Story by Laurie Hoyle | Photos by Jeff Jones
As the Wilderness Act turns 50, Santa Barbara celebrates the past while looking to the future.
September 3, 1964: After 65 rewrites, 18 public hearings and almost nine years of intense dialogue and debate culminating in overwhelming public and bipartisan support, the Wilderness Act is signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The act, drafted by The Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser, defines wilderness as a place where “…the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Following on the preservation ideas championed by John Muir, the conservation ethic articulated by Aldo Leopold and the growing concern in the 1950s over the use of human technologies to extract natural resources, the Wilderness Act is one of restraint. An antidote to the ever-increasing loss of wild lands, the act accomplishes far more than simply designating some existing public lands as wilderness. More importantly, the act creates a process by which Americans across generations can identify, study and lobby for the protection of new wilderness areas. Such areas, be they remote or close to home, remain forever free of even the most basic vestiges of civilization, like roads and signposts. As such, they are places where visitors choose their own paths and experience the sense of adventure, as well as the great solitude, that wild lands so freely proffer.
Santa Barbara’s Legacy
In 1968, San Rafael Wilderness in Santa Barbara County became the first primitive area to be designated wilderness under the act. Encompassing almost 150,000 acres, it included Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary, created in 1937, which is the oldest sanctuary for the endangered and emblematic bird. Part of the rugged Santa Barbara back country—and of Los Padres National Forest that reaches from Monterey to Ventura—San Rafael is challenging country, particularly in summer when temperatures soar and creeks run dry.
Los Padres is California’s second largest national forest, nearly half of it is wilderness. With both coastal and transverse mountain ranges cutting through it and with dense chaparral giving way to pine forests at higher elevations, Los Padres richly rewards those who enter it. Hike long enough and far enough, and you’re handed distant vistas of range upon range fading into the Pacific, wild and scenic rivers flowing through thickly shaded woodland or a cool drink of water that tastes just like heaven on a hot summer’s day.
Federally designated wilderness is managed by one of four agencies: National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or Bureau of Land Management. All wilderness areas are part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The system currently encompasses 110 million acres, which, robust as that sounds, represents only 2.7% of thecontiguous U.S. Of California’s 52 wilderness areas, Los Padres is home to ten. This is due in part to the determination of local residents who helped to establish or expand wilderness in Los Padres no less than five times since 1968, the last being in 1992.
Such creation of new, and addition to existing, wilderness lands illustrates the beauty of the act. Even as human development intensifies, wilderness areas can—and do—grow, in some cases connecting one to another to afford greater protection of habitats and of the native plant and animal species found there.
Wilderness also allows natural processes to unfold with minimal human interference, thus providing benchmark data for scientific study. Add to this the recreational opportunities found in wilderness, the creation of wildlife corridors that sustain migratory paths of animals across vast tracts of land and the protection of watersheds—a feature critical to Santa Barbara—and the value of wild lands becomes more readily apparent.
Finally, as noted by naturalist Olaus Murie, wilderness offers up intangible values, those that speak to the human spirit. In wilderness, we return to the natural world in which we as humans evolved. Going to the wilderness is, in essence, going home.
Santa Barbara’s Wild Future
More than two decades have passed without any new wilderness lands protected in Los Padres National Forest. Decisions about Los Padres’ wilderness future lie with the public, the U.S. Forest Service and Congress. Among those advocating for more wilderness is Santa Barbara’s nonprofit Los Padres ForestWatch. Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, ForestWatch combines advocacy with outreach in strategic efforts that range from on-the-ground volunteer-driven restoration projects—such as trash clean-ups and fence removal—to increasing public awareness of public lands and their positive impacts on our local economy and quality of life.
ForestWatch currently is working with forest users, other stakeholders, and members of Congress toward a bill that could add up to 200,000 acres of wilderness in the Los Padres. Notes Jeff Kuyper, ForestWatch executive director, “A strong bill would add to the network of existing wilderness areas while enhancing the wilderness legacy of the Los Padres—while still accommodating public access.”
If such a bill passes the House and Senate and is signed into law by the President, it, like all bills passed under the Wilderness Act, would extend the highest protection afforded under law to a bit more of our country’s remaining pristine lands. By doing less to these lands, we stand to gain so much more. By venturing into them as visitors who do not remain, we add them to those great American landscapes that Wallace Stegner so presciently called our nation’s “geography of hope.”
Jeff Jones’ wilderness photography (lumnos.com) is presented in galleries and museums, such as Denver Museum of Nature and Science and Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. His exhibit and accompanying book, Arctic Sanctuary, traveled nationwide as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Currently, Jones’ work is on view (through September) as part of the Wildling Museum’s “Wilderness at 50” exhibitions. From 19th-century paintings of the American west to contemporary interpretations of wilderness, this exhibit examines the role of art in raising public awareness of wildland protection while celebrating art inspired by the natural world. Wildling Museum is located at 1511-B Mission Dr. in Solvang, WildlingMuseum.org. Adding to local celebrations of the Wilderness Act are a series of special events presented by Los Padres ForestWatch, lpfw.org.
Originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Santa Barbara SEASONS Magazine.