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Spirits of the Wilderness: The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act

Boundary of the San Gabriel Wilderness on Three Points trail | Photo: Daniel Medina
Boundary of the San Gabriel Wilderness on Three Points trail | Photo: Daniel Medina

"Sound the timbrel," wrote John Muir long ago, but his words ring true today, for this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act. My husband Farley and I will celebrate at events locally or vicariously across the country. In a larger sense, however, the anniversary gives us occasion to think about the Act's impact on the nearby wilderness areas -- and indirectly on us.

The Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which immediately preserved more than nine million acres of wilderness -- wilderness that protects plant and wildlife habitat, watershed, and pristine landscape; wilderness that gives us places for spiritual renewal, places for sustainable recreation, and places just to know they are there.

Howard Zahniser, a founding member of The Wilderness Society, wrote the Act's first draft, then spent eight years working through some 66 versions and endless Congressional hearings. (Sadly he died just two months before the bill was signed.)

Zahniser's words resound today: "... to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." Significantly, Zahniser included a process for all of us, working with Congress, to add wilderness designations, and today almost 110 million acres are protected.

When President Johnson signed this signature bill in 1964, we were in graduate school at Iowa State University and oblivious to its significance. Yet even then, mountains held an allure. I yearned for them as a flatlander from the Midwest, while Farley grew up near them in Denver. After graduating in 1968, we moved to Rancho Cucamonga where the Wilderness Act had already established the nearby San Gabriel and Cucamonga Wilderness areas in the Angeles National Forest, as well as the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Wilderness Areas in the San Bernardino National Forest. Without realizing the Act's role for at least 30 or more years, we hiked and backpacked most often in our local mountains' wilderness areas. Our vacations often centered in the wilderness areas of national parks or more distant mountains, particularly the Sierras and Rockies.

Rising above the skyscrapers of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Mountains call out to area residents and visitors alike. The 10,064-foot Mt. San Antonio, better known as Mt. Baldy, dominates the scene as the tallest peak in the San Gabriels, especially when seen on a clear day from Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. | Photo: Farley Olander

Coming home though, Cucamonga Peak looms up right outside our front door. Its peak, and the face we see, are within designated wilderness. Our youngest son, who now lives in Seattle, grew up from birth with that view. And even though he's hiked to the 8,859-foot summit, he says it's important to look up and just know that the mountain is there.

Flash forward to May, 2000. At a Sacramento wilderness conference sponsored by the California Wilderness Coalition, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Friends of the River, people from across the state were meeting to preserve California's remaining wilderness.

But I had dragged my feet about going with Farley, then-chairman of our local Sierra Club group, because I expected it to be a boring weekend.

Instead, it was exhilarating.

I felt the spirit of the Wilderness Act and its early champions like Zahniser. In a small group setting, an aged but dynamic David Brower spoke of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley. He challenged us to persevere, as in his book, "Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run," which he autographed for me.

With a fast-moving pace, notable speakers encouraged us to listen and learn. They inspired us with success stories about recent wilderness designations.

On the last day, keynote speaker Christopher Arthur limped to the podium, and I wondered what he could know about wilderness. When he finished speaking, however, I jumped to my feet along with the some 700 other clapping attendees. A longtime congressional environmental aide, Arthur said that he cannot physically ever see most wilderness areas. Yet he spoke passionately about the idea of wilderness and "its ability to lift us out of the daily drudgery we all experience."

"It's up to us," he said, "to let people know the wonder that wilderness can bring into (our) lives. ... It's up to us to bring their love back -- and ours too."

Flying home, his words kept spinning in my mind. They inspired us to work for wilderness additions near us, and also planted the seed for our photo-essay book, "Call of the Mountains, the Beauty and Legacy of Southern California's San Jacinto, San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains."

We also joined others in the California Wild Heritage Campaign to build support for legislation to protect wilderness areas statewide. Several people gathered in our home and spread out maps to locate roadless areas qualifying for additions to the Sheep Mountain and Cucamonga Wilderness areas.

