Northwest Wilderness Protection History

“The Eternal Battle”

The Success of the Wilderness Act in Washington at 50

By Ronald Eber
Sierra Club Oregon
Chapter Historian, Chair and Wilderness Coordinator 1980 – 1985


The 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of September 3, 1964, provides an opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved and its importance to Washington and for future wilderness campaigns; because wilderness protection is the foundation of the conservation movement especially in Washington. The story is exemplified by what John Muir said in 1895 during an earlier campaign to protect the forest resources of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington: “the battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is part of the eternal battle between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it.”

“The battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is part of the eternal battle between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it.”

John Muir (1895)

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the law, it established a national policy “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”  It instantly designated 9,140,000 acres as wilderness in 54 areas. Now our National Wilderness Preservation System comprises 757 areas and protects more than 109,511,000 acres. There are now 31 wilderness areas in Washington covering about 4.5 million acres.  But it wasn’t always so.  This article will review the early development of the forest reserves, national forests, parks and Wilderness Areas as well as learn about the pioneer leaders who promoted their protection.  Then it will explain how the Wilderness Act was adopted and how conservationists campaigned for the protection of the areas designated in Washington.


Long before there were established wilderness areas, national monuments, national forests or more than just one national park—Yellowstone—there was interest in the wilderness and forest resources of the Pacific Northwest. Sierra Club founder John Muir hiked and camped throughout the region in 1888, visiting Puget Sound, the Cascades and climbed Mount Rainier.

His essays about this trip can be found in his book Steep Trails. He wrote that the Olympic Mountains “command attention” and are “near and clear in all their glory.” Mount Baker is seen “rising solitary over a dark breadth of forest making a glorious show” and Mount Rainier “was in full view – glorifying the bright sunny day … rising in godlike majesty over the woods.”   From its summit, he noted the “white volcanic cones in glorious array reaching far into Oregon” and that Mount St. Helens, Adams and Hood were but “islands in the sky.”  But Muir also sounded a warning about the “immense lumbering establishments” he saw and noted with concern the “fierce storm of steel that is devouring the forests.” Later he recommended that “a park of moderate extent might be set apart and protected for public use forever” in the Cascades.

First Forest Reserves

The real work of protection began in the mid-1880s, when concerned citizens wanted to place off limits—reserve—certain public lands from acquisition under the nation’s first land use laws. Crater Lake was the first area in the Cascades to be protected. In 1886, William Steel, later to found the Mazamas mountaineering club, led an effort that convinced President Cleveland to protect the lake and its surroundings from private land claims.

By 1891, national concern about the loss of forestlands forced Congress to act. The Land Revision Act authorized the president to “reserve” commercial and noncommercial forest lands as public reservations, but it did not specify any policy on the use of these reserves. It was under this act that Oregon and Washington’s first wild forests were protected.  The first two reserves were established in 1893.  They were the Pacific Reserve for the area immediately around Mount Rainier National Park and the Cascade Reserve covering about 4 million acres in the Oregon Cascades. 

The next two reserves in Washington were based on recommendations from a national commission of forest experts that included John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.  These were the Olympic Reserve and the Washington Reserve around today’s North Cascades National Park. At the same time, the Pacific Reserve (renamed Mount Rainier) was greatly expanded south to include today’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.  Most of Washington’s other forest reserves (later to be national forests) were designated by President Theodore Roosevelt between 1901 and 1907.

The Defensive Campaigns Begin

But before the ink was dry on the proclamations to establish these reserves, the battle began to protect them. In 1896, the Oregon congressional delegation tried to split the Cascade Forest Reserve in Oregon into three smaller areas.  This was viewed by conservationists as an attack on all the previously designated reserves in the northwest and nationally.  

In defense of the Cascade Reserve, the Sierra Club issued a resolution “unalterably” opposing the reduction of the Cascade or “any forest reservation.” In 1897, timber interests pressured the Washington Congressional delegation to nullify the new Olympic and Washington Reserves and the expanded Pacific (Mount Rainier) Reserve.  

However, the Sierra Club and other conservationists including Edmond Meany and Ashael Curtis, early members of the Mazamas and later (in 1906)founders of the Seattle Mountaineers, continued their campaign to protect these reserves.  After a one-year suspension, they were reinstated.  These first forest reserves are the foundation for all of today’s national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas in Oregon and Washington.

