The Wilderness Society (United States)

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The Wilderness Society
Blue 26green.jpg
Motto Keep it Wild. #WeAreTheWild
Formation 1935
More than 500,000[citation needed]
Jamie Williams
Bob Marshall, Benton MacKaye, Aldo Leopold, Bernard Frank, Robert Sterling Yard, Harvey Broome

The Wilderness Society is an American non-profit land conservation organization that is dedicated to protecting natural areas and federal public lands in the United States. They advocate for the designation of federal wilderness areas and other protective designations, such as for National Monuments. They promote balanced uses of publite, and federal politicians to enact various land use proposals; they claim to be "at the forefront of nearly every major public lands victory". The Society also engages in a number of ancillary activities, including education and outreach, and hosts one of the most valuable collections of Ansel Adams photographs.[1]

The organization was instrumental in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act,[2] which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014. This created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which now protects nearly 110 million acres of U.S. public wildlands in the contiguous 48 states, Alaska, and Hawaii. As one of the largest conservationist organizations in the country, the Wilderness Society has contributed to nearly all major designations of lands to be entered into the wilderness system.


The Wilderness Society was incorporated on January 21, 1935. The eight founders were Bob Marshall, chief of recreation and lands for the United States Forest Service; Aldo Leopold, noted wildlife ecologist and later author of A Sand County Almanac; Robert Sterling Yard, publicist for the National Park Service; Benton MacKaye, the "Father of the Appalachian Trail"; Ernest Oberholtzer, proponent of the Quetico-Superior wilderness area; Harvey Broome; Bernard Frank; and Harold C. Anderson. Yard became the Society's first secretary and the editor of its magazine, The Living Wilderness.

Marshall, who was independently wealthy, made donations to finance the new organization. In addition, he set up a trust through his estate to provide future revenues to the Society. After he died in 1939 at age 38, the Society began to receive such revenues.[3]

Leopold and Murie in 1946

Notable associates of The Wilderness Society[edit]

  • Olaus Murie—biologist who joined the organization's governing council in 1937, and became president of the Society in 1950. Under Murie's leadership, the Society lobbied successfully for the prevention of large federal dam projects near Glacier National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. During his presidency, the Muries' ranch in Moose, Wyoming became an unofficial headquarters for the Wilderness Society.[4]
  • Sigurd Olson—author and former president and governing council member
  • Celia Hunter—founder of the Alaska Conservation Society and the first woman elected as president of the Society in 1976; previously served on the governing council
  • Howard Zahniser—author of The Wilderness Act of 1964— joined The Wilderness Society in 1945, serving for two decades, first as executive secretary and editor of the organization’s magazine The Living Wilderness; later he served as the organization’s executive director
  • Mardy Murie—conservationist and Alaska advocate, former governing council member. Known as the "grandmother of the conservation movement," Mardy Murie was instrumental in the designating of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge as a protected wilderness area, and documented much of her experiences in nature, often alongside her husband Olaus, in her books, including Two in the Far North. In 1964, Mardy Murie attended the signing of the Wilderness Act by then President Lyndon Johonson.
  • Gaylord Nelson—former US Senator from Wisconsin and founder of Earth Day—served as counselor to The Wilderness Society
  • Wallace Stegner—author of fiction set in the West, former governing council member
  • Ansel Adams—photographer and conservationist, former governing council member


The Wilderness Act of 1964[edit]

The Wilderness Act, written by The Wilderness Society's Howard Zahniser, is considered one of America’s greatest conservation achievements. Passed in 1964, the Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which now protects nearly 110 million acres of wilderness areas from coast to coast. Among some of the very first wilderness areas created by the act were: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota; Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming; Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana; and Ansel Adams Wilderness, California.

Ansel Adams Wilderness sign Rush Creek

109 million acres of designated wilderness[edit]

The Wilderness Society has played a leadership role in virtually every major wilderness designation. The group has been a force behind the passage of dozens of wilderness bills, which have enlarged the National Wilderness Preservation System to more than 109 million acres. Their goal has been to expand the system in order to permanently protect the most significant public wildlands in the United States.

