Fifty years ago, President Johnson signed the US Wilderness Act into law. It created a new category of lands, similar to national parks but with a higher emphasis on nature conservation. Not only were these areas off limits to logging and mining, they would also be off limits to developments like roads, walking tracks and picnic areas that make life easier for park visitors. Visitors, although welcome, would be there on nature’s terms.
On the ground, there wasn’t much change in the management of the original 54 wilderness areas created in 1964. The Act only protected those areas already designated as ‘roadless wilderness’ in zoning plans, some since 1924.
In Australia, these zones — generally called ‘primitive areas’ — had also been mapped since the 1920s in some of our oldest national parks. New England National Park, created in the 1930s, was a large park primarily to protect the wilderness vistas from Point Lookout.
|Looking east towards the coast from near Point Lookout, New England NP|
Formal legal protection of wilderness in New South Wales had to wait until 1982, when the first wilderness areas under the National Parks and Wildlife Act were declared. These were in Gibraltar Range National Park, west of Grafton.
Since this time the meaning of the word 'wilderness' has come under attack on philosophical, cultural, political and ‘justice’ grounds. Some object to the term, claiming it is equivalent to a modern-day ‘terra nullius’. In fact, our wilderness areas protect many significant Aboriginal sites within the context of an undeveloped landscape, with a higher level of protection than is found in any other land tenure.
There are many wilderness definitions but they all have one thing in common — wilderness is land free from development. Other defining elements are: large size, naturalness, and management to retain the area in a wild condition, including the exclusion of high impact uses.
These are the areas, according to President Johnson, that would provide a glimpse of ‘the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it’. They are also the places where ecological and evolutionary processes can play out, giving nature a chance for the future.
- Janet Cavanaugh