Limited, Primitive, Wild, and Wilderness Areas

It was said that a “limited area” only meant that the Forest Service hadn’t yet decided yet where the logging roads would go!

Surprising as it may seem, in the 1920s and ’30s, the United States Forest Service began to develop a policy for wilderness and administratively designate wilderness areas.  No specific uses were prohibited, but the designations were made, nonetheless. The first designation in 1924 was the 900,000 acre Gila Wilderness Area in southern New Mexico. This led the Forest Service to begin a national inventory for such wild areas, and by 1929, they had developed regulations for the designation of what were called “primitive” and “limited” areas.  Again, no limitations on any specific uses were imposed.  It was said that a “limited area” only meant that the Forest Service hadn’t yet decided yet where the logging roads would go!!

The chief proponent for the new wilderness policy was a district ranger and wildlife specialist with the Forest Service, Aldo Leopold.  Later, Bob Marshall, a trained forester and avid backpacker, became the government’s chief advocate for wilderness within the Department of the Interior and then as the Director of Recreation and Lands in charge of the wilderness program for the Forest Service. Marshall was instrumental in getting additional primitive areas designated, especially in Alaska.  In 1935, both were founding members of The Wilderness Society.

The Forest Service finally began to increase the number of areas designated as “primitive,” “limited” or “wilderness as the National Park Service acquired or tried to acquire many of their backcountry areas for new National Parks or Monuments.  This was especially the case in Washington after the establishment of Olympic National Monument in 1909 within the Olympic Forest Reserve.  In response, additional areas of the Olympic Reserve were designated as a primitive area in 1936 in order to stymie the push for an Olympic National Park.  However, they clearly did not include any heavily forested areas.

A similar situation occurred in the Washington Cascades. The Forest Service felt threatened by a proposal in 1937 for an Ice Peaks National Park encompassing the entire Cascade Range in Washington from the Canadian border to the Columbia River.   Thus the Forest Service began to re-evaluate the “primitive” and “limited” areas set aside in the 1920s and 30s, re designating them as either “wilderness” (if 100,000 acres or larger) or “wild” areas (if smaller). Washington had two (2) primitive areas in the Cascades designated in 1931: the Whatcom (renamed North Cascades in 1934) within the Washington Reserve and the Goat Rocks area within the Mount Rainier Reserve.  Goat Rocks was re-designated as a Wild Area in 1940.

In 1935, Bob Marshall recommended the establishment of a large Glacier Peak wilderness area of about 794,000 acres within the Washington Forest Reserve.  However, the Forest Service only designated about half of this (325,000 acres) as a smaller “Limited” area in 1940.   It was re-designated Wilderness in 1960.  Mount Adams was designated as a Wild Area in 1942 from the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve and the Alpine Lakes area became a “limited” area in 1946.

The North Cascades and Glacier Peak

Adequate protection for the forests and alpine meadows in the North Cascades and for the forested valleys surrounding Glacier Peak was a longstanding struggle for NW conservationists.  Timber interests have always coveted these old growth forests.  In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, when conservationists began to urge protection for the forested valleys and mountain primitive and wilderness areas, especially around Glacier Peak, logging companies tried to block their addition.  The forested river valleys along the Suiattle, White Chuck and Agnes rivers were especially contentious and their exclusion left the wilderness area looking like a “starfish” with rocky ridges without the forested river valleys below.  To push back, the small group of local Sierra Club members including Patrick Goldsworthy, Polly Dyer, and Grant McConnell as well as others including a young intern from Oregon, David Simons, formed the North Cascades Conservation Council (NC3) in 1957, to campaign for the protection of these areas, to establish a new national park and a national wilderness system.

To push back, the small group…. formed the North Cascades Conservation Council (NC3) in 1957, to campaign for the protection of these areas, to establish a new national park and a national wilderness system.

At this time, there was no requirement for Environmental Impact Statements or any administrative process to appeal road projects or timber sales approved by the Forest Service or for development projects, dams or transmission lines approved by the National Park Service.  Because of this, local conservationists struggled to protect wilderness areas and parks. All that was really available was public opinion. As Justice William O. Douglas observed:

“The Glacier Peak area is so little known it has few friends.  Those bent on exploiting it, therefore, have a great advantage.  They hope to perfect their plans before the public is aware of the great treasure that is here.”

