Sunday, June 15, 2014

On American Wilderness and Howard Zahniser


On American Wilderness and Howard Zahniser: Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in September 1964, the Wilderness Act contains one of the pithiest definitions of wilderness. It states, "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Authored largely by American environmental activist Zahniser, the law established a national wilderness preservation system and immediately protected some 9 million acres of land. Although Zahniser died of heart failure in May 1964, his impact on the Wilderness Act was enormous. As executive secretary of the Wilderness Society, he began lobbying Congress since at least the mid-1950s. Strongly influenced by his Free Methodist upbringing, which equated nature with the eternal, Zahniser saw "wilderness areas" as places that could help heal people's "wounded souls." And according to historian Mark Harvey, it was Zahniser's "Christian outlook" which "led him to proclaim an ethic of stewardship toward wild nature" where humans lived in communion with the rest of Earth's living things. Perhaps Zahniser stated it best when testifying before Congress: "It may seem presumptuous for men and women, who live only seventy-odd years, to dare to undertake a program for perpetuity, but that surely is our challenge [and goal]."

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