Someone recently asked me how I came to love the outdoors so much.
I paused. It really wasn't one major experience, I told her, but rather a collection of experiences — from sitting around a campfire during countless family camping trips when I was a kid to gaping at the overwhelming number of stars in the Peruvian night sky on a trek to Machu Picchu.
Every experience — every time soft pine needles silence my footsteps, every time riverside bluffs tower over my head — has contributed to my love of the outdoors and reminded me just how much my spirit needs wild places.
Our country's greatest conservationists agree. "Wildness is a necessity," wrote John Muir, the Sierra Club co-founder and father of the national parks system. Henry David Thoreau, a fellow environmentalist and philosopher, wrote that "we need the tonic of wildness." Ansel Adams called wilderness "a state of mind and mood and heart."
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Congress' reaching that same conclusion. On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System and represented a milestone for conservation in this country.
"If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt," Johnson said in his remarks while signing the bill into law, "we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."
Wilderness areas, which are all already part of national parks, forests or other federal public land, provide the best glimpse of that in the United States.
The act initially protected 9 million acres of federal public land. Today, nearly 110 million acres within 758 areas in 44 states enjoy the highest level of land protection in this country, including nearly 80,000 acres across seven areas in Wisconsin.
The act describes wilderness 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" and possessing "outstanding opportunities for solitude and a primitive and unconfined type of recreation."
Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns for the Wilderness Society, described wilderness areas as land "where nature still dominates."
And while that doesn't necessarily mean there are no traces of humans, it does mean the traces are limited: no human habitation, permanent improvements, motorized vehicles, new logging or mines.
In fact, Wisconsin's newest wilderness area, the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness in the Apostle Islands, had been so decimated by logging and other human activities that it did not even qualify for national park status when it was first proposed in the 1930s. But as humans left, nature reclaimed the land and today the islands feature thousands of acres of pristine wilderness.
"This is kind of a testimony to nature's ability to re-wild itself and recapture areas that had been impacted by human activities," said Neil Howk, assistant chief of interpretation with the Apostle Islands.
"It's about as wild a place as exists anywhere in the Midwest. ...People think, oh, the Midwest, Rust Belt and all of that, but there are still areas in the Midwest that are as wild as just about any other area in the country," he said. "It is an incredible natural resource with beautiful beaches and fantastic shorelines with the sea caves. You get away from the docks and the few campsites there are in the park and you're in areas that you don't see or hear anyone else, and it seems like it's been years since anyone's been there."
In addition to protecting millions of acres, the act also changed how future lands could be protected. Instead of a lengthy administrative process that required various agencies to adopt protections, the act created a system for ordinary citizens to propose areas for conservation, and Congress to pass legislation protecting them.
That may seem like a lengthy process in its own right — nearly 30 wilderness bills await passage by today's especially deadlocked Congress — but Spitler said about 90% of the work on a wilderness bill is done before it is even introduced.
"It usually starts with a group of local individuals and organizations who care about a local piece of public land and want to see that area protected, either because it's threatened by some activity that would damage its character. Or if it's not threatened, they just want insurance that it's going to remain the way it is for the future," he said.
Although Wisconsin's areas are a small slice of the national wilderness pie, the state's conservation legacy runs deep.
Muir spent his first 11 years in America in central Wisconsin. Aldo Leopold, who was one of the founders of the Wilderness Society and instrumental in protecting the country's first wilderness area before the act was passed, spent his adult years and found inspiration for his seminal work, "A Sand County Almanac," along the sandy banks of the Wisconsin River. Sigurd Olson, who was a president of the Wilderness Society and instrumental in getting Minnesota's Boundary Waters protected as one of the country's first wilderness areas under the new act, grew up in Wisconsin's Northwoods. Former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson was the father of Earth Day and the driving force behind protecting the beautiful Apostle Islands, whose shoreline sea caves became Wisconsin's newest wilderness area — named after the senator — in 2004.
Six of Wisconsin's seven wilderness areas are open to the public and offer some of the best backcountry experiences in the state.
And while they're all in northern Wisconsin — more than day-trip distance from Milwaukee — they're worth a visit at some point, especially this year to commemorate the act's 50th anniversary.
Where: Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Vilas County, seven miles northeast of Eagle River
What: Four springs that form the headwaters of Blackjack Creek are the centerpiece here, providing ample opportunities for river and stream fishing.
Where: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, off the Bayfield peninsula
What: Wisconsin's largest and newest wilderness area protects 80% of the land of the Apostle Islands, which already enjoyed protection as a national lakeshore. Kayak among the sandstone sea caves or take a hike on Oak Island for a glimpse of how nature has reclaimed the island from its logging past.
Where: Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Forest County, 16 miles southeast of Eagle River
What: Home to the headwaters of the Pine River — a state wild river — the area features a variety of forested swampland and bogs, with some pines and northern hardwoods, including some of the oldest and largest trees in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Take in those trees along the Giant Pine Trail, the area's only maintained hiking trail, near Shelp Lake.
Where: Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Bayfield County, four miles southeast of Drummond
What: Eight miles of the North Country Trail, a national scenic trail that begins in New York and extends through North Dakota, runs through this stretch of wilderness. Begin your hike at County D east of Drummond, following the trail about four miles through upland hardwoods forest and past a couple of beaver dams before finishing at Porcupine Lake.
Where: Chequamegon National Forest, Bayfield County, four miles north of Drummond
What: The North Country Trail continues through this stretch of wilderness. Camp along the trail for a true backcountry experience, and look for narrow railroad grades that are evidence of the area's logging past.
Where: Chequamegon National Forest, Florence County, 11 miles west of Florence
What: Named for the large pine trees on Whisker Lake called "chin whiskers" by locals, this wilderness area is a prime spot for trout fishing on Riley Lake, Edith Lake, Wakefield Creek and the Brule River along Wisconsin's border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Where: Lake Michigan, Door County
What: Composed of three limestone-outcrop islands, this is one of just 10 wilderness areas across the country that are not open to the public. The islands are managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and provide important nesting grounds for colonial birds.
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