National and local conservation groups like the NC3 took Douglas’s admonition to heart and used his book and others to inform the general public about the beauty of the wilderness areas in Washington.  Other books included one by the Mountaineers titled “The North Cascades” (1964)and a Sierra Club photo book titled “The Wild Cascades – Forgotten Parkland” edited by Harvey Manning with a foreword by Justice Douglas (1965). The latter was given to each member of Congress in support of legislation to establish a North Cascades National Park.  Also helping was a Sierra Club film, “Wilderness Alps of Stehekin” which was shown around the country.

As the campaign for the park proceeded, decisions to remove old growth forests from the French Pete Valley in the Three Sisters Primitive Area and the proposed Echo Park dam in Dinosaur National Monument led conservationists to realize that such areas were not safe from development.  This made it very clear that it was time for a national wilderness system established by Congress where development by the Forest Service or National Park Service could be prevented.  What the agencies could designate, they could also remove.  Thus the stage was set for the campaign to establish a national wilderness system that could provide more permanent protection.

The Wilderness Act Emerges – Accommodation & Compromise

The Wilderness Act took eight years, between 1956 and 1964, to move through the legislative process and become law. Because it faced the united opposition of the mining, grazing, and timber interests as well as, initially, the Forest Service and National Park Service, it was a struggle to get the bill approved.

The Maestro for the campaign was Howard Zahniser, executive director of The Wilderness Society. He quietly and patiently brought skeptics and opponents together, listened to their concerns, and then made the adjustments and accommodations needed to build the support and bipartisan coalition for the bill. His closest comrade was David Brower, who became executive director of the Sierra Club in 1954 when Zahniser held the same position with The Wilderness Society.

The passage of the Wilderness Act involved several accommodations and compromises between its proponents and opponents.  One of these was just how much “instant” wilderness would be designated by the bill.  Would it include all or some of the existing wilderness, wild, and primitive areas established by the Forest Service?  The final bill included just the wilderness and wild areas while the primitive areas would be subject to further review and require Congressional approval.  However, the two most significant compromises involved who would have the final authority to designate wilderness areas and just what uses could be permitted within designated areas.

1. Who Designates:  Conservationists wanted the president to designate wilderness areas based on agency studies and subject to veto by either house of Congress. The opponents of this, primarily the very powerful chairman of the House Interior Committee, Representative Wayne Aspinall of Colorado, considered this an unacceptable delegation of Congressional authority over the public domain and blocked any bill with this provision.

Compromise:  Conservationists finally yielded to Aspinall’s demand and Congress now has the sole authority to designate or change a wilderness boundary, based either on recommendations from the president on the basis of agency studies, or from local conservation organizations. More often than not, Congress has expanded on presidential and agency recommendations, thanks to broader coalitions of grassroots activists. The expansion of recommended areas by Congress was not possible under the terms of the earlier language, because it only provided for a strictly up-or-down “legislative veto.”

2. Permitted Uses:  Conservationists wanted to prohibit all roads, mining, grazing, logging, and motorized vehicles in wilderness areas. Opponents wanted to permit as many of these as possible.

Compromise:  Motorized vehicles and equipment and other nonconforming activities including grazing are permitted in certain circumstances. Mining claims could still be filed and patented in any wilderness area for 19 years after the passage of the Act – until December 31, 1983.  Further, the president could permit reservoirs, power projects, transmission lines, and “other facilities needed in the national interest.”

Legislation involves compromise, and risk is an inherent part of this process. These compromises were not considered major “losses” in the passage of the bill, and as it turned out, none led to any serious problems or undermined the eventual implementation of the Wilderness Act.  Grandfathered uses were limited, no president permitted any prohibited uses “in the national interest,” and no mining claims were perfected in a designated wilderness area.

Although the North Cascades Primitive Area was not designated in 1964 as wilderness, large portions were included in 1968 as part of the North Cascades National Park Complex and Passayten Wilderness Area.  The patented mining claims held by Kennecott Copper Company on Miner’s Ridge in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area were never developed after a national campaign to block a proposed open pit mine.  The claims were purchased in 1986 and eventually exchanged for lands outside the wilderness area as part of the 2008 Wild Sky Wilderness Act.

