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Go Wild: Celebrating the Gila Wilderness Area's 90th Birthday

Looking into the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.
Looking into the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. | Photo: Avelino Maestas/Flickr/Creative Commons License

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, legislation that legalized the wild and defined it as place where we are not: "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 its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

The act's passage owes an enormous amount to the indefatigable Howard Zahniser, executive director of The Wilderness Society. For years, he wrote draft after draft of the bill, lobbied Congress nonstop, spoke before countless public hearings across the country, and published a stream of articles promoting the legislation (his biographer, Mark Harvey, has just brought out a superb collection of Zahniser's essays). That he did not live to see its passage, dying four months before President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law, seems almost biblical in dimension; like Moses, Zahniser glimpsed but did not reach the Promised Land.

The outlines of that sacred ground had been imagined well before Zahniser took up the cause, however. The imagineer-in-chief was Aldo Leopold, who also served as the founding president of The Wilderness Society. He had been responsible of the creation of the Gila Wilderness Area, located within the Gila National Forest, in southwestern New Mexico. A portion of it is now named after Leopold, an honor that seems even more-well deserved this week, for June 3 marks the 90th anniversary of the world's first designated wildland.

The antecedents of its 1924 establishment, at which time Leopold served as the Assistant Regional Forester of the New Mexico-Arizona region in the U.S. Forest Service, date back to the late 'teens. A dedicated forester and devout hunter, Leopold had arrived in the southwest in 1909, naïve about its rugged mountains and arid beauty, its remoteness. The more he trailed through its pine forests, scrambled over rimrock and mesa, and forded crystalline creeks, the more he believed portions of it should be preserved. Learning that Arthur Carhart, the Forest Service's first landscape architect, shared his enthusiasm to stay the hand of development, he sought him out.

The two men met in Colorado in 1919, shortly after Carhart achieved what Leopold then was dreaming about. Assigned to develop a plan for the development of roads into and cabins surrounding Trappers Lake in Colorado's White River National Forest, Carhart took one look at the unsullied high-country site and reported to his supervisor that the best and highest use of the lake and its beguiling environs was no use at all. Strikingly, his advice and plan was accepted, and Trapper's Lake is today considered the "Cradle of Wilderness." So when Leopold came calling, he and Carhart had a meeting of the mind.

From their conversation emerged a set of ideas that eventually became enshrined in the Wilderness Act. Carhart, for example, drafted a memorandum distilling the essence of their shared vision, a perspective driven by a sense of how imperiled these lands were and how democratic their preservation would be. "There is a limit to the number of lakes in existence; there is a limit to the mountainous areas of the world," Carhart affirmed in 1919, and "there are portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made." Such divine terrain, primitive and uncluttered, "of a right should be the property of all people."

Two years later, Leopold published what amounted to a declaration of first principles, and did so in his profession's lead publication, the Journal of Forestry: "By 'wilderness,' I mean a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks' pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man."

Even in the 1920s, not many places would meet all these qualifications, but the upper watershed of the Gila River did. Its typography -- mountain ranges and box canyons -- had isolated it from development, leaving it in a "semi-virgin state," Leopold confirmed in his article. Its relatively pristine character made it perfect for his purposes: The Gila was the "last typical wilderness in the southwestern mountains. Highest use demands its preservation." With the support of Forest Service chief, William B. Greeley, and regional forester Frank Pooler, he submitted a proposal to designate the vast region a wilderness, and to that end on June 3, 1924 the Forest Service set aside 755,000 acres.

For all its virtues, one of this landed legacy's core assumptions, the notion that wilderness is absent of and an antidote to civilization, a place devoid of human impress, must be critiqued. The conceit emerged in the late 19th-century in response to the industrial revolution and rapid urbanization, when writers such as John Muir asserted that the call of the wild, of open space, would be a tonic for those living in cramped, dense cities. This understandable aspiration only makes sense however in the context of other historic forces that had emptied these lands of the people who once lived within them. The Gila wildlands Leopold encountered were absent of people as a direct result of the Mexican-American War and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. To manifest its control over the region, the U.S. Army ultimately defeated the Apache who had made use of the Gila, relocating them to distant reservations.

Even with their forced removal, evidence remained that what would become a "wilderness" had supported complex social life dating back 11,000 years to the Paleoindian peoples who occupied the Gila highlands. And forward in time to include the Cochise and Mogollon cultures that later settled the region. When the latter disappeared sometime in the 13th-century it left behind a built environment that included cliff dwellings and pueblos, and a material culture rich in pottery. The Apaches, who arrived in the 1600s, held this ground for several centuries. To declare this land wild, then, was to erase these people and their ancient histories, an erasure the Gila designation set in motion and that has been replicated wherever wilderness has been proclaimed.

Leopold did not wrestle with this conundrum, though he recognized that wilderness was a social construct and a lived reality. He knew too that its physical presence was in decline. "Wilderness is a resource that can shrink but not grow," he observed in Sand County Almanac. "The creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible," and it follows that "any wilderness program is a rear-guard action, through which retreats are reduced to a minimum." To hold this line required a new form of activist, "a militant minority of wilderness-minded citizens" scattered across the country and who are available "for action at a pinch."

Energizing this avant-garde is also cause for celebration, on this or any other day.

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