Saturday, August 30, 2014


On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into effect the Wilderness Act, a federal law that has, since its initiation, preserved more than 100 million acres of primitive land in 44 states and Puerto Rico.  This year, we celebrate 50 years of the Wilderness Act and the bounds in conservation it has made possible.

A classic Saint Mary's waterfall and plunge pool.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    Pooling the vast number of sporting personalities I have grown to know and call friend, I feel I can safely make the generalization that sportsmen and women are of a tastefully simpler breed.  They long for the rustic life of our heritage, when sporting traditions, such as those recounted in the dusty pages of antique outdoor writing bibles that we all own and cherish, held much firmer ground, and were readily and easily enjoyed in the countryside and on the periphery of rural society.

    But today, in the reality that we live in, we learn the definition of development every day.  Now, I am no tree-hugger, but I recognize the age told in my parents’ memories.  They say, there was a time when Charlottesville, Virginia was not a city but a town, when Walmart, Lowes, and Sam’s Club had not yet taken their anarchical perch above Route 29, and Farmer Matheny still tended to his cows behind an endless row of black fence board and the illusion that things might never change.  The Rivanna River coursed like a river blue with snowmelt, untapped by Lake Monticello and the neighboring municipality; and fish finned its waters in untold numbers.

    From those recollections I feel regret, and momentary fear.  What will happen in my lifetime that will erode at the natural landscape?  Will I have somewhere to pursue my solitary sporting passions in relative isolation?

    To escape these stresses I have formed a habit, a fetish even, of chasing after the settings where the noise pollution from highways and roads is overcome by expanses of trees and outspoken Chick-a-dees; where I can walk and walk, fish and hunt, camp without bending to the regulation of private property and baying dogs; and where I can pretend for a day or two that there is nothing else.

    In 1964, when the Wilderness Act was signed, that habit shared by thousands of like-minded Americans was ensured forever.  Its signing established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which works to dub unspoiled lands across the country into eternal protection and public use.

    The nearly 110 million acres the Act has designated “wilderness” over the past 50 years are open for any citizen to enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, backpacking, swimming, gathering, and more, while prohibiting vehicular traffic and practices like logging and mining.

    Likewise, the 750 American wilderness areas are the source of much daydreaming; for some of the country’s most sought-after destinations have become such because of their primitive state.  Among those are the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Sawtooth Wilderness, Denali Wilderness, and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest single wilderness tract in the lower 48 at 2,366,757 acres.

    In fact, to think of one of my favorite and most “pristine” settings to explore and fish, the Saint Mary’s River comes to mind first.

    In the early 1900s, the terrain surrounding the Saint Mary’s River was mined extensively and carelessly for iron ore and manganese, polluting the mountains’ lucid waters and seriously endangering the River’s native brook trout.  In 1984 the Wilderness Act facilitated the designation of 9,835 acres surrounding the River as wilderness.  In 1999, conservationists air-lifted and dropped lime into the river bottom, remedying the acidic water quality and bringing back to life the population of native trout. 
    Today, the Saint Mary’s River runs crystalline and aqua blue throughout most of the year, and sports some of the finest trout fishing in the state.

    It is thanks to the Wilderness Act of 50 years that we as sportsmen and women are blessed with such places to explore and cherish.  Join me in saying “Happy Birthday!” to the Wilderness Act, and enjoy one of our many wilderness areas this September.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian