There are any number of books, booklets, and articles about Wilderness Areas in the United States, but little has been written about the history of how designated Wilderness Areas have grown in number of areas and in total acreage from 1924 to today. To wit, many conservationists know that New Mexico’s Gila was the first such area set aside in the United States. But how many know the second, third, and fourth areas chosen for their wilderness character?
I offer here a quick look at how designated Wilderness has grown from 750,000 acres in 1924 to 112 million acres in 2015. For wilderness nerds, the background tables give some details not before offered this way.
1924. Wilderness protection began in this year when Aldo Leopold wrote a careful proposal grounded in his knowledge of the land and then talked Southwest Regional Forester Frank Pooler into setting aside about 750,000 acres of the headwaters of the Gila River as the first Wilderness Area on the U.S. public lands. Leopold and other old-time forest rangers were worried about the boom in “motor-car” tourism and camping in the backcountry and feared that soon there would be few areas without “Ford dust.” Most of all, Leopold wanted to keep quality hunting and fishing areas free of roads and motor-cars—so wayfarers would have to rely on their own frontier skills such as building campfires, handling a pack train of mules, and setting up tent camps.
In the ninety years since 1924, the Wilderness System has grown more than a hundred-fold. This tale is told in the five tables alongside this Campfire. Please look at them as you read. They show how the Wilderness System has grown, first as a Forest Service administrative program and then as the congressionally overseen National Wilderness Preservation System.
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