Finally, the biggest concern was that the requirement for Congressional approval of all wilderness areas would significantly limit future designations.  This “defeat” became a “great liberating force in the conservation movement” because it brought the political decisions that federal agencies and departments make behind closed doors out into the open.  The much more transparent legislative arena has provided citizens and local groups the opportunity to influence wilderness and development decisions.  Zahniser and Brower were aware that this change would force the wilderness movement to decentralize and lead to a far more effective grassroots movement that has been the real secret to the success of the growing wilderness system.  As we all know, local wilderness groups have been essential to the major additions that have been made to the wilderness system since 1964.

Wilderness Since 1964

The passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 gave Washington three (3) new areas with about 731,000 acres including all the administratively designated wilderness and wild areas mentioned earlier.  These were the Goat Rocks, Glacier Peak, and Mount Adams areas.

Since 1964, Washington has gained 28 new wilderness areas and significant additions to the original three areas.  Washington now has a total of 31 areas encompassing about 4.5 million acres.  Further wilderness additions in the North Cascades Primitive Area were delayed as conservationists pursued the establishment of the North Cascades National Park and Recreation Area as well as the Passayten Wilderness Area in 1968.   Additional lands have gained wilderness protection around the park in what now forms a North Cascades National Park and Wilderness Complex protecting almost 2 million acres in 9 wilderness areas including the National Park lands.

During the 1970s, four additional wilderness areas were established.  These included the Washington Islands in 1970 based on the existing National Wildlife Refuge established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1907.   The San Juan Islands areas were designated in 1976 at the same time that the long fought for Alpine Lakes areas was designated.  The Alpine Lakes area is between Stevens and Snoqualmie Passes in the central Cascades.  In 1968, the Alpine Lakes Protection Society was formed to pursue wilderness protection for this region.  Along with other groups, it succeeded and the Alpine Lakes Management Act was signed into law by President Ford in 1976 over a request by the Forest Service to veto the bill.  Finally, the Washington portion of the Wenaha-Tucannon area was designated as part of the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978.

As the 1970’s ended, there were continuing attempts by conservationists and Washington’s Congressional delegation to develop and pass a more comprehensive wilderness bill.  In 1979, Karen Fant and Ken Gersten, Sierra Club activists, founded the Washington Wilderness Coalition (now Washington Wild) to create opportunities for such a statewide wilderness bill.  There was hope that the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE) process would provide the information needed to develop and finalize a bill.  But the RARE process proved to be deeply flawed and biased against wilderness designations, conservationists had disagreements about which areas should be designated, and Washington’s senators and representatives also could not reach consensus.  The key negotiations were between Senator Dan Evans, Congressman Mike Lowry and Congressman Sid Morrison.  When the dust settled, the Washington Wilderness Act of 1984 (PL 98-339) was approved and made many significant additions to the wilderness system in Washington.  It added 18 new areas and additions to four existing areas for about 860,000 acres of new wilderness.

There is not space to tell the entire story of the 1984 additions, but it was a classic compromise provoked by the desire of traditional opponents of new wilderness areas to avoid the threat of lawsuits tying up all the inventoried roadless areas, which environmentalists would be sure to win. There was some concern within the conservation community over this package, but all the mainline groups were strongly in favor. In retrospect, it was a vital step for Washington wilderness, gaining a large package when no one had a theory for how we would ever protect most of those areas any other way. And the areas which were to be opened for development were not priorities for conservation groups.  Despite disagreements, unity was maintained to support a strong bill.  Timber interests hoped that this bill would end the long debate over wilderness in Washington, but as we know, this has not been the case nor should it be.  The 1984 bill did not include all the areas that wilderness advocates wanted but additions in future years have been made to address many of these deficiencies, and this work continues.

