The Wilderness Act at 50

A slope of snow and pines mark a scene in Worthington Mountains Wilderness in Central Nevada.

A slope of snow and pines mark a scene in Worthington Mountains Wilderness in Central Nevada.

The Sparks Heritage Museum, assisted by Friends of Nevada Wilderness, last week opened an exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. It will be in place until Oct. 4. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 adults, children and members free.

“It’s a work of joy,” said Marjorie Sill of Reno. “There’s so much negative going on in the world right now. I love the positive.”

She was referring to her ongoing work on the Wilderness Act, a piece of federal legislation that turns 50 years old on Sept. 3. In 1964, when it was enacted by Congress, Sill and her scientist husband Richard Sill had been working on getting the bill passed since 1958.

When enacted, it broke U.S. policy away from merely “conservation” of the land. Conservationists believed in protecting the land for use—for dams or parks or reservoirs or irrigation projects to be used by municipalities or campers, hunters, and others. But the Wilderness Act protected the land in its pristine condition, with no specific use in mind except to create “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

It’s a notion the famous conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and Nevada’s Francis Newlands would not have understood. And there were many conservationists who opposed it.

When Sill began working on the wilderness issue, she lived in New Mexico and spent time in Washington, D.C., lobbying her senator, Clinton Anderson, a former secretary of agriculture in the Truman administration. “My husband and I went up to see him to encourage his participation,” Sill recalled this week. “He was a very strong supporter of wilderness.”

Sill attended a lot of wilderness conferences in those years, and there was considerable opposition to the concept in and out of Congress. But in 1964, just two months before the 1964 election, the bill passed.

It provided for a legal category of land “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least 5,000 acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

The Sills had moved to Nevada in 1959 when Richard, a physicist who had previously worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lick Observatory, took a position at the University of Nevada. Marjorie and her husband continued their work on environmental issues. On arrival, Marjorie Sill quickly learned the local terrain of the wilderness issue.

When the measure was passed, Nevada’s U.S. senators—middle-of-the-road Democrats Alan Bible and Howard Cannon—were supportive of the wilderness concept, but its only U.S. House member, right wing Democrat Walter Baring, was not. As a result Nevada, for the first quarter century of the Act’s life, got only a token amount of wilderness—64,830 acres in northeast Nevada near the Idaho border called the Jarbidge Wilderness Area. It was nothing if not successful—in 2005, a project by the Center for International Earth Science and the Wildlife Conservation Society to identify the places on the planet that are least disturbed by humankind put Jarbidge Wilderness at the top of the list. But still, as other states were creating millions of acres of wilderness land, Nevada was not.

In 1972, Baring was defeated and replaced by a Republican for a term, then by a moderate Democrat who called himself “Mr. Minerals.” Nothing much changed on wilderness. But change was coming. The Sills were emblematic of what was happening in Nevada. Newcomers, not natives, were becoming dominant.

In 1981, the state received its second U.S. House seat. The two House districts were split between Las Vegas and the rest of the state, and urban residents tend to be more supportive of environmentalism than small county residents. In addition, the state was now mostly made up of people who were not born in the state. Previous approaches to land and water issues were falling away.

Elected to the new southern House seat in the 1982 election was Harry Reid. He was only one member of the delegation, but he made himself felt, winning creation of a Great Basin National Park that had been blocked for decades. Meanwhile, elected to the House in the north was Republican Barbara Vucanovich, who did not care for wilderness areas. “She told me there was no place in Nevada where she couldn’t drive her RV,” Marjorie Sill said.

On moving up to the Senate in 1987, Reid was replaced in the House by another pro-environment Democrat in the southern House seat, James Bilbray. Then in 1989, they were joined by Richard Bryan, another Democratic senator. In just a few short years, the state’s congressional delegation had gone from mostly Republican to mostly Democratic.

In that year, a major new Nevada wilderness measure was passed. It was preceded by a trip to Nevada by a D.C. contingent headed by U.S. Rep. John Seiberling of Ohio. For Easterners who thought of Nevada as a big desert where unattractive federal projects like ammo dumps could be sited, the visit was a revelation. They saw stunning vistas in places like Jarbidge and Arc Dome. Vucanovich wished the trip had never happened.

“There was a gathering at the end of the trip, and Seiberling said he ’has seen some beautiful areas here in Nevada,’” Sill recalled. By this time she had been joined by others. Until then, the Sierra Club had taken the lead, but state supporters wanted a Nevada group, and Friends of Nevada Wilderness was formed in 1984 (“Friends of Nevada Wilderness turns 25,” RN&R, June 4, 2009), putting the face of locals on the issue and creating political pressure for more wilderness.

In 1989, Seiberling, over Vucanovich’s opposition, won House approval of Reid’s Nevada Wilderness Act, hiking Nevada wilderness to 700,000 acres, including a doubling of the original Jarbidge Wilderness. Vucanovich—herself a transplant to Nevada—tended to blame the expansion of wilderness on Easterners, but the truth was that a different group of Nevadans, transplants like herself, were supplanting earlier leaders like Paul Laxalt who had been born in the state and were oriented to employing the land for whatever human uses were possible, certainly including mining. (Nor should it be overlooked that Bryan, Bilbray and Reid were raised in Nevada and Vucanovich was not.)

Even with the 1989 act, Nevada was still one of only two Western states whose wilderness acreage was not in seven digits. Reid began a strategy of expanding wilderness a county at a time, an odd plan that was later imitated by a Utah senator. Reid also employed a process he was using at the time to negotiate an accord on Truckee River water, of pulling people from many groups together to work out an agreement. In most counties it worked well, though in Lyon County a rancorous 2008 fight occurred when groundwork was not well prepared. There were many fights—in Washoe it was over Black Rock/High Rock desert acreage—but the process helped reduce ill will.

Some wilderness advocates worry that Reid, on his way to becoming a D.C. wheeler-dealer, started giving up too much on wilderness, cutting compromises that undercut its whole purpose. In the case of the Black Rock designation, language was included that allows the use of vehicles, aircraft, bikes, mining, and special events like Burning Man, so the protestors who used signs like “Traitor Dick [Bryan] and Dirty Harry [Reid]” may have exaggerated their case a bit.

Nevada has long since passed the seven-digit mark. There are now 2,056,545 acres of wilderness in Nevada. Another similar amount is being studied for designation.