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The Golden Anniversary for Wilderness in America

September 2, 2014

This is the first part of a three-part series on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Read Part II here and Part III here.

GOAT ROCKS WILDERNESS, Wash. — After two days of walking, Andy Wunder and Sivan Goobich are miles away from the nearest road or cell phone signal. They’ve been getting their drinking water from streams and lugging their food, clothes and gear in 40-pound loads on their backs.

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

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

He and Goobich are perched atop a rocky ridge nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. They’re heating up a pot of split-pea soup for lunch while they talk about where to make camp for the night.

Should they find an open spot to camp under the brilliant stars of a night sky free of light pollution? Or drop a bit lower, to a subalpine lake with trees for stringing up their hammock?

Such are the choices pondered by thousands of people who venture into the Goat Rocks Wilderness each year. It’s one of the original wilderness areas established in 1964 under the Wilderness Act.

Sivan Goobich and Andy Wunder.

Fifty years later, wilderness has proven to be an attractive destination for countless people – so attractive that one of the challenges of the law is to maintain wilderness areas as both destinations for people and as fragile ecosystems that should be left untrammeled by those two-legged visitors.

Don Squires has made countless trips into the Goat Rocks 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.

“And then we would take a pry bar and we’d roll the rocks down the hill,” he recalled.

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.

Don 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 and horses,” he said.

Squires says that solitude has been harder to come by in the Goat Rocks since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Squires said he doesn’t think the Wilderness Act is the only reason wilderness has become such a popular place for human visitors.

Technology has been a big factor, too. Squires gives an example: the heavy canvas-and-wood “Trapper Nelson” packs he first used 60 years ago have been replaced by lightweight packs with composite metal frames, water-resistant fabrics and built-in hydration systems.

The designation of a series of wilderness preserves came at a time when outdoor recreation was attracting more and more harried city-dwelling office workers.

Goat Rocks Primitive Area in 1948
Vintage map of the Goat Rocks from
the 1930s, when it was designated as
a ‘primitive area.’ Courtesy of the
White Pass Country Museum.

The law’s passage set aside the first 9 million acres of wilderness, including the Goat Rocks, Mount Adams and Glacier Peak in Washington, Mount Hood, Eagle Cap and the Three Sisters in Oregon, and Selway-Bitterroot in Idaho. The law defined wilderness as places that “are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”And it set strict limits on what people could and couldn’t do. No roads. No motorized vehicles. No mechanized equipment like chainsaws.

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,” Johnson said.

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.

“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,” she said.

Andrea Durham

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 200 people on the Snowgrass Flats Trail, one of the most popular routes in the Goat Rocks, on on a single weekend day during the summer.

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. Most of those laws authorize regulators to issue permits to businesses and governments to pollute the water and air and to fill in wetlands for development. The permitting approach comes with safeguards, such as limits or outright bans on certain types of pollution and requirements to mitigate the environmental damage by putting money into restoration or mitigation projects.

Listen to an audio report from the Goat Rocks:

The Wilderness Act is different — which, Wood said, is why it works.

“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,” Wood said.

Back on Goat Ridge, hiker Sivan Goobich couldn’t really say whether a federal law is a reason the Goat Rocks have been such a great backpacking destination, with its abundance of steep wildflower meadows and views of volcanic peaks like Mount Adams and Mount Rainier.

But she quickly added, “I’m very happy that if it’s doing things like making this stick around, then I think it’s a great thing.

Featured Image Credit: David Steves



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