex right there.”

Because of the pressures of development, wilderness, even if it’s a slightly flawed concept, needs to be maintained, activists and forest managers say. 

“It’s aspirational,” Sienkiewicz said. “Wilderness is a value to which we aspire. If you are taking it really literally then, yes, it doesn’t truly exist. But as a government and a people we aspire to do a lot of things. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to maintain or create lands and places that are as close to natural as possible for the spiritual reasons, the ecological reasons and the religious reasons.”


Natalie Storey may be reached at