On a historic day The North Face’s Never Stop Exploring Blog celebrates the 50th Anniversary Wilderness Act

On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. The landmark bill established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), and over the past 50 years Congress has used the act to designate 109.5 million acres of wilderness in 44 states. The North Face ski mountaineer Kit DesLauriers reflects on the conservation bill that ensures that our favorite wild places are permanently protected for future generations.

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There was a time when the wild places in our nation didn’t need protection and preservation. This country was complete wilderness in the sense that it was biologically intact and free from industrial infrastructure.

That era has long since passed, but thankfully plenty of opportunities still remain for us as humans to experience the natural world on its own terms, in a place where man remains a visitor. For this incredible gift, the chance to go out there and really explore ourselves and the land in its primitive state, we should recognize the important work that went into creating designated “Wilderness” — and what better time than today, the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. Its purpose was to “establish a Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people,” and it was bold enough to define “Wilderness” as having “outstanding opportunities for solitude, or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” (among other qualities).

The North Face athletes Kit DesLauriers and Kasha Rigby kick back in the Brooks Range.

Those who worked on that historic document for more than 60 drafts over 8 years nailed it when they cited that increasing population, expanding settlement, and growing mechanization threatened the resource of wilderness. While all those things are measurable, the qualities of wilderness are not so easily given a number. What’s the value of a place where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man”? What’s the value of a place where you and I can walk, or ski, through a pristine landscape the way that humans have for the bulk of our time on this planet?

When I find myself needing a mental recharge, or sometimes an ultimate challenge, I head into the wilderness for a ski or hike or climb. Or if I can’t get there right away, I reflect on the times when I’ve been in those incredibly remote places and how I felt I was a part of something wild and true and oh-so-much-larger than me.

The natural world doesn’t care if you take a wrong turn, get hurt, enjoy yourself, post to your social site, have enough to eat, sleep well, or make the summit. But that rawness is part of the beauty. And I’m not just talking the beauty of those scenic features and abundant wildlife that are wonderful to gaze at from a remote campsite, but also the beauty of the whole experience — to be able to move through the natural world as a part of it, even if we feel inconsequential to it.

Some among us question why we’d encourage others to get out there and enjoy wilderness if it means that more people will do that and possibly degrade its very qualities. Others say they’ll never get to go there so why bother. Is it enough just to know that it’s there? This type of debate, along with the question of how best to manage wilderness, is our responsibility to engage in just as it’s now our gift to have these very places to enjoy.

Today, let’s celebrate that it is  there.

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To mark the 50th anniversary of the Wildness Act, Kit is speaking this evening at 7 p.m. at Davis Concert Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Titled “Finding Adventure in Wild Places,” Kit’s presentation is free to the public. The event is sponsored by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Alaska Alpine Club, and others. For more information visit Alaska Wild 50 on Facebook.