Wilderness Act signed into law 35 years ago today
Today is the 35th anniversary of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area and the 35th anniversary of the Wilderness Act itself.
The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is one of the original wilderness areas made official when Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act on Sept. 3, 1964. The original bill established 9.1 million acres of federally protected wilderness in national forests.
Under the Wilderness Act, wilderness was defined as “an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence … which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”
Connie Harvey, still a member of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, lobbied Colorado’s congressional delegation to pass the Act in 1964.
“There was a lot of public sentiment for it in Aspen,” Harvey recalls. “We rallied a lot of people to write letters.” She said hundreds of letters were written by Aspenites in support of the bill.
Locals volunteered to help map logical borders for the wilderness, Harvey said, poring over topographical maps and walking parts of the land to ensure the wilderness was roadless. Two who worked on the mapping project were Jack DePagter and Fred Braun. Joy Caudill and Jim Ward were part of the effort, too, Harvey said.
“With the passage of time,” Harvey said, “all these other places in our neighborhood became wilderness.” The Flat Tops Wilderness, the second largest in the state, was declared in 1975. The Hunter-Fryingpan became wilderness in 1978, and the Collegiate Peaks in 1980.
Of the 256,000 acres of White River National Forest land administered by the Aspen Ranger District, 63 percent is wilderness, in three areas: the 163,000-acre Maroon Bells-Snowmass, the 82,000-acre Hunter-Fryingpan and 35,000 acres of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.
The White River National Forest, which surrounds Aspen, is 33 percent wilderness, encompassing eight wilderness areas all together. The Flat Tops, at 196,000 acres is north of Glenwood Springs. The Holy Cross, south of Vail, encompasses 114,000 acres. The Eagle’s Nest, with 133,000 acres, includes the Gore Range northeast of Vail. The Raggeds Wilderness, south of the Maroon Bells, and Ptarmigan Peak, in Summit County, spill into other National Forests.
According to the Wilderness Society, 104 million acres are now designated as wilderness nationally.
Nearly all the wilderness in Colorado is National Forest land. But in recent years proposals have arisen in Congress to establish wilderness areas on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The most recent of those has been proposed by Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Denver.
DeGette’s bill calls for the designation of 49 wilderness areas totaling 1.4 million acres in all. Bureau of Land Management land in the proposal covers 1.1 million acres. Nearly all the remaining 300,000 acres is National Forest land. The Aspen Wilderness Workshop has thrown its support behind DeGette’s bill.
“We’re still plugging away,” Connie Harvey said.
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