After the 1984 wilderness designations in national forests, the majority of Washington’s three large national parks were designated in 1988 (see next section) and were championed by Washington Senators Daniel Evans and Brock Adams.  It would take another 24 years before any additional Forest Service wilderness area was designated when the Wild Sky Wilderness Area was established in 2008.  This bill was championed by Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Rick Larsen and had unprecedented local support from more than 700 elected officials, sportsmen, Tribes and businesses.  No doubt future additions will also be made as every Congress has the ability to add to the National Wilderness System.  Currently, two additional wilderness proposals are moving through Congress.  The first is 22,000 acres of additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness focused on low elevation old-growth forests and Wild and Scenic River designations for the Middle Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers supported by Senator Murray and Congresswoman Suzan DelBene and Congressman Dave Reichert.  The second is the “Wild Olympics” legislation to designate over 126,000 acres of wilderness additions on the edges of Olympic National Park, 19 new wild and scenic rivers, and 5,300 acres of potential wilderness through restoration by the Forest Service supported again by Senator Murray, former Congressman Norm Dicks and his successor Derek Kilmer.  As John Muir said in 1895, the campaign to defend and protect the wilderness is “eternal” and “we cannot expect to see the end of it.”

National Park Wilderness

Washington’s three national parks, Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic had to evaluate their lands for designation under the Wilderness Act of 1964.  Each park has its own unique history that originated with the first forest reserves established in 1893 and 1897.  Mount Rainier was established in 1899 out of what was the Pacific Reserve.  North Cascades was established in 1968 out of what was the Washington Reserve and Olympic was established in 1938 based on the original Olympic Reserve and the smaller Olympic National Monument established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1909.  The required evaluation of the parks was completed in 1988 when the Washington Park Wilderness Act approved the Mount Rainier, Stephen T. Mather (North Cascades) and Olympic Wilderness Areas.  Over 95% of these parks are now designated as Wilderness.

Wilderness Forever

Nationally, and especially in Washington, we have been blessed with lovers and advocates for wilderness.  As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we should be thankful for all those leaders and the individual citizens who campaigned to protect the wilderness areas they loved.  Supporters like John Muir, Edmond Meany, Bob Marshall, Justice William O. Douglas, Patrick Goldsworthy and Polly Dyer (to name but a few) have led the eternal battle to protect and defend the wilderness.  Supported by thousands of Washington citizens, they all had the will to stand up for the protection of the forests and wilderness areas they loved, and for this, we should all be very thankful.

They left to us a great natural legacy.  Our ability to continue to protect the remaining wilderness is possible only because of their visionary and tireless efforts.  We can safely say that the Wilderness Act has been successful.  We started with a wide-open public domain and three large forest reserves that evolved into our national forests and three national parks.  Four administratively designated primitive, wild, and wilderness areas led to the current wilderness system with 31 distinct areas throughout the state.  And we are not done yet.

The current “Wild Olympics” campaign is a new opportunity to further protect additional areas.  The Sierra Club in Washington as well as many other wilderness groups, such as Washington Wild, have never wearied in this work, and it is great to see the enthusiasm and strength that continues to be brought to these conservation campaigns.

Howard Zahniser spoke to the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Conference in 1961 and set forth for all time the task before wilderness advocates:

“We are not fighting progress.  We are making it.  We are not dealing with a vanishing wilderness.  We are working for a wilderness forever.”

Howard Zahniser
at the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Conference in 1961

“We should never lose heart.  We are engaged in an effort that may well be expected to continue until its right consummation by our successors if need be.  Working to preserve in perpetuity is a great inspiration.  We are not fighting a rear-guard action, we are facing a frontier.  We are not slowing down a force that inevitably will destroy all the wilderness there is.  We are generating another force, never to be wholly spent, that, renewed generation after generation will be always effective in preserving wilderness.  We are not fighting progress.  We are making it.  We are not dealing with a vanishing wilderness.  We are working for a wilderness forever.”

Throughout 2014, let’s celebrate this rich history and draw on its lessons as we work to see the proven effectiveness of the Wilderness Act extended to more of Washington’s mountains, forests, and desert areas.  The history and anniversary of the Wilderness Act is not found in books or articles like this but rather in the wilderness that has been protected and that we hope will remain forever.

The author wishes to thank Doug Scott, Larry Williams, Brock Evans, Jim Blomquist, Bill Arthur, Roger Mellem, Tom Uniack, and Mike McCloskey for their helpful comments and suggestions.