The Wilderness Society is the largest non-profit organization devoted to conservation of public lands. It specializes in the issues involving lands under the management of federal agencies; such lands include National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and areas overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. In partnership with fellow conservation groups and allies in other fields, The Wilderness Society has been active in fighting political efforts since the early 21st century to reduce protection for America’s lands and wildlife. The organization believes that, as President Theodore Roosevelt said, “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

Passage of conservation laws[edit]

One of The Wilderness Society’s strengths is building coalitions consisting of environmental groups, as well as representatives of faith communities, sportsmen, ranchers, scientists, business owners, and others. It bases its work in economic analysis, often enabling conservationists to strengthen the case for land protection by documenting potential economic dividends.

The Wilderness Society played a major role in passage of the following bills:

Ute Mountain and upper Rio Grande gorge

Significant accomplishments of the Society[edit]

  • Developed the first maps of remaining old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest; this demonstrated the decline in such areas, and provided a factual basis for a national campaign to preserve the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest;
  • Helped gain congressional appropriations from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to add millions of acres of wildlands to local, state, and federal parks, forests, and refuges through congressional appropriations from
  • Produced the first scientifically valid assessment of the status and range of Pacific salmon stocks in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, contributing to the emergence of salmon conservation as a major national conservation priority; and
  • Played a significant role in establishing forest land conservation as a priority in New England and helped organize the Northern Forest Alliance, more than 40 organizations working to preserve open space, sustainable forests, and wildlands.

Since 2009[edit]

  • The Wilderness Society was instrumental in the passage of the Public Lands Omnibus Act (2009), which added wilderness areas in nine states to the wilderness system.
  • TWS successfully persuaded the government to protect sensitive habitat for caribou and other wildlife in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska from oil and gas drilling, and helped move a bill to Congress to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
  • The organization won a multi-year struggle to protect Alaska's Izembek Wildlife Refuge, and its internationally significant wetlands, from a road construction project that would have set a precedent for construction within federally designated wilderness.
  • It helped gain designations of new national monuments, including: New Mexico's Rio Grande del Norte; Washington's San Juan Islands, Colorado's Chimney Rock, and California's Fort Ord.
  • It gained roll-back of numerous oil and gas leases made around Arches National Park and other wild Utah red rock lands.
  • It successfully pushed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to institute significant oil and gas leasing reforms, including a new planning tool, called a Master Leasing Plan, which requires a full examination of a landscape for all of its values before determining how oil and gas development can occur.

Major issues and campaigns[edit]

Expanding protections for public wildlands[edit]

The Wilderness Society is a leader in mobilizing public support for legislation that protects public lands through special wildlands designations. This includes adding new wilderness areas and national monuments into U.S. public lands systems.

Wilderness Designation
The Wilderness Society mobilizes local and national support for legislation that adds unspoiled public lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Wilderness Society’s regional offices work with local, grassroots groups to develop wilderness bills that can be introduced by members of Congress. They then help move the legislation through Congress to the White House. A wilderness designation is the highest form of protection the government can give to any public land. Under the Wilderness Act, designated wilderness areas are protected, permanently, from new development, commercial activities, and motorized vehicles.
As of 2014, the wilderness system contained more than 109 million acres of protected wilderness lands, with more than 750 wilderness areas throughout the nation. The Wilderness Society has played a part in almost every major addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System. It was also one of the lead organizations involved in the last major expansion of the wilderness system, the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Act. This sweeping package of wilderness bills protected more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states and thousands of miles of rivers in the wild and scenic river system.
Monuments Designation
The Wilderness Society works closely with local communities to advance efforts to protect unique wild places and historical sites as national monuments. In 2013, the organization helped win designations Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico and the San Juan Islands in Washington. Recently, the organization has come to the defense of the the Antiquities Act, which has come under attack by some factions in Congress. The Antiquities Act is the mechanism by which the president of the United States can designate new national monuments.

