Exhibits: The Lands: Gila Wilderness
Land of Endless Bounty
The promise of the New World came from its vast, seemingly undeveloped lands. Native Americans had built towns, irrigated farms, developed road and trail systems, and changed the land in many other ways, but the areas of greatest human impact were widely dispersed. When the American government opened up the lands of the western territories to settlement, masses of people flooded west, changing the face of the land forever.
19th-century homesteaders set out to "tame" the wild lands, believing that land only has worth when it is used. They cut the forests for lumber, diverted the water into their fields, plowed the prairies and the sagebrush, and hunted for food and to kill the predatory animals that threatened their livestock. For a long time, it seemed like there was no end to clean water, forests, wildlife, and open space.
Hunters were among the first to notice that natural resources were not endless. People like President Theodore Roosevelt noticed that each year, there were fewer herds of big animals like elk and deer, and smaller flocks of migratory birds like ducks and geese. In response, he set out to protect forests, parks, and wetlands, which were important habitat for wildlife. Even though he protected these areas from settlement, they were not protected from many other uses, like cutting timber.
Aldo Leopold was another hunter who noticed that the game was disappearing. While working in the newly-established national forest preserves in New Mexico, he realized that wildlife needs wild lands to survive. Each remaining undeveloped area contained a delicate web of life, where the plants and animals had developed together to mutual benefit.
His idea that land that was not "in use" could be so important was a radical one, but it took hold. On June 3, 1924, the Forest Service officially a vast acreage of the Gila National Forest as wilderness, establishing the first such designated area in the world. In 1935, Leopold and another forester, Bob Marshall, formed The Wilderness Society, and the movement began to save a part of our country's natural heritage from development.
Wilderness Act of 1964
During the next 30 years, although many wilderness areas were designated by the Forest Service, the lands were still not adequately protected. In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, saving 9.1 million acres of land from any future mechanized use, like building roads and houses, mining, drilling, and logging. Since then, millions more acres have been protected or identified for future protection.
Many of the wilderness areas have been protected since 1964 as the result of individual people trying to save the lands they love from development. By the thousands, American men and women have lobbied Congress or joined environmental organizations to help preserve wild lands in 44 states. Some of these people treasure the wilderness because they have had a special experience while hiking or camping. Some people value the diversity of species, and appreciate the occasional glimpse of a bear, a wild cat, a moose, or an elk. Still others find profound spiritual renewal in unspoiled natural settings.
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