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The Wilderness Act Part I: The Legacy Of Wilderness

David Steves

When you consider how long mountains, forests and deserts have been a part of the American landscape, 50 years is the blink of an eye.

But it’s something of a milestone when a law protecting these places turns 50. That’s happening this week.

To kick off our series on Wilderness, David Steves from our EarthFix team hiked into Washington’s Cascade Mountains. He brings us this report on what a half-century of wilderness protection has meant for a place called the Goat Rocks.

Andy Wunder and Sivan Goobich are perched atop on a rocky ridge nearly seven-thousand feet above sea level. They’re heating up a pot of split-pea soup for lunch.

WUNDER: “Where’s the lid for this guy? We’re going to make ourselves a plate.”

Wunder is just back from scouting the area so they can talk about where to make camp for the night.

WUNDER: “Yeah. So I think we either camp down there amongst the trees, because we’ll have such a bowl up here of stars, or we can go down to Goat Lake.”

After two days of hiking, this couple from Berkley, California is miles away from the nearest road or cell phone signal. They’ve been pumping their drinking water from streams. They’ve been carrying their food, clothes and gear in 40-pound loads on their backs.

That’s just what Andy Wunder wants from his wilderness experience.

WUNDER: “For me, wilderness means untouched. Getting away from people. Car camping is great and it’s nice to have a cooler full of cold beers, but nothing can beat being up here.”

Credit David Steves / Earthfix
Don Squires

Don Squires has been making trips into the Goat since 1954, when he was a teen-ager with a summer job building a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Squires and his crew-mates would take cover while explosives blasted into a knife-edged ridgeline where trail was going to be built.

SQUIRES: “And then we would take a pry bar and we’d roll the rocks down the hill.”

By the fall, Squires had rolled tons of rocks off the ridge top and helped complete that section of trail. He went on to a 37-year career with the Forest Service.

One thing Squires remembers about that first summer in Goat Rocks is that he and his fellow trail workers had the entire place to themselves.

SQUIRES: “What we did not see in that summer, ’54, we did not see one person besides the trail crew and the packer that packed us in there on mules on horses.”

Squires says that solitude has been harder to come by in the Goat Rocks since 1964 . That’s the year the Wilderness Act became law. It created the Wilderness Preservation System, nine million acres of wild lands, including the Goat Rocks. The law defined wilderness. And it set strict limits on what people could do. No roads. No motorized vehicles.

Credit David Steves / Earthfix
The high country in Goat Rocks affords many views of Cascade Range volcanoes, including Mount Rainier.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, he marked the event with a ceremony at the White House’s Rose Garden. Johnson didn’t talk about preserving biodiversity or endangered species. Instead, he focused on what it meant for members of his own species.

“This is a very happy and historic occasion for all who love the great American outdoors, and that, needless to say, includes me.”

A half-century later, Andrea Durham sees many happy people enjoying the great outdoors of the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Durham is a Forest Service recreation planner and wilderness manager.

DURHAM: “I know for me when I get in I can feel the weight lifted off and you can see it on people. Everyone is out there just to be in nature.”

And it’s not much of an exaggeration to say EVERYONE.

The number of visitors to Goat Rocks has climbed in recent years. Durham says it’s not unusual to encounter two-hundred people on one popular trail on a weekend.

There’s even been talk of limiting the number of people permitted into the Goat Rocks. That’s something that’s done already by lottery in the Enchantments area of Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Many national parks also limit the number of people who can enter wilderness zones.

Wilderness may be good for people looking to get away from it all.

But what has the Wilderness Act meant for the plants and animals within these preserves?

University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood has made a career of studying the nation’s environmental laws.

WOOD: “Really, the most effective one is probably the Wilderness Act because it's just a boundary based system and it says, conserve the resources within."

Back on Goat Ridge, hiker Sivan Goobich can’t really say whether a federal law is a reason the Goat Rocks have been such a great backpacking destination.

GOOBICH: But I’m very happy that if it’s doing things like making this stick around, then I think it’s a great thing.”

As long as it’s a place with steep wildflower meadows and views of volcanic peaks like Mount Adams, Goobich says she’ll want to keep coming back.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix.

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