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Celebrating the 39th Anniversary of the Washington Wilderness Act

Posted on Jul 3, 2023 in Conservation News, WA Wild Blog
On July 3, 1984, the unlikely hand of President Ronald Reagan changed the map of Washington State forever. Signed into law 39 years ago today, with the stroke of a pen. the Washington Wilderness Act designated or expanded 23 different Wilderness Areas throughout the state, permanently protecting over 1 million acres. To this day, it remains the most widespread designation of Wilderness areas the state of Washington has ever seen.


How It All Began 

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, a dedicated group of environmentalists growing weary of “a wilderness preservation program made up of a sequence of overlapping emergencies, threats, and defense campaigns” set their sights on establishing a unified, national framework for protecting the wildest places. Polly Dyer, co-founder of the PNW Chapter of the Sierra Club (located in Auburn, WA, the first outside of California), working alongside Howard Zahnsier, Executive Director of The Wilderness Society, are often credited as the architects of the 1964 Wilderness Act. In fact, the definition of Wilderness as written in the act is credited to Dyer and Zahniser. Inspired by Dyer’s prior descriptions of the Olympic Peninsula, Wilderness is defined 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.” 

After eight years of rewrites, 66 resubmissions, 18 public hearings, and 16,000 pages of testimony, the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in October of 1964. It created the National Wilderness Preservation System and immediately placed 54 areas into the system, totaling 9.1 million acres in 13 states. Here in Washington, we gained three new wilderness areas: Goat Rocks, Glacier Peak, and Mount Adams.

The Writing on the Wall
Karen Fant Hiking

WA Wild co-founder, Karen Fant

Over a decade later, at the College Inn Pub in Seattle’s University District in 1979, Karen Fant proposed the concept of the Washington Wilderness Coalition (now WA Wild) to her close friend, Ken Gersten, over drinks. ‘Seeing the writing on the wall’, Fant later explained, “the Washington Wilderness Coalition was formed in directed response to the knowledge that specific organizing in areas adjacent to the major blocks of unprotected roadless land would prove critical when the time came for a Wilderness Bill for Washington to be developed.” 

At the same time, individual House members began to show interest in designating new Wilderness areas. In June, Representatives Joel Pritchard (R-WA01) and Mike Lowry (D-WA07) introduced legislation to designate a 280,000-acre Cougar Lake Wilderness in southwest Washington. The following year, Representative Al Swift (D-WA02) introduced a bill to protect a 51,000-acre Boulder River Wilderness in the Stillaguamish Valley. The bipartisan interest in Wilderness was evident early on, and support only grew as legislation began to take shape. 

“We can act now to save these lands we hold in trust. Silence and solitude have no second chance. Once these lands are developed, they cannot return to their former wild condition for centuries. Gigantic cedars cannot regrow on eroded slopes. Salmon will no spawn in silted rivers. Rare birds will not survive in uniform tree plantations.”
—Part of Rep. Lowry’s testimony during a Congressional hearing regarding Wilderness protections 

Grassroots Organizing Proves Critical

Washington Wilderness Coalition seized the opportunity to mobilize the public to support new Wilderness designations. In May 1981, both House bills received House and Senate hearings to which 18 conservationists from Washington flew out to D.C. to testify. A year later at a separate hearing in Seattle about oil, gas, and mineral leasing in an existing Wilderness area designated in 1964, there was a swell of support for new Wilderness designations. 

In March of 1983, Senators Slade Gordon (R-WA) and Henry M. Jackson (D-WA) introduced legislation to designate 365,000 acres recommended by the U.S. Forest Service with the option to consider adding other roadless areas proposed by conservationists. The bill underwent two Congressional field hearings, one in Seattle and the other in Spokane. These hearings were attended by over 1,200 Wilderness supporters from across the state, and many more submitted written testimony.

Spider Meadows Glacier Peak Wilderness

Photo: Spider Meadows in the Glacier Peaks Wilderness, Andy Porter

At the end of 1983, Representative Lowry introduced the Washington Wilderness and Fisheries Act which sought to protect 1.5 million acres as Wilderness throughout Washington. The bill focused on the advantages of preserving Wilderness for sport, commercial, and tribal fishing by safeguarding unspoiled watersheds and lowland valleys.

“The health of these species [salmon and steelhead] is crucial to maintaining the fisheries economy of Washington State for Indian and non-Indian fishermen. Senate Bill 837 will aid in the protection of fisheries habitat.”
—Part of testimony given by Billy Frank Jr. at a Congressional hearing

In January 1984, Washington Governor John Spellman proposed a plan for the designation of 800,000 acres of new Wilderness, in addition to a new Cascade Scenic Highway corridor near North Cascades National Park. It was evident that Washington planned to include new wilderness areas in its map. However, the exact location and acreage were still a matter of debate.

As drafts were written and rewritten amidst intense battles over specific areas and political maneuvering, the Wilderness campaign launched an intensive lobbying campaign. This effort involved a group of 24 Wilderness advocates who traveled to Washington D.C. with maps, photos, and factual evidence to persuade members of the delegation. Simultaneously, a massive grassroots effort was launched in Washington with a statewide phone bank and letter-writing campaign to support the lobbying efforts taking place in the nation’s capital.

The Washington Wilderness Act, a Legacy

Photo: Buckhorn Wilderness, Elisa Rogers

Signed by President Reagan on July 3, 1984 the Washington Wilderness Act designated 19 new Wilderness areas and expanded four existing Wildernesses, as well as created the 100,000-acre Mt. Baker National Recreation Area and the North Cascades Scenic Highway. In all, the act permanently protected just over one million acres throughout the state. 

The passing of the Washington Wilderness Act serves as a reminder of the power of grassroots organizing and a well-planned, patient, campaign that can garner diverse support. As we mark its 39th anniversary, we also take the opportunity to honor and appreciate the unique and rugged beauty of this wild place we call home. 

(NOTE: This post was adapted from an article originally written by WA Wild co-founder Karen Fant for WA Wild’s Fall 2014 Newsletter)