Guiding energy development[edit]

The Wilderness Society supports steps to create clean energy, transitioning the nation away from the fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. The organization is a leader in identifying sensitive public lands and wildlife habitats that need protection from energy development and in guiding such energy development to more appropriate lands where less damage can be done to fragile ecosystems and recreation landscapes.

USA 10439 Arches National Park Luca Galuzzi 2007

Responsible Oil and Gas Development[edit]

The Wilderness Society works to guide oil and gas drilling away from the nation’s most sensitive wildlands. The organization is concerned about the impacts oil and gas drilling is known to have on wild areas, including habitat fragmentation, water and air pollution, toxic oil spills, noise pollution and overall spoiled beauty. As such, they mobilize their supporters and local communities in advocacy campaigns to protect places like national parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness study areas and other unspoiled lands from being drilled. They have identified a list of most at-risk wild places in their 2013 Too Wild To Drill report.

One of the most at-risk areas that The Wilderness Society works to protect is Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as the crown jewel of the refuge system and America's last, great frontier. Currently, no drilling is allowed in the refuge's fragile Arctic ecosystem. For decades, the oil industry lobby in Washington, D.C. has pressured Congress to open the refuge to drilling. The Wilderness Society has helped move a bill to Congress that would designate the coastal plain of the refuge as wilderness. As of 2014, the bill was awaiting passage.

In addition to guiding drilling away from sensitive wild places, the organization has been successful in urging the government to reform oil and gas leasing policies, so that oil and gas development is balanced with other public land uses, including conservation.

Renewable energy[edit]

The Wilderness Society works to ensure that public and private lands can accommodate renewable energy development without undermining healthy landscapes and wildlife. The organization works with the Department of the Interior to guide renewable energy projects to lands that have already been used and steer them away from sensitive areas with environmental or cultural resources. They believe that energy development on US public lands should focus on degraded areas close to existing roads and power lines to reduce potential conflicts and expedite the permitting of projects.

Campaigns for wetland protection[edit]

Part of The Wilderness Society’s mission is to educate the public on the values of wilderness. Recreation is only one of the benefits; others include cleaner air and water, high-quality wildlife habitat. To ensure that Wilderness has a future generation of advocates, The Wilderness Society launched an ambitious campaign to build the ranks of new wilderness supporters in 2013. This included the Go Outside and Play Campaign and the expansion of Great Outdoors America Week in Washington D.C., a week-long event focusing on political advocacy, youth outreach and celebration of the great outdoors. They are engaged in a number of partnerships that support efforts to reengage communities in the outdoors through projects like the National Outdoor Leadership Schools' Expedition Denali Inspiration Tour. Additionally, they have created a *The Wilderness Society Official "We Are The Wild" Website for users to submit stories, photos and videos allowing them to explain their own experiences in the wild.

Ansel Adams collection[edit]

Renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams was deeply involved with The Wilderness Society. Before his death in 1984, Adams selected 75 images as a gift to the organization. The national headquarters building in Washington, D.C., houses the Ansel Adams Collection of the original, signed Ansel Adams photographs. The collection is open to the public at 1615 M St., NW.


The Wilderness Society makes several awards annually. The Ansel Adams Award, named for photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams, is awarded to a current or former federal official who has been a strong advocate of conservation. The Robert Marshall Award, the Society's most prestigious award, is named in honor of one of its founders. It was first awarded in 1981 to Sigurd F. Olson, who wrote about conservation and influenced decisionmakers and the public.


  1. ^ About Us
  2. ^ "Howard Zahniser: Author of the Wilderness Act". University of Montana. Retrieved 9 February 2015. 
  3. ^ Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (Boston: Little Brown, 1981), pp. 206–212.
  4. ^ "Olaus Murie". Wilderness Society. Retrieved 16 July 2014. 

External links[edit]