With Pine Mountain rising beyond, this sign marks entry into the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, created by the California Wilderness Act of 1984. A proposed addition to this wilderness would add an area north of the Mt. Baldy Ridge. Part of the territory provides summer range and migration routes for bighorn sheep. | Photo: Farley Olander

With our photo-pamphlets we set about approaching people to write letters, requesting Senator Barbara Boxer to include protection of qualifying wild areas and wild and scenic rivers near us in a wilderness bill. I liked group settings, sometimes in friends' homes, but always where we could show potential wilderness areas, while also triggering people's memories of their own special wild places.

Support from congressional representatives and city officials helped, too. Bill Alexander, then Rancho Cucamonga's mayor, took a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein while in Washington, D.C. on city business. He was in Feinstein's office, ready to present the letter when 9/11 aborted his mission.

A year later, when Senator Barbara Boxer introduced the California Wild Heritage Act of 2002, we celebrated with our new mountain-loving friends. We also started working on "Call of the Mountains."

We thought we knew our scenic range, but the next 18 months were an invigorating wake-up call, not just discovering new wild spots of beauty, but meeting and interviewing countless people -- volunteers, forest-service employees, teachers, hikers, and all manner of nature lovers. This stream of people seemed to embody the Wilderness Act spirit and I kept thinking of John Muir's words: "If enough of us go among spirits of this wilderness ... we need not despair. For what we learn to so love, we shall never allow to be destroyed."

School groups heartened us too, such as Glendora fifth-graders learning about water quality at the San Gabriel Canyon Environmental Education Center. Some of these children might be tomorrow's wilderness advocates.

Fifth-graders from Sutherland Elementary School, Glendora, are testing water quality samples from this little stream near the San Gabriel Canyon Environmental Education Center. | Photo: Farley Olander
Fifth-graders from Sutherland Elementary School, Glendora, are testing water quality samples from this little stream near the San Gabriel Canyon Environmental Education Center. | Photo: Farley Olander

Soon after "Call of the Mountain's" publication, we began giving narrated slide-show presentations, spotlighting our mountains' beauty and the people who care. We closed by reminding our audiences that if they contact legislators and care enough to make a difference today, our children's children will be able to hear the mountain's call tomorrow.

But the process takes patience, sometimes years.

Although Boxer's 2002 bill died in Congress, she updated and reintroduced it a year later, and again in 2007 with then-Rep. Hilda Solis. Parts of the original bill did become law, adding wilderness, which includes significant acreage along the Northern California coastline. In Southern California, the long effort continues in the Angeles National Forest for additions to three wilderness areas and creating two new ones.

Years of efforts do pay off.

Our last victory in the Angeles Forest was Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon's legislation to establish the Magic Mountain and Pleasant View Ridge Wildernesses, which was passed in 2009.

Today, the San Gabriel Mountains Forever coalition keeps the Wilderness Act's legacy alive. In 2011, the coalition encouraged us to attend a hearing and comment on a National Park Service draft that would guide planning of the San Gabriel Mountains and Rivers. Hearing the presentation and comments afterward reinforced our belief in the need for a San Gabriel National Recreation Area managed cooperatively with the Forest Service and the National Park Service -- and one which includes the mountains as well as the urban foothills and lower river areas.

These teenagers are picking up debris from the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. Organized as a Scout project by Kayla Chang, then 15, the group gathered 17 bags of trash during one morning's work. | Photo: Farley Olander
These teenagers are picking up debris from the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. Organized as a Scout project by Kayla Chang, then 15, the group gathered 17 bags of trash during one morning's work. | Photo: Farley Olander

Most of the San Gabriels are within the Angeles National Forest, an amazing natural resource with beautiful scenery and critical habitat for endangered or sensitive plants and animals. It also gives us precious gifts: recreation for millions of visitors, one third of Los Angeles County's drinking water and 70 percent of the county's open space.

Farley and I are among the 17 million people living within an hour's drive of the San Gabriels, and we think a national recreation area with more visitor services, rangers, and trail maintenance would be a gift to our region, especially if the mountains are included in that plan.

Such a recreation area would appeal to more people, who could experience the wonders of wilderness and feel a connection to help protect what they love. Which brings us full circle to the Wilderness Act and its 50th Anniversary.

I believe that early wilderness advocates like Zahniser would be pleased that in the San Gabriel Mountains we are still building on his Wilderness Act legacy. His words ring out for us today: "The wilderness that has come to us from the eternity of the past we have the boldness to project into the eternity of the future."

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